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Reviews 501 and early 1990S and antithetical to the ubiquitous presence of psychological realism in much of African-American drama, especially in the plays of August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Charles Gordone, Alice Childress, Charles Fuller, Lonne Elder, Gus Edwards, Pearl Cleage, and Shay Youngblood . Still, A Sourcebook of African-American Performance succeeds in presenting the diversity of the subject matter. The volume's ability to dig for material beyond the mainstream is valuable in helping the reader to trace what Bean calls the "rich and polyvalent" arc of African-American performance (4). ALICE GRIFFIN AND GERALDINE THORSTEN. Understanding Lillian Hellman. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Pp. 168. $29.95 (Hb). Reviewed by Judith E. Barlow, University at Albany, State University ofNew York Understanding Lillian Hellman is part of a series of works on contemporary American literature "planned as guides or companions for students as well as nonacademic readers" (Editor's Preface, n.pag.). This small-format handbook succeeds admirably in providing a lucid account of Hellman's life and major works, as well as a glimpse into the controversies that still rage some sixteen years after her death. In the sections devoted to Hellman's memoirs, for example , the authors do a particularly able job of summarizing the controversy over whether Hellman's beloved friend Julia, whose story appears in Pelllimento, ever existed. The book's style, well suited to the intended audience, is neither condescending nor intimidating. and even drama teachers may find here a useful summary of Hellman's career. The volume's first chapter is a brief overview of Hellman's remarkable life: her playwriting career, her stints as a film writer, her vocal opposition to Nazism, her appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee , and her retirement from the theatre to write memoirs. The authors quote from a number of sources, including Hellman herself, and provide citations to the major Hellman scholars (few though they may be); these are complemented by a brief but useful annotated bibliography. In a section entitled "Artistic Theories and Style," Griffin and Thorsten address her approach to writing - which included extensive research and revision - and touch very briefly on the "melodramatic" aspects of her dramas. They also identify what may be the most salient thematic thread binding together all of Hellman's work: "From the first, Hellman's plays consider the implications of failure to act responsibly" (22-23). The chapters that follow are devoted to Hellman's best-known dramas and 502 REVIEWS autobiographical writings. It is understandable that the authors mention but do not discuss Hellman's stage adaptations, ranging from the awful My Mother, My Father and Me to her wonderful but under-appreciated book for the musical Candide. Given the small size of the Hellman canon, however, the virtual omission of Days to Come and The Searching Wind is more surprising; although not her best dramas, they are interesting in themselves and important in the light they shed on Hellman's more successful efforts. The analyses that Griffin and Thorsten provide of the remaining plays are careful and thoughtful , and they do a good job of setting the dramas in their historical and cultural contexts. They observe, for example, that Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes consciously "plays the role of the helpless woman" to get what she wants from her brothers, who have the economic and legal power she lacks (54). Watch on the Rhine, Griffen and Thorsten note, is a particularly astute presentation of how Fascism feeds on "a broad spectrum of human frailties" (67). The authors also recount Hellman's futile attempt to revise the overly didactic conclusion of The Children's Hour when she revived it during the McCarthy hearings. Understanding Lillian Hellman is clearly intended to be a sympathetic account of the playwright and her canon, and, in general, that's fine - there is no need to overemphasize flaws and critical disputes for readers just being introduced to a writer's work. But this generosity can at times be misleading. For example, Griffin and Thorsten imply that Hellman has been embraced by feminists, when, in fact, her work has frequently been attacked by such feminist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 501-503
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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