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Tufts 63 Carol Strongin Tufts Who's Lying? The Issue of Lesbianism in Lillian Hellman's The Children 9S Hour However woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, a female and feminist value system, are relied on and cherished, indoctrination in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials of feeling, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion. Adrienne Rich1 The play has nothing to do with lesbianism, of course; it's just one of the side issues. It's just the charge of the girl, that's all .... Lillian HeIIman2 For all its "well-made" qualities, there is a disturbing confusion at the heart of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, the feeling of something not quite thought through or worked out during the writing of the play. First produced in 1934 and having enjoyed a successful run of 691 performances, 77ie Children's Hour returned to Broadway in 1952 in a revival directed by HeIIman herself amidst the gathering strength of McCarthyism. In an article written at the time, HeIIman was quoted as saying, 'this is really not a play about lesbianism, but about a lie. The bigger the Ue, the better, as always.'3 Much as HeUman and her audience in 1952 may have seen the revival of 77ie Children's Hour as a trenchant response to the life-destroying gossip dominating the period, the nature of the "big lie" in the play is not all that clear. On the surface of it, that lie should be Mary TUford's tale about the "unnatural" (the word "lesbian " is never uttered) goings on between Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, the two young teachers who run the private school for girls from which Mary wishes to escape. Shocked and totally credulous, Mrs. Tilford, Mary's wealthy and influential grandmother, spreads the accusation, causing the families of the other girls to remove them from the school. Karen and Martha sue Mrs. TUford for slander and lose, ostensibly because Martha 's cowardly and spiteful aunt LUy (whose bitchy use of the term "unnatural " in an argument with Martha has planted the seed for Mary's story) fails to appear in court. The result of aU this is the ruin of the school, the social ostracism of Karen and Martha, and Martha's confession to Karen that "Ihave lovedyou the way they said,"* foUowed by her suicide. Yet as even such a cursory look at the action begins to suggest, the real question in regard to this play, the source of the confusion at its center, 64 the minnesota review is exactly who is lying: is it Mary TiIford in making up her story, or Martha in denying that story to be true; or is it perhaps HeIIman in maintaining her contention that the play has "nothing to do with lesbianism'? The answer revealed by the play itself may very well turn out to be HeIIman. As Eric Bentley wrote of the 1952 revival, the problem with The Children's Hour is that it attempts to tell two stories: The first is a story of heterosexual teachers accused of Lesbianism; the enemy is a society which punishes the innocent. The second is a story of Lesbian teachers accused of Lesbianism; the enemy is a society which punishes Lesbians.9 But as Bentley goes on to suggest, Martha's confession at the end of the play only serves to confuse the moral issues that HeIIman has raised earüer, for "it is too late ... to tell Story Two and spell out its moral.'" If up to this point the audience has been sharing HeUman's "indignation" over the events of the first story, the punishment of two innocent women by a self-righteous society so quick to believe a malicious child's lie, what is it supposed to feel now? The fact is, as Thomas Craven wrote of the original 1934 production: Having proved to the satisfaction of everyone the innocence of the accused women—the excuse for the play's existence—she [HeIIman] ends by trying to convict them, of the charges which, in lying mouths, caused all the trouble.7 Not only does HeIIman convict one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 63-78
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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