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Six Plays By Lillian Hellman: The Children's Hour, Days to Come, The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, Another Part of the Forest, & The Autumn Garden Hardcover – 1960
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A casual conversation led me to get this book in order to read the emotionally jarring "The Children's Hour." But that ended up only being the icing on the cake. Every one of the plays in this book display Hellman's mastery of dramatic form, story development, and the anti-climax.
She is direct and yet somehow understated. It's a wonder to me that her name is not mentioned more often in the context it deserves, as a great American playwright. I believe those who see her in the shadow of other playwrights should rethink their comparisons. Hellman stands on her own and deserves careful consideration. In any event, I think everone should read these plays and decide for themselves.
Of particular interest to me is the play "Days to Come." On the surface it tells the story of a small town dealing with the pressures of Organized Labor and Organized Crime. But there is a subtext of human turmoil that is executed expertly. The second act is particularly sharp, with great dialogue that challenges you to read between the lines. While the complexity and number of character might make this a tough production for a small independant playhouse, there is much in her writing to be admired.
I'm glad I took the opportunity to read what I believe to be gems in the rough. I hope more people will do the same.
Yet we hear much less about her plays, six of which are collected in this volume. Perhaps the best known are "The Little Foxes" (in which Tallulah Bankhead starred on Broadway, with Bette Davis taking over the lead in the 1941 movie) and "The Children's Hour" (made into a 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine). "The Little Foxes" and its prequel "Another Part of the Forest" trace the financial intrigues and infighting of an Alabama family at the turn of the century. Their struggles reflect the social issues facing the post-bellum South; more importantly their scheming and bask-stabbing are great fun. "The Children's Hour" shocked audiences with its frank portrayal (for 1934) of allegations of lesbianism in a girls' boarding school. (In fact, the 1936 film of the play, "These Three" substituted a heterosexual scandal.) Yet Hellman's depiction of the effects of gossip (and what we would today term "homosexual panic') still has the ring of authenticity.
A new discovery for me was the play "Watch on the Rhine," first produced in 1941. The standard description of this play as a portrayal of the effects of fascism on an American family, though true enough, may give a false impression. It's not a preachy play, but almost a comedy of manners, pitting some quaint Europeans against a "normal" American family. Hellman's craft as a playwright is evident in the ways that comedy is broken up against the realities of the current political situation. "Days to Come" also shows the effect of a political crisis (in this case, a labor strike) on a well-to-do family; this play is perhaps less successful as a political work and more successful as a portrayal of a community in crisis and the dangers that come when outsiders are brought in to settle affairs.
I was charmingly surprised by "The Autumn Garden," a 1951 play set at Gulf Coast boarding house. As summer turns to autumn and the guests depart, characters are brought face to face with the illusions of the past and forced to see things as they are.
Though we cannot and should not forget the strong force of Hellman's personality, we perhaps owe her work a reconsideration. While her plays do not stand up as well as those of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, they are "well-made plays" that can still offer insight and enjoyment.