The following is the first installment of a semi-regular blog highlighting books in Bitch Media’s new Community Lending Library.
Lillian Hellman was a handful. She was the first female playwright on Broadway, one of the first women screenwriters in Hollywood, a controversial memoirist, a boozehound and a socialite, a Leftist sympathizer who gained fame and was subsequently blacklisted for her refusal to testify against her friends during the McCarthy hearings (she famously responded to a subpoena with, “I refuse to cut my conscience to fit the fashion of the times”), and an all-around tough cookie.
This collection of plays showcases Hellman’s best talent: hard-nosed storytelling full of wit and style. Hellman wrote her first play, The Children’s Hour, in 1934, and in it tells the story of an exclusive all-girls’ school brought to its knees after rumors of lesbianism surrounding the headmistresses are viciously started by one of the school’s less scrupulous students. The controversial storyline made the work too racy for the screen under the newly-passed Hays Code, and it wasn’t until 1961 that Hellman, with director William Wyler, got to see her script grace the cinema. Readers of the play and viewers of the film will notice the glaring absence of any mention of the word “lesbian,” but the portrayal of the scandal was still shocking to viewers at the time, and, as Susie Bright points out in the video below, still strikes a chord with queer viewers today.
The rest of her playwriting career, as presented in this volume, takes us to places political, as she explores fascism and strike-breaking, and personal, as she explores greed and corruption within the family unit. All of her plays feature strong female characters (sometimes viciously so) and she served to lend a female voice to the otherwise male-dominated theater, opening the door for the likes of Eve Ensler and Wendy Wasserstein.
Lillian Hellman, ultimately, was a woman at once of her time and before it. The social and political climate around her that served to censor her love of scandal also made her famous for it. This collection of her plays is a successful attempt to present a picture of a larger-than-life woman through the art she created.