From the Library of Bitch: Six Plays by Lillian Hellman

The following is the first installment of a semi-regular blog highlighting books in Bitch Media's new Community Lending Library.

 

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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.

Comments

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She was amazing...

...But that's Shirley MacLaine, not Susie Bright. It's strange that she wanted herself credited that way for the doc. I don't think I've ever seen her use that name anywhere else. Shirley needs her own Bitch blog post. And, interestingly enough, William Wyler actually directed an adaptation of "The Children's Hour" called "These Three" in 1936. It starred Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, and Joel McCrea and it uses a boring ol' heterosexual love triangle to make its point.

Anyhoo, Lillian Hellman was the bees knees. I adore "The Little Foxes" (both the play and movie, especially the dynamic between Bette Davis and Teresa Wright) and "Pentimento." The film "Julia" is alright, but it was trying to evoke the classic women's picture vibe and didn't succeed very well despite its talented cast and Mr. Zinnemann at the helm. Thank you for the post! I also really liked your Lotte Reiniger entry.

Nail That Cracker.. and other sins of communion

Explanation: the screen shot you see is YouTube's strange way of editing the video when I uploaded this clip. I hope everyone knows that's Shirley, who is far more recognizeable than I. If you play the clip, you'll hear me talking about the Children's Hour, and that part is pretty interesting. Love Hellman.

Susie Bright