Author: Lillian Hellman
First published: 1934
Time: The 1930's
Mary Tilford, a malicious fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. She attends a private girls' school, where she bullies her fellow classmates, disobeys her teachers, and whines when she is not given her way. She has been brought up by an indulgent grandmother who has spoiled her. When two of her teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, try to discipline her, she retaliates by spreading the rumor that they are lesbians. Although the rumor is untrue, Mary sticks to her charge. Her shocked grandmother then removes her from the school and convinces the parents of the other children to do likewise, thus destroying the school and ruining the teachers' lives.
Amelia Tilford, an influential and wealthy older woman. She dotes on Mary, her grandchild. She knows that Mary is petulant, and she initially scoffs at Mary's attack on the teachers, but she is horrified when Mary whispers her charge that Martha and Karen are lesbians. Blinded by her outrage and unwilling to see through Mary's manipulation of the facts, she succeeds not only in closing the school but also in ostracizing the two teachers. When Amelia finally learns of Mary's deception, she abjectly asks for Karen's forgiveness and searches for a way to rectify the harm she has caused the teachers.
Martha Dobie, an intense woman, twenty-eight years old, devoted to her friendship with Karen and rather jealous of Joe Cardin, Karen's fiancé. When Martha learns of Mary's charge against her, she goes with Karen to confront Amelia Tilford, who thinks that the two women have come merely to brazen things out. Martha and Karen take Amelia to court on charges of libel but lose their case when Martha's Aunt Lily refuses to testify. Feeling guilty about the breakup of Karen and Joe, and suspecting that she has harbored sexual feelings for Karen, Martha kills herself at the end of the play.
Karen Wright, a twenty-eight-year-old teacher who has joined Martha in working hard to establish the Wright-Dobie boarding school. Although she is very close to Martha, she senses a strain between them when she becomes engaged to Joe Cardin, and it may be this strain that Mary is able to manufacture into a lie. Karen is more even-tempered than Martha, and although she grieves at the failure of their school, she clearly will survive, even though it appears that her fiancé has begun to doubt her and to wonder whether she indeed has a lesbian relationship with Martha.
Dr. Joe Cardin, Karen's fiancé. He tries to expose Mary as a liar, and he intercedes on behalf of Martha and Karen with Amelia Tilford but proves unable to shake Mary's story or to change Amelia's mind. Although he tries to stick loyally by the two women, visiting them when everyone else has shunned them, he eventually succumbs to doubts about the relationship between Martha and Karen and reluctantly accepts Karen's suggestion that they should not marry.
Lily Mortar, Martha's aunt and a teacher at the school. She is proud of her career in the theater and relates to students her experiences on the stage. She is highly critical of Martha and points out that her niece is jealous of Karen and Joe. Her loose talk inadvertently helps Mary in concocting her charges against the teachers. During the trial, when Karen and Martha are trying to establish their innocence, Lily remains out of town and does not answer their pleas for help. She returns when it is too late, thinking only of herself and apparently oblivious to the grave injury she has done to the lives of Karen and Martha.