Although the action of the first and third acts occurs in the living room, the layout and location of the school are significant. Especially important is a lack of privacy. The schoolgirls easily overhear adult conversations that can be misinterpreted–to the detriment of Karen and Martha. The malicious schoolgirl Mary Tilford persuasively claims that she and other students have witnessed or overheard a sexual encounter between the two teachers.
The school’s rural isolation is important in the third act. The two accused teachers live alone, cut off from the village culture that rejects them and leers at them, making them feel they are prisoners on display. This isolation contrasts with the hope of escaping to Vienna, Austria, that Karen’s fiancé, Joe Cardin, offers near the end of the original script. In her 1952 revision of the script for a revival during Congress’s infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings, Lillian Hellman changed Joe’s proposed escape to a place even bleaker than the empty school–an unspecified American farming country in the middle of nowhere.
Amelia Tilford’s living room. Home of Mrs. Tilford, the grandmother of the malicious Mary. The fact that Mrs. Tilford is wealthy but old-fashioned is reflected in her home, which appears to be in the village of Lancet; however, this is not made clear in the script. The size and comparative emptiness of her house are important in the play’s second act, when Mary has the opportunity to be alone with her schoolmate Rosalie, whom she intimidates into confirming her own story about Karen and Martha’s alleged sexual encounter. The house’s location near the center of village life and the visual evidence of Mrs. Tilford’s social and moral authority help to establish her power to close the school and to win the libel suit brought by Karen and Martha.