Places: The Children’s Hour

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1934

First produced: 1934, at Maxine Elliot’s Theatre, New York City

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Problem

Time of work: 1930’s

Places DiscussedWright-Dobie School

Wright-Dobie Children’s Hour, TheSchool. Girls’ school, near the fictional town of Lancet in rural New England, that is the play’s principal setting. A modest but comfortable private residential school, it uses a large converted farmhouse that contains both residential units and classrooms for a small group of middle-school girls. Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, the teachers and owners, also live in the building.

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

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.

BibliographyArmato, Philip M. “Good and Evil’ in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.” In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.Bigsby, C. W. E. 1900-1940. Vol. 1 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A chapter on Hellman evaluates The Children’s Hour’s themes and explores its relationship to Hellman’s life.Falk, Doris. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. A biographical study that includes summaries of Hellman’s works and information about the composition, production, and reception of her plays.Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. This critical examination of Hellman’s works includes a good discussion of her sources for The Children’s Hour, as well as a biographical chronology and sketch and an annotated bibliography.Moody, Richard. Lillian Hellman: Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1972. This early biography includes information about the composition and two main New York productions of The Children’s Hour and stills from several productions.Reynolds, R. C. Stage Left: The Development of the American Social Drama in the Thirties. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1986. Examines Hellman’s literary world and the contribution made to it by The Children’s Hour.Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. This literary biography offers a full account of the complex and elusive playwright. The Children’s Hour receives extensive treatment. Contains many photographs of Hellman and her associates.Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. This readable popular biography is less concerned with analysis of her work than with a detailed narrative of Hellman’s life. Contains an interesting selection of photographs.
Categories: Places