The Children's Hour
About the Play
20 November 1934, Maxine Elliott Theatre, NY
12 women, 2 men
Amazon. The Children’s House is covered by copyright, largely because of the film adaptation.
Karen Wright and Martha Dobie run a boarding school for girls in which they have invested time and money, aided to a degree by Martha’s meddling aunt, Lily Mortar. A mischievous girl named Mary Tilford spreads a rumor that the headmistresses are having an affair, and spreads it to her aunt Amelia, who spearheads the mass withdrawal from the school. Martha and Karen attempt to sue Amelia Tilford for libel, but they lose. Later, Joe, Karen’s fiancé, tries to convince Martha and Karen to relocate with him and start over, but Karen feels guilty for the stress the rumors have put on his reputation and her own life. Karen attempts to break up with Joe, and Martha reveals that she has feelings for Karen. Karen is dismissive, and Martha kills herself. Amelia Tilford then arrives to apologize, Mary’s lies having been uncovered, but the damage has been done.
Based on a courtroom story passed on to her by Dashiell Hammett—based on a scandal in 1810, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, the headmistresses of a boarding school, were accused of lesbianism by a rebellious student. The grandmother of the student informed all of the parents, and the students were withdrawn. The headmistresses sued for libel, but they lost their case and the school never reopened.
The play’s staging was fraught by decency laws and the illegality of mentioning homosexuality on the New York Stage—the themes of lesbianism were enough to get the play banned outright in Boston, Chicago, and London, and to have The Children’s Hour passed over for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in favor of The Old Maid by Zoë Akins, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1924 novella. (In response to the slight, outraged critics founded the Drama Critics’ Circle Award.) The play was a critical and commercial hit, running for 691 performances.
Scenes from the Play
About the Playwright
Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) ranks among the most famous and controversial of American playwrights. She never shied away from provocative, social justice-based themes. Her first play, The Children’s Hour (1934), about two owners of a girls’ school accused of having a lesbian affair, was considered so shocking that some members of the Pulitzer Prize committee refused to see it, costing it a nomination. Toys in the Attic (1960) featured two eccentric Southern sisters whose potential was never value…
One Play at a Time Participating Universities
Portland State University
University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg
University of Georgia
Antelope Valley College
Long Island University, Post
University of La Verne
University of Missouri
Eastern Nazarene College