I recently read The Children’s Hour, a play written by Lillian Hellman in the 1930s. It was vaguely disturbing and left me mulling over the various aspects of it.
First of all, I want to address the fact that it is a play. On the one hand, I don’t like reading plays because if the author wrote a play he or she clearly intended it to be performed and seen rather than read. On the other hand, reading a play is the only way that you can see the exact words the author wrote without the interpretation of an actor and director. One could argue that the author meant his or her words to be leant the actor’s/director’s interpretation, and that they do not have their full impact without being performed. However, any interpretation is going to have biases that were not necessarily the author’s intent, and thus going directly to the source can provide a different point of view.
The play centers around a child’s accusation that the two directors of her residential girl’s school are lesbians. I think the first thing that disturbed me was the one-dimensional portrayal of the child. She is characterized as mean and petty and we never understand the motivations behind her actions. Perhaps the intent of this aspect of the play is to demonstrate how one “small” lie can have widespread ramifications, which the originator of the lie was not aware of. However, in that case I am not sure why the child had to be so one-dimensional. In fact, the fact that the child has no redeeming characteristics lends weight to a different interpretation, that perhaps we are supposed to believe that she did intend to hurt the directors and was aware that her lie would do so. Either way, I found it troubling that a child with indications of psychological problems was used as an antagonist.
The second aspect that disturbed me was the way in which the adults reacted to the child. Why did her grandmother immediately believe her? When her cousin questions her again, the dialog and stage directions made it clear to me as a reader that the child was not telling the truth, and yet her grandmother continues to believe her. So in some ways, I think we are supposed to begin seeing the grandmother as more at fault than the child. One interpretation is then that the author was making a point about how people’s unwillingness to admit a mistake can lead to serious consequences.
Finally, the end of the play was also disturbing, although in a different way. The end was clearly a comment on the rigid morals of the society at the time and the power of society over individuals. The two women were so ostracized by the false accusation that they could no longer lead normal lives. The revelation at the end that one of the women did actually have lesbian feelings for the other lends a final twist that left me questioning all of my intrepretations up to that point. The accusation was not entirely false after all, so what does that say about the interpretation that a “lie” leads to so many consequences? While the ending was a bit melodramatic, it added an important complexity to the play.
Overall, I think that The Children’s Hour is worth reading or seeing, but it is important to remember the time period in which the play is set. I feel the generalities that can be taken from it are still relevant today, although I would hope that the specifics are not.