Hannah Franklin reviews The Children’s Hour a play by Lillian Hellman, a text from the first year module ‘Twentieth Century American Literature’:
Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour, studied on the first year ‘Twentieth Century American Literature’ module, follows the progression of a child’s lie, after being punished at her boarding school, into serious, adult consequences. Mary reacts to her punishment with the allegation that her two female teachers, Karen and Martha, are in a lesbian relationship. What follows demonstrates Hellman’s grasp and control over the power of words, and the fears that can underlie misinterpretation and miscommunication. Challenging the expectations of children and innocence, Hellman creates a child with eerie adult-like control over those around her, manipulating the play’s events like an on stage director while using her supposed innocence to protect herself.
The fear and implications of the “unnatural” run throughout the play’s action, the meaning of the word changing with each repetition, becoming a series of Chinese whispers with irreparable consequences. Used first in adult conversation and then picked up by children, it is used for destruction in the manipulative hands of Mary. Hellman demonstrates the disconnections that can occur between our words and meanings when the meanings of words such as “unnatural” and “guilt” are challenged in the lie’s progression. The lie becomes so strong, that both the audience and characters begin to question where the truth resides in Mary’s crafted web and begin to see the innumerable and unpredictable reactions to language. Martha states in the middle of a frustrated conversation, “this child [Mary] is taking little things, little family things and making them have meaning that-”, cutting off as language fails her in a struggle to reveal its force, attempting to explain the insinuations that can be forced upon words and situations. Hellman’s play exposes the ways in which words come to have control over actions, creating damage that cannot be undone when meaning is stretched beyond intent into something much more real.