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Lillian Hellman's Life and Career

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Overview of Lillian Hellman:

 

Born: June 20th, 1905

Died: June 30th, 1984

A very outspoken writer, Lillian Hellman led a rich, full, albeit argumentative life. From the 1930s to the late 1950s, she wrote controversial stage plays, including The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes.

 

The Children's Hour:

In this groundbreaking play, a manipulative girl at a boarding school falsely accuses her two teachers of having a lesbian relationship. Reputations and lives are destroyed by the student’s lie.

While the subject matter might not be taboo by today’s standards, one can imagine the shock felt by audiences of the 1930s. For its time, the play is a frank discussion on sexual identity vs. societal expectations. The script is available at Dramatists Play Service.

 

The Little Foxes:

This devious family drama is filled with power-struggles, betrayals, and acts of cruelty. You know, your typical family reunion. The main character, Regina Hubbard Giddens, possesses one of the coldest hearts in the history of the stage. In the show's final act, she simply watches as her unloved husband dies of a heart attack.

 

Candide:

Hellman wrote the original libretto to Leonard Berstein’s musical version of Voltaire’s comic novel, Candide. However, because the musical failed on Broadway the first time out, director Harold Prince hired Hugh Wheeler to write a new script. The non-Hellman version ran on Broadway for almost two years.

Dashiell Hammet, Hollywood, and McCarthyism:

Although they never married, Hellman had a 30 year romance with mystery writer, Dashiell Hammet. Hammet was a former member of the Communist Party, and Hellman refused to reveal his or anyone else’s name when she was brought in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA).

As a result, she was blacklisted from Hollywood for many years. In 1961, the film industry embraced her work once more by making The Children's Hour into a motion picture starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.

 

Hellman's Memoirs:

 

Much more of her life can be learned from her memoirs: An Unfinished Woman and Scoundrel Time.

However, the truth of her memoirs was challenged when fellow writer and longtime rival Mary McCarthy claimed, “every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'.” Hellman responded to that public statement with a lawsuit, but the case was never resolved during Hellman’s lifetime. Her family-members dropped the suit after Hellman’s death at the age of 79.

The rivalry inspired playwright Nora Ephron to pen Imaginary Friends, a musical in which the two women continue their long-standing argument in Hell!

 

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