Lillian Hellman

The Children’s Hour

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The Children’s Hour Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “The Children’s Hour” by Lillian Hellman includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 3 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Innocence of Children and Homosexuality and Homophobia.

Plot Summary

Lillian Hellman wrote The Children’s Hour in 1934. It was the first of Hellman’s many major plays, and she wrote it while working in producer Herman Shumlin’s office as a play reader. She asked Shumlin to read a draft of the play, and he immediately offered to produce it. It appeared on Broadway within the year. The play is based on a real-life event that occurred in Edinburgh in 1810. A student accused her school’s two headmistresses of being romantically involved. The two women won their lawsuit, but the damage to their reputations was already done. The 1934-35 Pulitzer committee seriously considered The Children’s Hour but ultimately awarded the Pulitzer to Zoë Akins for her play The Old Maid. The committee claimed that The Children’s Hour had not been eligible because, based on a court case, it was not an original story, ignoring the fact that The Old Maid was based on an Edith Wharton story. In all likelihood, the play was deemed too controversial, as one committee member refused to even see a performance of it. Ire over the Pulitzer decision led the New York Drama Critics’ Circle to establish its own award the following year.

The Children’s Hour tells the story of two women, Martha and Karen. They are college friends who have worked and saved to start a school for girls. All of their efforts are undone when Mary Tilford, an unhappy young girl with a penchant for lying, overhears Martha’s aunt, a much-maligned teacher at the school, accuse Martha of having romantic feelings for Karen. Determined to convince her grandmother to take her out of school, Mary not only tells the elder Mrs. Tilford what she overheard, but swears that she saw the two women kissing. Scandalized, Mrs. Tilford spreads the story, causing other parents to pull their children from school. Martha and Karen sue Mrs. Tilford for libel and lose. In the third act, the women have lost the court case, their school, and Karen’s fiancé. Martha admits to Karen that she may love Karen as more than a friend and goes offstage to kill herself. When Mrs. Tilford returns, penitent because she has uncovered Mary’s lies, it is too late to help Karen, who has just found Martha’s body.

In the 1930s, there was no LGBT+ community, and same-sex attraction was considered a mental illness, treated brutally with lobotomies and electroshock therapy, among other violent “cures.” Same-sex intercourse was a crime, punishable by imprisonment. The play complicates this, because although the alleged lesbian relationship is only the fabrication of a vengeful student, Martha, a sympathetic character, comes to recognize her own same-sex attraction through the accusations. Her suicide, just moments before Mrs. Tilford offers a public apology that might allow the women to reclaim their reputations, frames her death as tragic. In the 1930s, a mostly positive portrayal of a potential lesbian was certainly provocative. Although the original incident occurred in the early 1800s, the play takes place in the 1930s, challenging social attitudes about homosexuality long before there was even a whisper of equal rights.

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Act I