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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman’s craftsmanship, powerful characterizations, and vigorous, persuasive themes assure her an important place in the history of the American stage. Born in 1905 and spending her childhood between New Orleans and New York, Hellman launched her dramatic career in 1934 with the production of The Children’s Hour. She went on to write eight plays, including Days to Come (1936), The Little Foxes (1939), Watch on the Rhine (1941), The Searching Wind (1944), Another Part of the Forest (1946), The Autumn Garden (1951), and Toys in the Attic (1960), as well as four theatrical adaptations and numerous screenplays for Hollywood. Seven of the plays were chosen among the ten “Best Plays” of their seasons and she received the New York Critics’ Circle Award for the best American drama of the season for both Watch on the Rhine and Toys in the Attic, as well as the Gold Medal for drama from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In her Introduction to Four Plays, Hellman wrote “I am a moral writer,” and she saw her plays as an opportunity to exercise moral judgment. Although intended for the comfortable middle class that frequents Broadway, the plays, with their rigorous sense of justice and insistence on individual responsibility, compel audiences to confront themselves and their beliefs in light of Hellman’s moral vigor. As Robert Brustein wrote of Hellman after her death, “she never wavered in her conviction that theater could be a force for change in what she considered an unethical, unjust, essentially venal world” and Hellman’s work especially emphasized the dangers of American innocence to evil and injustice.

When publicly receiving an honorary Doctor of Letters at Smith College in 1974, Hellman was told “no stronger voice than yours has ever been raised against Fascism, the black comedy of the McCarthy period, or the frightening horror of Watergate and after.” An example of the way Hellman followed the ethical ideals set out in her plays came during the McCarthy Era with its challenge to American civil liberties and freedom of inquiry. Hellman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 as were many people in the arts and entertainment industry. Risking the possibility of arrest, not to mention loss of property and livelihood, Hellman courageously told the Committee that while she was willing to speak about her own political activities, she refused, unlike so many called up before them, to “name names,” to testify about the activities of friends and acquaintances. In her famous letter to HUAC, she insisted, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Hellman survived the Hollywood blacklisting that was in effect for years after her appearance before HUAC to launch a new career as a writer of the autobiographical memoirs which would become as well known as her plays. An Unfinished Woman appeared in 1969 and won the National Book Award; Pentimento came out in 1976 and one of its portraits was made into the 1977 film Julia. The last of these memoirs was Maybe: A Story, published in 1980. Hellman said that by far the hardest of her memoirs to write was Scoundrel Time, published in 1976. It had taken twenty-five years for her to bring herself to describe her experience before the House Un-American Committee during what is often referred as the McCarthy Witchhunts based on the dominant role played by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Committee on Government Operations. With Scoundrel Time, Hellman said she wasn’t out to write history, just to describe what happened to her. But in doing so, in pungent language with a definite point of view, she brings to life the repression of civil liberties in the name of Anti-Communism during the Cold War era of the 1950s. The selection in the anthology, culled from three places in the memoir, represents the underlying argument of the book. When Scoundrel Time was published, Hellman received high praise both for her portrayal of this period and for her actions during it. But the memoir, as did much of Hellman’s life, also engendered controversy and strong criticism, sometimes from the very intellectuals and writers Hellman’s book indicted. And while Hellman did not think another McCarthy era could happen, she did tell interviewer Marilyn Berger that she thought contemporary Americans could be deprived of their civil liberties, that “something worse could happen based on a seeming sense and seeming rationality and seeming a much more quiet and simple way since very few of us any longer pay any attention to the small laws that are passed, or even the larger ones. We can be deprived of a great deal without knowing it; without realizing it; waking up to it.”

Vivian Patraka
Bowling Green State University

In the Heath Anthology
from Scoundrel Time (1976)

Other Works
The Children's Hour (1934)
Day's To Come (1936)
The Little Foxes (1939)
Watch On the Rhine (1941)
Lillian Hellman: The Collected Plays (1971)
Six Plays (1979)
Three: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, Scoundrel Time (1979)
Maybe (1980)

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American Masters
PBS site introducing Hellman's theater accomplishments, and offering a video file of Hellman's victory over the House on Un-American Activities Committee.

Books and Writers
Brief biography and primary and secondary bibliographies.

Lillian Hellman's FBI file
Herbert Mitgang's essay Dangerous dossiers: exposing the secret war against America's greatest authors.

Why Lillian Hellman Remains Fascinating
An article written by William Wright and originally published in The New York Times, November 1996.

Secondary Sources