“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
— Lillian Hellman
A Few months ago we made the point that John Oliver was, in his public denunciation of Dustin Hoffman, playing to perfection the role of a pugnacious and morally certain naif.
He asked, with both condescension and mock incredulity: Why would she lie.
It was not really a question. It was an accusation disguised as a question but its purpose was to convict Hoffman and wrap Oliver in the mantle of woke.
Our counter argument was then, and remains, that unlike Oliver we have no idea why someone would or would not lie, because the reasons for either are all but infinite. Additionally any mature and thoughtful person, based on experience and exposure to films and literature and the messy rapids of life, would assume that the human capacity for self-delusion, for lies, distortions, half-truths and honest mistakes are the stuff of everyday existence and are so common as to border on the banal. In other words not every domestic drama based on lies must by definition rise to the level of Othello to be devastating.
But in the age of instant karma, delivered with all the solemnity a stand up comic with a mock news show can muster, the accusation is enough to warrant conviction.
And with that, with the damage done, the show folds its tents and heads down the road towards its next engagement.
Is Hoffman guilty of something? We said then and repeat now, we know two things: One, that we don’t know, and two – we sure as fuck know that John Oliver doesn’t know either.
The shallow argument that there’s no reason for someone to lie about such a thing is an insult to anyone with the intelligence to hold two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time and continue to function, to say nothing of anyone who isn’t a child. People lie all the time and for any number of reasons from the honorable to the mundane to the immoral and even to the criminal.
We were thinking about this and remembered a play that though completely appropriate for these times has been conspicuous in its absence from public discourse. Or absent to the best of our knowledge.
We are referring to, The Children’s Hour, by Lillian Hellman.
One reason we assume for its missing in action status and Hellman being ignored, is that Hellman was a leftist; an acid-tongued razor sharp leftist, who had a tortured relationship with Dashiell Hammett, who was also a leftist, and who refused to politically blow Joe McCarthy and as a result was sent to prison.
Invoking Hellman means someone will start yelling about godless Bolshies, and most people would rather do anything than take a principled stand that carries with it the prospect of having to defend someone difficult to defend.
But then there’s the content of the play.
A children’s boarding school and two women teachers, accused by a maliscious young girl of being lesbians.
Social catastrophe follows with recriminations, and hidden passions brought to the surface as the strict rules of conformity are broken and then enforced with the price paid being privacy, dignity, justice and due processs.
More interesting still, is the origin of the play.
Hellman was searching around for something to write about when Hammett suggested a story he had read in a true crime anthology. The story he told her, concerned a woman’s boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1810.
The school was run by two women. One a devoutly religious woman and the other a proper – by the standards of the era – young woman. There were ten young girls who shared one room and the two teachers shared another and, per the customs of the time, also shared a bed.
Enter a student who complained to her grandmother that she had overheard the teachers engaged in intimate behavior.
The grandmother reported this to the other parents and the students were all quickly removed from the school, leaving the two teachers broke and prisoners of an enraged and shocked society.
They responded by bringing a lawsuit for defamation.
The trial, with appeals, ran until 1819.
The mother of the child who had complained was herself an interesting character.
She was from India and had become pregnant when the grandmother’s grandson had as they used to say, seduced her.
A volatile mix of race, class, colonialism, sexism, voyeurism,and discrimination floated around and through the narrative and did so within the context of revolution, war, and the threat of an invasion in which imperial England fought to maintain its empire – fought in America, fought in Spain, fought in India and mothers and nannies would regularly frighten children by telling them that if they did not behave Boney (Napoleon Bonaparte) would come and eat them.
The two women eventually won their suit, but not because of what we would call justice, but because on appeal, the court found sex between two women to be as believable as sex with the devil.
The victory was however, pyric. After subtracting legal fees they were destitute. One died poor in Edinburgh and the other moved to London to teach at another school.
Hellman took the details, updated them, moved them to then contemporary America and had her first theater success. The play ran on Broadway for just short of 700 performances.
The show was so successful the producer set about having it preformed across the country. It was banned in both Boston and Chicago and lawsuits followed. Banned in London as well the play failed to win the Pulitzer, and as a result of the shabby politics behind that decision, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle began awarding its own prize the next year.
When Hellam staged a revival of the play, in the early 1950s it was assumed that the intention was to criticize the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Hammett had refused to, as they say, name names and was subsequently convicted on tax charges. He served two years and his already precarious health broken, he died in 1961.
Later, asked about the uses of rage, Hellman said that sometimes, the world needs people who hate.
But what she meant, we believe, is that sometimes the world needs people who hate hypocrisy, and are willing to fight for the right of people to be treated fairly.
For details on the original legal case see the following:
For details on Hellman’s play, see the following: