Commentary Magazine

Go to Hellman

Of the making of books about Lillian Hellman, there is no end. Since her death in 1984, she has been the subject of three full-scale biographies, a book-length memoir by one of her lovers, and a 350-page portrait of her long-term relationship with the mystery novelist and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett. An admiring PBS documentary and an adoring one-woman Broadway show have also been on offer.

What is surprising about this posthumous réclame is that by 1984, Hellman had come to be widely viewed as an embarrassment to the republic of letters. Not only was she a longtime supporter of Soviet Communism, but once it was revealed that her trilogy of autobiographical bestsellers—An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976)—contained innumerable inaccuracies and self-serving fabrications, many of those who had hitherto written admiringly about Hellman made haste to cast off from the sinking ship of her reputation.

To be sure, the reputations of any number of important writers have survived similar revelations. But Hellman’s standing as a writer of import had been questionable well before her death. Prior to the publication of An Unfinished Woman, she had been known as a playwright, in which capacity she made a handsome living. But in the previous 20 years, only one of her plays had premiered successfully on Broadway (Toys in the Attic). And in the 28 years following her death, The Little Foxes (1939) has been the sole Hellman work to receive a Broadway revival or to be revived in regional theaters with any regularity. Hellman’s seven other original plays have all but vanished, and she is held in low esteem by most contemporary drama critics.

And yet she continues to be written about with metronomic regularity in other quarters, and much of what gets written about her nowadays is admiring. Alice Kessler-Harris, for instance, has just published A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman (Bloomsbury, 448 pages). This new book purports to be yet another biography but is actually something quite different—a study of Hellman’s reputation. It claims to use the facts of her life “to access not only particular events but the larger cultural and social and even political processes of a moment in time.”

She endeavors to maintain the appearance of objectivity, but Kessler-Harris comes across as a fan, maintaining that Hellman’s “words are still quoted, her plays are regularly revived, and her example still inspires.” But in point of fact, only the last is true. Her example does still inspire. Earlier this year, for instance, the Economist praised Hellman for having been “often on the right side of history” in a piece that bore the wince-inducing title “Profile in Courage.” The question is, whom does Lillian Hellman still inspire, and for what reasons?

Lady in red: Hellman attends a party in New York City on September 18, 1974.

The answer is, of course, political. Hellman was an outspoken woman of the left, a Communist Party member in the age of Stalin who spoke out in favor of the 1930s show trials in the Soviet Union, among other things, and called that blood-drenched country “the ideal democratic state.” Kessler-Harris deals with Hellman’s advocacy of this pernicious philosophy by first acknowledging it, then denying or diminishing its significance, arguing that she “did not care for the party, did not like being under its discipline, did not follow a line” and that in later years she acknowledged the evils of the regime she had once supported. This strategy is by turns disingenuous and evasive, nowhere more so than in Kessler-Harris’s discussion of Scoundrel Time, whose publication did more than anything else to shred its author’s reputation as a teller of hard political truths.

Kessler-Harris claims Hellman admitted in Scoundrel Time “that she had wrongly believed ideas [about the Soviet Union] that she now rejected.” She is referring to this passage:

I had no right to think that American intellectuals were people who would fight for anything if doing so would injure them; they have very little history that would lead to that conclusion. Many of them found in the sins of Stalin Communism—and there were plenty of sins and plenty that for a long time I mistakenly denied—the excuse to join those who should have been their hereditary enemies.

To describe these sentences, which libel the ex-Communists and liberal anti-Communists of the 1940s and 1950s who forthrightly acknowledged that they had been wrong about “the sins of Stalin Communism,” as an open confession of her own intellectual crime is laughable. Notoriously ill at ease with her own Jewishness, Hellman compounds the libel by making sneering reference in the same passage to the ethnic origins of the people she is attacking, describing them as “children of timid immigrants…energetic, intelligent, hardworking; and often they make it so good that they are determined to keep it at any cost.”

Such was the extent of her belated “apology” for her embrace of Soviet Communism. For all this and much more, Kessler-Harris readily forgives Hellman, going so far as to call her “an American patriot…who now recognized the sins of Stalinism.”

If you can believe that, you can believe anything.

In general, writers are remembered, if at all, for their writings, and so one would expect A Difficult Woman to shed some light on Hellman’s work as a playwright. But Kessler-Harris is a professor of history at Columbia University who specializes in “labor and gender history,” not a literary critic, and she tips her hand on the very first page of A Difficult Woman, whose epigraph is a quotation from Boswell’s Life of Johnson that identifies this classic of 18th-century biography as having been written by “John Boswell.”1

Even the most knowledgeable of authors sometimes make careless mistakes. This one, however, speaks directly to the competence of a woman praised by her publisher as “one of America’s most renowned scholars,” as well as to the question of whether she has any business writing a book about a famous literary figure.

But even though Kessler-Harris knows little about theater and has nothing of interest to say about Hellman’s plays, A Difficult Woman manages—in spite of itself—to suggest why they have fallen out of critical favor. Hellman’s first play, The Children’s Hour, was (in her own unexpectedly frank words) “condemned, praised, edited, cut, and fathered, in general, by Dashiell Hammett.” Hellman credited her lover with giving her the idea for the plot, in which two schoolteachers are falsely accused by a malevolent student of being lesbian lovers, leading one of them to commit suicide at play’s end. The resulting play ran for 691 performances on Broadway and established its author as a commercial success. The film version, William Wyler’s These Three (1936), for which Hellman wrote a screenplay that somehow ditched the lesbian angle, was no less successful.

While the New York critics praised The Children’s Hour, many of them looked askance at its author’s twin penchants for melodrama and preachiness. “Please, Miss Hellman, conclude the play before the pistol shot and before the long arm of coincidence starts wobbling in its socket,” wrote Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times. His stern warning would be echoed by many subsequent critics, as well as by Hellman herself. “I am a moral writer, often too moral a writer, and I cannot avoid, it seems, that last summing-up,” she said in 1942.

But Hellman went on to say on the same occasion, “I think that is only a mistake when it fails to achieve its purpose, and I would rather make the attempt, and fail, than fail to make the attempt.” And make it she did, most elaborately in The Little Foxes, a frontal assault on capitalism in which the members of a family of exploitative nouveau-riche tradesmen claw one another’s eyes out over a business deal. Here as elsewhere in her work, the characters are so broadly drawn as to border on the operatic. (Indeed, the composer Marc Blitzstein, who shared Hellman’s hard-left political views, turned The Little Foxes into an opera, Regina, in 1949.)

For all its obviousness, The Little Foxes is a consummately well-crafted piece of theater—every corner of the plot is neatly tucked in—that packs the emotional punch of a good B-movie. Small wonder that Hellman and William Wyler later turned it into a successful screen vehicle for Bette Davis. But despite its undeniable effectiveness, The Little Foxes is the theatrical equivalent of a hellfire sermon, one whose villains are all mustache-twirling monsters. Conversely, Hellman puts her mandatory summing-up in the mouth of a self-consciously noble black servant who is no less a caricature than the stone-hearted characters of whom she speaks: “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.”

When Dashiell Hammett read the manuscript of The Little Foxes, he advised Hellman to “cut out the liberal blackamoor chitchat.” Her unwillingness to do so says everything about her artistic limitations as a playwright.

When Hellman died, Robert Brustein declared in the New Republic that “it may be that her life, with its strong loyalties, combative courage, and abiding hatred of injustice, will eventually be considered her greatest theater.” That is, of course, a polite way of saying that even though her plays weren’t very good, she was still a great woman. At bottom, it is also what Alice Kessler-Harris means when she says that Hellman’s life is “worth examining not for her sake, but for ours….She wrote, she took positions, she acted on her beliefs as her conscience moved her. She was alternately damned and respected for her pronouncements, the variation less a function of her will and her choices than of the changing times in which she lived.”

Alas, there is no shortage of people who are eager to believe that the author of The Little Foxes and Scoundrel Time was something more than a mink-clad Stalinist who supported herself in high style by writing Marxist melodramas that pandered to the self-flagellating impulses of the well-heeled first-nighters who flocked to see them. So what if her plays have aged badly and her memoirs are full of lies? To them, she is still progressivism incarnate, a beau idéal of feminism whose life exemplifies a Higher Truth.

One may take leave to doubt that history will judge Hellman so kindly. But even if it should be as forgiving as Alice Kessler-Harris is, it is hard to imagine that Hellman will ever again be seen as anything other than a very minor playwright. The truth is that she was nothing more—or less—than a savvy craftswoman who knew how to keep an audience on the edge of its collective seat. Such talent is by no means to be despised, but neither should it be praised beyond its due, and when the power to entertain is enlisted in the service of propaganda, it is legitimate for the critic to look closely at the ends that are being served.

In Lillian Hellman’s case, those ends were at best naïve, at worst despicable. Except in The Autumn Garden, her uneven but sincerely felt 1951 homage to Chekhov, she was not a dramatic poet but the theatrical counterpart of a political cartoonist, and the not-infrequent brilliance of her draftsmanship should never be allowed to obscure the fact that she freely placed her art, such as it was, in the service of the darkest of masters. Let that be her epitaph.


1 John Boswell was an academic historian who specialized in the study of religious attitudes toward homosexuality.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about Alan Gilbert in the last issue. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, will be staged later this year in Lenox, Mass., and New Haven, Conn.

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