The Children's Hour (play)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For the article about the 1961 film adaptation, see The Children's Hour (film).
The Children's Hour
Playbill Cover for The Children's Hour at Coronet Theatre.jpg
Playbill cover for The Children's Hour at Coronet Theatre
Written by Lillian Hellman
Characters In order of appearance:
Peggy Rogers
Mrs Lily Mortar
Evelyn Munn
Helen Burton
Lois Fisher
Rosalie Wells
Mary Tilford
Karen Wright
Martha Dobie
Doctor Joseph Cardin
Mrs Amelia Tilford
A Grocery Boy
Date premiered 20 November 1934
Place premiered Maxine Elliott's Theatre, New York, USA
Original language English
Subject Rumours, lies, gossip, reputation, friendship, women, lesbianism, homophobia
Genre Drama/tragedy

The Children's Hour is a 1934 stage play written by Lillian Hellman. It is a drama set in an all-girls boarding school run by two women, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. An angry student, Mary Tilford, runs away from the school and to avoid being sent back she tells her grandmother that the two headmistresses are having a lesbian affair. The accusation proceeds to destroy the women's careers, relationships and lives.

The play was first staged on Broadway at Maxine Elliott's Theatre in 1934, where it ran for over two years, and in 1936 it was put on at London's Gate Theatre Studio and Dublin's Gate Theatre.



Scene 1 Living Room of the Wright-Dobie School. Early afternoon in April.


Scene 1 Living Room at Mrs Tilford's House. A few hours later.

Scene 2 The same. Later that evening.


Scene 1 Living Room of the Wright-Dobie School. November.

Two women, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, have worked hard to build a girls' boarding school in a refurbished farmhouse. They run and teach the school with the somewhat unwelcome help of Lily Mortar, Martha's aunt. One pupil, Mary Tilford, is mischievous, disobedient, and untruthful, and often leads the other girls into trouble.

One day, when Mary feigns illness and is being examined by Dr. Joe Cardin, a physician who is Mary's cousin and also Karen's fiancé, Martha asks Lily whether she would like to go back to traveling to the places she misses, now that they can afford it. Lily becomes angry and starts shouting about how, whenever Joe is around, Martha becomes irritable, unreasonable and jealous, taking her jealousy of Joe out on her. Two of Mary's friends, listening at the door trying to discover Mary's condition, overhear Lily's outburst.

Mary is found healthy and is sent to her room and squeezes the information out of the girls. Mary plans to ask her grandmother, Amelia Tilford—who not only indulges her but who also helped Karen and Martha a great deal in setting up the school—to allow her not to return. When Amelia refuses, Mary cleverly twists what the girls had overheard. With the help of several well-crafted lies and a book that the girls have been reading in secret, Mary convinces her grandmother that Karen and Martha are having a lesbian affair. On hearing this, Amelia Tilford begins contacting the parents of Mary's classmates. Shortly, most of Mary's friends have been pulled out of school. Rosalie Wells, a student whose mother is abroad, stays with Mary.

On discovering that Rosalie is vulnerable, Mary blackmails her into corroborating everything she says. When Karen and Martha realize why all their pupils were pulled out of their school in a single night, they go to Mrs. Tilford's residence to confront her. Amelia tells Mary to repeat her story. When Karen points out an inconsistency, Mary pretends to have been covering for Rosalie, who reluctantly corroborates Mary's story for fear of being exposed herself. Resolving to take Amelia to court, Martha and Karen leave.

Seven months later, after Martha and Karen have lost the case, everyone still believes that they were lovers. When Lily returns from abroad to take care of her niece, the women are angry with her for not having stayed in the country in order to testify to their innocence. Meanwhile Joe, who has remained loyal throughout, has found a job in a distant location. He tries to convince Karen and Martha to come with him and start over. As Martha goes to prepare dinner, Joe continues his attempts to persuade Karen, who now believes that she has ruined his life and destroyed everything that she and Martha had worked so hard to achieve.

At Karen's insistence, Joe reluctantly asks her whether she and Martha had ever been lovers. When Karen says that they were not, he readily believes her. Nevertheless, Karen decides that she and Joe must part. She explains that things can never be the same between them after all that they have been through. She asks Joe to leave and he refuses. He agrees to leave if Karen will think things through before finalizing the break-up. When Martha returns and finds out from Karen what has happened, she is consumed with guilt. Her discovery that she might indeed have feelings for Karen overwhelms and terrifies her. Before Martha tells Karen how she feels, Karen tells Martha that she would like to relocate in the morning and wants her to come with her. Martha says it's impossible for them to live comfortably again and eventually admits her feelings for Karen. Karen responds dismissively, saying that they never felt this way for each other. Amelia Tilford arrives to beg Karen's forgiveness, since Mary's lies have now been uncovered. Karen explains to her that it is too late: Mary's lies, together with the community's willingness to believe and spread malicious gossip, have destroyed three innocent lives. Karen insists Amelia leave. When Amelia leaves, Karen goes upstairs to continue her conversation with Martha, but Martha tells Karen that she is tired and they can talk about it in the morning. Karen leaves her and begins walking on the front grounds of their property. Lily calls out to Karen inquiring of Martha's whereabouts. Karen instinctively believes something is wrong with Martha and runs inside of the house and races upstairs to Martha's bedroom door. Karen shouts for her and repeatedly strikes Martha's bedroom door with a candleabra until she forces her entry. She finds Martha dead, hanging from her ceiling. A shadow of Martha's feet is shown on screen and a knocked-over chair.

Source information[edit]

Scotch Verdict: Miss Pirie and Miss Woods v. Dame Cumming Gordon (1983), by Lillian Faderman (author of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers), recounts the historical incident[1] on which Hellman based her play. In 1810 in Edinburgh, Scotland, a pupil named Jane Cumming accused her schoolmistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, of having an affair in the presence of their pupils. Dame Cumming Gordon, the accuser's influential grandmother, advised her friends to remove their daughters from the boarding school. Within days the school was deserted and the two women had lost their livelihood. Pirie and Woods sued and eventually won, both in court and on appeal, but given the damage done to their lives, their victory was considered hollow.

In Joshua Waletzky's 1999 film "Dashiell Hammett. Detective. Writer", the narration offers that "Hammett had the idea for the play, and edited it, and helped make Hellman into a writer".


This was Hellman's first hit play. At the time, any mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal in New York State,[2] but the play was such a success and so widely praised by critics that the rule was not enforced.

After the play was banned in Boston, Chicago, and London, it opened in Paris, retitled Les Innocents (The Innocents) to popular review.[3]

In 1936, the play was made into a film directed by William Wyler. However, because of the Production Code, the story was adapted into a heterosexual love triangle, the controversial name of the play was changed, and the movie was eventually released as These Three.[4] Hellman reportedly worked on the screenplay, keeping virtually all of the play's original dialogue, and was satisfied with the result, saying the play's central theme of gossip was unaffected by the changes.

In 1952, a revival and revised stage production was also construed as an implied criticism of the House Un-American Activities Committee.[4]

In 1961, the play was adapted, with its lesbian theme intact, for the film The Children's Hour, also directed by Wyler. In the UK, New Zealand and Australia it was released under the title The Loudest Whisper and starred Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner.

In 1971 the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series – starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margoleyes, and Margaret Robertson.

The play was revived in London's West End beginning 22 January 2011 starring Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss, directed by Ian Rickson.[5][6]


1934 – Maxine Elliott's Theatre, New York, USA – World Premier.

Presented by Herman Shumlin – opened 20 November 1934. Sets designed by Aline Bernstein .

Full cast: Eugenia Rawls as Peggy Rogers; Aline Mcdermott as Mrs Lily Mortar ; Elizabeth Seckel as Evelyn Munn; Lynne Fisher as Helen Burton; Jacqueline Rusling as Lois Fisher; Barbara Leeds as Catherine; Barbara Beals as Rosalie Wells; Florence Mcgee as Mary Tilford; Katherine Emery as Karen Wright; Anne Revere as Martha Dobie; Robert Keith as Doctor Joseph Cardin; Edmonia Nolley as Agatha; Katherine Emmet as Mrs Amelia Tilford; Jack Tyler as A Grocery Boy.

1936 – The Gate Theatre, London, UK – UK Premier.

Presented by Norman Marshall and Reginald Beckwith – opened 12 November 1936. Sets designed by Hedley Briggs, painted by Mocca Clark; Directed by AMS Mackenzie.

Full cast: Audrey Orme as Peggy Rogers; Vera Hurst as Mrs Lily Mortar; Hilary Windsor as Evelyn Munn; Joan Newell as Helen Burton; Annabel Maule as Lois Fisher; Jenny Lovelace as Catherine; Pamela Standisl as Rosalie Wells; Mavis Edwards as Mary Tilford; Ursula Jeans as Karen Wright; Valerie Taylor as Martha Dobie; Leo Genn as Dr. Joseph Cardin; Enid Lindsey as Agatha; Mary Merrall as Mrs Amelia Tilford; Michael Morice as Grocery Boy.

1950 – The New Boltons Theatre Club, Kensington, London, UK – UK Revival.

Presented by Peter Cotes – opened 21 November 1950. Produced by Peter Cotes; Sets designed by Elizabeth Agombar.

Full cast: Mary Loraine as Peggy Natalie Lynn as Mrs Lily Mortar; Eileen Stevens as Evelyn Munn; Alicia Holt as Helen Burton; Sheila Shand-Gibbs as Lois Fisher; Deirdre Teebay as Catherine; Penelope Bartley as Rosalie Wells; Dorothy Gordon as Mary Tilford; Joan Miller as Karen Wright; Jessica Spencer as Martha Dobie; David Markbam as Doctor Joseph Cardin; Juno Stevas as Agatha; Mary Merrall as Mrs Amelia Tilford; Patrick Vyvian as A Grocery Boy.

1952/53 – Coronet Theatre, Los Angeles, California – US Revival.

Staged by Lillian Hellman – opened 18 December 1952, closed 30 May 1953, 189 performances. Scenic design by Howard Bay; Costume design by Anna Hill Johnstone.

Full cast: Sandra March as Peggy Rogers; Mary Finney as Mrs Lily Mortar; Denise Alexander as Evelyn Munn; Toni Hallaran as Helen Burton; Carolyn King as Lois Fisher; Nancy Plehn as Catherine; Janet Parker as Rosalie Wells; Iris Mann as Mary Tilford; Kim Hunter as Karen Wright; Patricia Neal as Martha Dobie; Robert Pastene as Doctor Joseph Cardin; Leora Thatcher as Agatha; Katherine Emmett as Mrs Amelia Tilford; Gordon Russell as A Grocery Boy.


  1. ^ S. Dick Drumsheugh: Lesbian sex row rocked society Edinburgh Evening News, 25 February 2009
  2. ^ Turner Classic Movies, These Three
  3. ^ "Notes: The Children's Hour". NYU Drama Dept. Retrieved 2009-02-19. 
  4. ^ a b "The Children's Hour Summary / Study Guide". eNotes. Retrieved 2009-02-19. 
  5. ^ Paddock, Terri."Knightley & Mad’s Peggy Star in Children’s Hour",, 22 October 2010
  6. ^ "Keira Knightley 'wins spurs' with West End stage return". BBC. 10 February 2011. Retrieved 11 February 2011. 

External links[edit]