The Children's Hour (play)

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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

Evelyn Munn
Mrs Lily Mortar
Peggy Rogers
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.


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.


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]


Character 1934 Maxine Elliott Theatre production 1935 Gate Theatre production These Three (1936) 1950 New Boltons Theatre Club production 1952 Coronet Theatre production 1961 film
Martha Dobie Anne Revere Valerie Taylor Miriam Hopkins Jessica Spencer Patricia Neal Shirley MacLaine
Karen Wright Katherine Emery Ursula Jeans Merle Oberon Joan Miller Kim Hunter Audrey Hepburn
Dr. Joseph Cardin Robert Keith Leo Genn Joel McCrea David Markbam Robert Pastene James Garner
Amelia Tilford Katherine Emmet Mary Merrall Alma Kruger Mary Merrall Katherine Emmet Fay Bainter
Mary Tilford Florence McGee Mavis Edwards Bonita Granville Dorothy Gordon Iris Mann Karen Balkin
Lily Mortar Aline McDermott Vera Hurst Catherine Doucet Natalie Lynn Mary Finney Miriam Hopkins
Rosalie Wells Barbara Beals Pamela Standisl Marcia Mae Jones Penelope Bartley Janet Parker Veronica Cartwright
Agatha Edmonia Nolley Enid Lindsey Margaret Hamilton Juno Stevas Leora Thatcher Hope Summers
Evelyn Munn Elizabeth Seckel Hilary Windsor Carmencita Johnson Eileen Stevens Denise Alexander Mimi Gibson
Helen Burton Lynne Fisher Joan Newell Alicia Holt Toni Hallaran William Mims
The mother of Rosalie Wells Sally Brophy
Peggy Rogers Eugenia Rawls Audrey Orme Mary Loraine Sandra March
Lois Fisher Jacqueline Rusling Annabel Maule Shelia Shand-Gibbs Carolyn King
Catherine Barbara Leeds Jenny Lovelace Deirdre Teebay Nancy Plehn
Grocery boy Jack Tyler Michael Morice Patrick Vyvian Gordon Russell Jered Barclay


  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. 

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