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Posts Tagged ‘Lillian Hellman’


A Bridge Party by Barbara Loftus (1995?)


From A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma), Nina Hoss, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Irm Hermann (German, Max Färberböck 2008)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Thursdays, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
April 1 to May 20
4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032 but conducted online via zoom

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: 20th Century Women’s Political Novels

We’ll travel across 20th century wars, politics, and social life in fiction and memoir: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), about an Anglo-Irish household during the 1920s civil wars; Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune (1960) and The Spoilt City (1962), on the fascist take-over of Romania in 1939; Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time (1975), her experience as a target of the paranoic McCarthy era, 1950s USA; and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), African-American experiences of life in early to mid-century America. We’ll learn of the authors; the woman’s perspective on earlier and today’s era and how women’s political and war novels differ from men’s. There are numerous excellent films which connect directly to these books; I cite a number (below) that people may profit from by watching on their own: of these, two are direct film adaptations of our books:  1999 Deborah Warner’s adaptation, The Last September; 1987 Alan Plater & Cellan Jones BBC serial film adaptation of Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogy titled The Fortunes of War.

Required books (in the order we’ll read them):

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. Anchor, 2000 978-0-386-72014-4.

Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City (the 1st and 2nd of 3 novels called The Balkan Trilogy set in Romania, one continuous story) are available separately, but I have them in the more much more frequently printed The Balkan Trilogy. Penguin 1974. You get three for what you pay and the novels become more brilliant as they go on. The URL for this older print is 0-14-010996-X. The trilogy has been recently reprinted with the dual Title, The Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy, introd. by Rachel Cusk. Penguin, 2010. 978-1-59017331-1. Both printings have the same pagination for the text.

Lillian Hellman. Scoundrel Time, introd Garry Wills. Little, Brown 1976. This same edition is available reprinted in 2000. The old URL is 0-316-35294.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. Vintage, 1970. 978-0-307-27844-9.


Bowen’s Court, now pulled down

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. For the first week read as much of Bowen’s novel as you can.

April 1 Introduction:  A kind of novel, historical as well as political & about war; when written by women; 4 era. Using film. Contrasting memoirs & fantasy dystopias: Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (gang-rape); Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (nursing); Virginia Woolf, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison (polemicists, home front stories). Bowen’s books: Irish War of Independence & Irish Civil War; WW2 bombing

April 8 Bowen’s life & POV. Bowen’s The Last September (with comments on The Heat of the Day and The Demon Lover).

April 15 The two film adaptations of Bowen. Fascism; the fascist take-over of Romania. British colonialism.

April 22 Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Manning’s The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City.

April 29 The 1987 BBC Serial, The Fortunes of War. Eras of “great fear:” the later 1940s, the Smith Act, into McCarthy era; Watergate.

May 6 Lillian Hellman, especially her plays & movies, with something of Dashiell Hammett. Scoundrel Time

May 13 Black history in the US. Toni Morrison’s life & career & novels.

May 20; The Bluest Eye. If time permits, tentative thoughts on political-history novels, esp as written by women. The four eras we covered.


Guy and Harriet Pringle (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) with Prince Yakimov (Ronald Pickup) in the Pringle Flat (Fortunes of War, 2nd episode)


From Julia, Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) and Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) going over Autumn Garden (1977)

Suggested Films:

The Heat of the Day. Dir Christopher Morahan. Script: Harold Pinter. Perf. Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, Michael York &c. 1989. Available as DVD to rent, buy from Amazon, and as a whole on YouTube.
The Last September. Dir. Deborah Warren. Script: John Banville. Perf. Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, David Tennant, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, &c. 1999. Available as DVD from Netflix or to buy on Amazon. Also found on YouTube in 10 minute segments.
The Little Foxes. Dr William Wyler. Script: Lillian Helmann. Perf. Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright &c MGM, 1941. Amazon prime.
The Fortunes of War. Dir. John Cellan Jones. Script: Alan Plater. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Ronald Pickup, Alan Bennet, Rupert Graves &c. 1987. Right now available as 7 YouTubes and DVD Region 2 to buy.
Michael Collins. Dir. Script. Neil Jordan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts. 1996. Available on Amazon Prime, as a DVD on Netflix to rent and on Amazon as a DVD to buy. As a DVD it comes with a documentary by Melvyn Bragg, very much worth the watching.
Watch on the Rhine. Dir. Herman Shulmin. Script: Hellman and Hammett. Perf. Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, Donald Woods &c 1943 Warner Bros. Amazon prime.
Julia. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Hellman and Alvin Sergeant. Perf. Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robarts, Maximillian Schell, Meryl Strep &c 1977 20thC Fox. DVD to buy and to rent from Netflix.
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf Benjamin Whitlow, Charles Gray, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden &c. BBC, 1981. DVD to rent from Netflix.
The Pieces that I am. Dir. Timothy Greenfield-Saunders. Perf. Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Ophrah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Walter Moseley &c 2019 Perfect Day Films. Amazon Prime, DVD to rent  from Netflix.


Lillian Hellman, 1947, Photograph by Irving Penn

Suggested Outside Reading:

Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics & Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford and Hellman. University of Va, 2001.
Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Impressions. NY: Knopft, 1950.
Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. NY: Simon and Shuster, 1978.
David, Deirdre. Olivia Manning: A Woman at War. Oxford UP, 2012.
Foster, R.F. Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. London, Penguin, 1993.
Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: A Biography. NY: Knopft, 1977.
Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life. NY: Random House, 1983.
Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vintage, 1999.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Lillian Hellman: A Difficult Woman. NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2012
Lassner, Phyllis; British Women Writers of World War II. London: Palgrave, 1998; Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of Empire. NJ: Rutgers, 2004.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. State University of NY, 2004
Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. NY: Counterpoint, Perseus Books Group, 2005.
Patten, Eve. Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War. Cork UP, 2011.
Roymon, Tessa. The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison. Cambridge UP, 2012.
Staley, Thomas. Twentieth Century Women Novelists. Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies, trans from German by Stephen Conway. 2 volumes. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987. A study of fascism.


A recent photo, from The Pieces That I am

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Hellman photographed next to her probably beloved typewriter


Jane Fonda in similar posture, as Julia (in the movie of the same name) typing her plays — calling to Hammett — an enjoyable moving film

Friends and readers,

It was in December 2013 that I wrote a blog here on Hellman’s four part memoir: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento (with Julia), Scoundrel Time and Maybe. My husband Jim had died two months earlier, and somehow I found this brave, stalwart, candid self-portrait of a genuinely strong woman, and its plain style strength of mind, integrity of behavior, with portraits of non-conformists (misfits, so-called), her own identification with these, was an appealing consolation. I was so foolish as to find in her portrait of Dashiell Hammett, my Jim, and in their life-long relationship a mirror of mine with Jim.

At the time I vowed to read the plays. Easier said than done. My inexpensive edition (1979 last reprint) has no notes, no annotations, and I found the psychological complexity of the characters and quite what they were doing on stage did not come across: I needed a narrator. I bought the biography by Alice Kessler-Harris, but tired of it as I have again as it is shaped by knee-jerk anti-communism when it comes to dealing with Lillian’s politics and political activity: K-H is perpetually apologizing for Hellman, and not conveying her beliefs. This time though I am teaching Hellman as a woman political writer of the 20th century, and the spur of standing (or sitting) in front of others (zoom on my computer) has pushed me into doing more work than that astute blog I wrote.


From Watch on the Rhine, where unusual for all plays, the dialogue is specifically anti-fascist, with fascism exposed — the noble Paul Lukas is risking his life to fight Hitler, with Bette Davis as the achingly loyal wife to a husband not appreciated


The Little Foxes Davis is the woman in the family who is far more a capitalist exploiter than her bumbling brothers or (to her) weak ill (from living with her) husband

So I read through three of her plays, The Children’s Hour (1934), The Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Autumn Garden (1951), and watched four via DVD or YouTube videor, The Little Foxes (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943, this script mostly by Dashiell Hammett), Another Part of the Forest (1948) The Children’s Hour (1961) — and the superb film adaptation of the inset story of her memoir, Pentimento, Julia (1977). Each of these films is either adapted (which means real changes), or revised to some extent, but they all thoroughly reflect her spirit, are what she wanted on the stage or screen. I read some startling criticism of these, much of it hostile, but some perceptive about her concerns. I also read in a book called Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. The plays held my interest intensely despite creakiness of sets, obsolete attitudes: they are driven by intense passions working themselves out unexpectedly but compulsively.

Then I went back to a intelligent unbiased true analysis of the McCarthy era, setting it in the long history of the US against any kind of socialism in thought or political action by many powerful groups of people: David Caute’s The Great Fear and skim-read that. It is apparent that today Hellman is being erased and forgotten partly as a woman but more because she once was a communist, remained strongly committed to socialism — and offended the Partisan Review and other centrist democratic types who were for the capitalist establishment where they were themselves thriving. They wanted mild reforms no more; they colluded and could not bear that she should show up their lukewarm wishy-washyness; their chummy careerisms. I know from the Conversations she is not the kind of writer who analyses herself so it would not be easy for her to defend herself. Politics she can talk penetratingly; but is careful to say nothing about individuals in conversation and most of the time in her writing. So she is a partly unconscious writer, letting herself go, reticent about autobiographical elements too raw for to confront. I can believe she appreciated Hammett’s help as an empathetic editor.

You can watch the whole of Another part of the Forest unabridged on YouTube for free: I hope it stays linked in here:

So — if you’ve watched the film, or now go back to it, see if you agree with some of my general usual critic-like conclusions. Hellman was a powerful insightful writer who has much to tell us about American culture, human beings, gender relationships, with her characters driven by intense desires for power, love, respect and money (the two go together in her universe), sexual desire, beautiful things; they are often fiercely aggressive, or self-protective against the expected aggressions of others; they do yearn for love; they can have strong ideals and stick to them and work hard to defeat what they see as evil beliefs and ways. They may be dressed anachronistically to us, be surrounded by absurd settings, over-emote in the sentimental way expected in the the 1940s and still in popular movies and theater. Hellman is not a writer for small subtle coteries. She gets them quickly into emotional imbroglios which we (or I) watch or read with fascination — sometimes appalled. Another Part of the Forest woke me up to the continual racism of 1940s movies — it was such another as Gone With the Wind with its recreation of this Southern world still mourning the defeat of the confederacy. Black people are only there as servants, sometimes good strong people (especially older woman) but also presented as childlike, doing only menial tasks. Maybe all the more they are not at all obsolete because they teach us about attitudes held towards Black people as late as the 1940s, though for some of the films you’d have to cut scenes, and for others you could color-blind cast and get an even stronger play.

I’d like to devote the rest of this blog just to The Children’s Hour, as it reveals some of Hellman’s more hidden values & feelings not usually discussed.

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Shirley MacLaine as Mabel Dobie and Audrey Hepburn as Karan Wright (1961 Children’s Hour, directed by Wm Wyler)

Half-way through reading the play:

I’m often struck by what people don’t talk about in literary (or other art) works. I’ve read half-way through Hellman’s now semi-famous The Children’s Hour, and while I would acknowledge the (in the play) the centrality of “ugly,” unacceptable, “unnatural” (a word used hedged with horror) desires of one female teacher for another (Martha for Karen and probably vice-versa), what’s really striking is until near the end of the second act is everything else — the motivations and behavior of a group of girls in a school ruled over by unmarried women. The school lying bully, Mary Tilford is the a girl who finds it conduces to increase her power over other girls (threats, intimidation, physical hurting, demands they become her obedient instruments) by saying and do anything, the more outrageous the better as long as she backs it up, doubles down on it, and her presence in the school brings out the worst in all around her. One man, single, Dr Joseph Cardin is the only male in the play half way through — it’s all women, very unusual — only unlike Cukor’s The Women, there is no soft affection for these characters at all. Then the lesbianism is never named; it seems to me at this point Lillian Hellman shows deep hostility to all girls’ schools, and sees females as likely to torment one another emotionally; the school itself is disciplining the girls to be obedient and gives them no reason why they should memorize what they are memorizing.

I thought of Martha Vicinus’s book on how independence was gained for the first time by numbers of women in later Victorian period, and how important it was for a girl to be allowed to go away to a school. And yes how appalled I was at her detailing and approval (it seemed) to how some girls took power over other girls through sexual relationships (not always consummated in any way) as this would form networks and mentors later on. Vicinus said such relationships were feared by parents perhaps more than a relationship with a boy, even if not sexual. Nowhere in Vicinus is the reality of mean emotions that such groups form on — this is what Hellman is after and the intimidation structures at the heart of schooling.

Curious that this is Hellman’s first original full length play — she denies writing as a woman in a way but she always is doing this. She does say she never makes a man the center of her works, it is always the female who is her important character. The real powerhouse of this play is Mary Tilford’s rich grandmother (a lot of prestige) who told that the two teachers are “unnatural” in their desires immediately phones the others parents who immediately withdraw their daughters. The girl Mary Tilford is getting back at Karen who tried to divide the nasty clique that had grown up by re-assigning bedrooms. Last thing I recognize aspects of Hellman in this worst character: like Mary, Hellman ran away, had this tight relationship with a powerful maternal grandmother, was a determined strong character ….

Upon finishing the play:

It is outdated because of the persistent even horror invested in the idea that Martha and Karen are sexually entangled and perhaps even had some physical intimacy. The implicit inference to the play is how horrible that two lives — actually 4 if you include beyond Martha and Karen, the suitor Joe, and the cousin to Martha, Mrs Mortar (what a name). In the third act there has been a trial for libel, and we come into the room where once there was a school seeing three desolated people. I was reminded of the close of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The school has been destroyed; Karen and Martha appear to have lost a libel case against Mrs Tilford, who did the phoning to all the parents to tell them they must whisk their daughters away. Tellingly all these women but the super-wealthy Mrs Tilford fear homelessness — so did I until sometime after Jim died and I still did when Trump used to talk of terminating social security and more gov’t jobs (that’s what Izzy has). Until this generation of women who are brought up to work outside the home for remuneration and demand a living wage, have a career, this was a common fear.

However, they are not giving up. Plans are afoot for Joe and Karen to marry and go with Martha to Vienna, but as the act evolves, these fall to pieces as each of the three suspects the other of lying (or telling the truth about lesbian feelings and even acts as the case may be). After protesting undying loyalty to Karen, Joe seems readily persuaded to leave Karen for ever. Mrs Mortar comes in: the nerve, she never showed up at the trial and would have been a help. She is shameless and has nowhere else to go and Karen and Martha are apparently not prepared to throw her on the streets. This happens before Martha confesses to Karen she really loves her horrifies Karen who nonetheless lets slip that she, Karen, may also have sexual desire for Karen. Martha leaves the stage, overwrought. Soon after we hear a shot — Martha has killed herself off stage. I thought of Jocasta hanging herself. Mrs Tilford arrives to apologize, to explain how she has learned that Mary was lying and had bullied another girl, Rosalie into backing her up. There is a hint Mrs Tilford still suspects that Karen and Martha are susceptible to such a dreadful love — nonetheless, they had not behaved that way, and she offers money to Karen who relents to say maybe she’ll take it — she now has nowhere to go. What’s striking though is how lesbianism is never once defended. It is telling somehow that this is Hellman’s first play, the first matter she chose to imagine and bring it before the public. A bad dream out of Vicinus’s book. I mentioned Mary, the thug lying child who spread the rumor, has aspects of Lillian Hellman as a child running away, her aggression too.

I’ll mention a role for a Black woman, Agatha, Mrs Tilford’s cook/maid/housekeeper. Very circumspect, acting on behalf of her employer while trying not to hurt anyone — very moral as all the Black characters are in all Hellman’s plays and prose. The play’s list of characters does not call for a black woman but it seems to me the character as envisaged is how Black people are seen Hellman’s texts.


The male is there central to the exposure of the girl’s lies

The 1961 movie

So now I’ve watched the 1961 movie adaptation with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner — directed by William Wyler, if I’m not mistaken with Hellman working on the script too. Unlike the 1934 movie, which ludicrously eliminated the central element of lesbianism, this one presents it as fully as Hellman apparently dared to in the year she wrote it 1934.

What I wanted to record is my amazement that as late as the 1960s the topic of lesbianism is treated with a sense of appalled horror — in the written play and now this movie, the word is never used. The characters speak of sexual love between women as just something deeply perverse and horrific. Reading about the play, it’s one of her first produced and that is fascinating because at the same time she claimed she wrote “as an exercise.” That is, she was not engaged with the topic; she further absolved herself (so to speak) by saying the story was suggested the Dashiell Hammett who came across it as something that happened in real life and told it to her.

In Kessler-Harris’s book she talks of how the original girl in the story was part of a minority group treated very badly by the majority, and thus had good reason to do what she did to disrupt the school.  The girl herself had been treated with disdainful discrimination. Hellman eliminated all that (what a shame) but wanted to claim her real interest was this girl. It is true reading the play she is exposing the pettiness and cruelty of girls to one another, but I did not realize that Hellman’s changes in the girl’s ethnicity and motives and insisting on this clash between “good and evil” works to ignore in discourse what most of the powerful ending of the play is — the two women admitting to sexual feeling. In fact only one does and she kills herself — in both the play and movie. The girl’s bullying and lies are made much of when they are exposed, and Martha kills herself off stage never to be seen again. I recalled how E.M. Forster said that he could have published Maurice far earlier had he been willing to have punitive ending for his pair of young men. What was not acceptable was the happy ending — and now I know in classrooms the “problem” here for Maurice is readers can dismiss it as unrealistic. But here Karen is erased altogether

In the written play as far as I can tell it is all crushing misery for poor Karen, though she seems likely to take the money the grandmother of the mean girl offers her as compensation. In the movie there is an attempt to present Karen (Hepburn) as rising above all that happened, as somehow escaping this conformist society whose children she was schooling to be conformist. We see her walking proudly away from Karen’s funeral as if she is washing her hands and body of all this foulness. It might be too that with James Garner watching her from the sidelines the movie watcher would say, ha, see they’ll marry. I remember someone interpreting Winston Graham’s Cordelia so as to have the transgressive heroine marrying one of the male family members at the end. No sense that if this is so, it negates the whole novel.

The 1961 movie is still powerful. Since Hellman would not discuss the lesbianism as important and said it was an exercise, and that Dash gave her the story there is no easily getting beyond the barrier she builds to stop questions — unless you are a Hellman scholar and know where to look. It’s not a pleasant movie and to the modern viewer — me — off putting because of the awed sense of taboo everywhere. As late as 1961 you could present middle class people are over-dressed and living in super-elegant houses as if it were 1931.

There have been more recent play productions; as radio plays: in 1971, the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series starring Jill Bennett and Prunella Scales; in 1994, the play was again produced for the radio by the BBC in its Monday Play series, starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margolyes and Margaret Robertson.

The critics:


A beautiful still of Julia and Lillian talking — I am aware that the story of their relationship is highly fictionalized, and take it to be autofiction

I worried I was being a bit hard on Hellman for suggesting she was wiping away lesbianism, showing far more hostility than ambivalence towards women’s sexuality — well last night I read three articles on this play — not a bit of it. One critic, Mary Titus (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature) argued Hellman was murdering lesbianism, that she was exorcising out what she feared she’d be accused of for separating herself from her first husband and living independently. She linked The Children Hour to the story of Julia where it’s apparent a deep loving relationship emerged from Hellman’s and Julia’s childhood — one could call its continuance homoerotic love. Hellman would not have wanted the relationship to be seen that way.

Julia is the story of two women in love with one another, especially Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Julia is destroyed — like Marttha. There is a scene in the movie where one of Lillian’s old friends, a male (possibly representing Dorothy Parker’s husband who annoyed Hellman), accuses her and Julia of having lesbian feelings from childhood; she gets up and smashes him across the face and walks out.

Benjamin Kahan (Criticism) takes a different tack and suggested Hellman’s open stance as semi-promiscuous, acting like an aggressive man when it came to initiating relationships, was also a guarded performance against being accused of being a prig, a dike, a man-hater. In the 1930s audiences would regard all girls’ schools as possibly luring a girl into relationships which would get in the way of the important marriage. I do not think this play an insincere disguise — Judith Butler’s idea that behavior is one long performance has a lot to answer for. Hellman punishes the one open lesbian hard.

In a third essay, this one reviewing the history of films meant for a wider public daring to deal with issues of homosexuality and lesbianism, Chon Noriega (Cinema Journal) found that lesbianism was less accepted than male homosexuality, at the same time it was seen (in the play and film from the point of view of aimed-at watcher-response) as showing the dangers of putting girls together in all women environments. I felt there was hostility in Hellman’s original play to the whole idea of an all girl school taught all by women. I would here agree with Vicinus how unfortunate this reaction is — for it was in such schools and environments women were given the first chance they had to train and hope for professional lives outside marriage.

I do know that nowadays with all the talk of Hellman as a great playwright it is very hard to get copies of her plays. Hardly any of her screenplays are in print — only the one she is said to have written with Hammett. And there is such emphasis on how he wrote with her, corrected her stuff. Her prose memoirs are what’s wanted. My edition of her plays is old and has no notes. The one summer Jim and I and Izzy rented a house in Vermont and each evening took a drive to see a great play we saw a production of Autumn Garden. Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer. Unfortunately neither of us remembers much as we were sitting way in the back and it was a long drive.


1977: Lily (Jane Fonda) and Dash (Jason Robards)

Ellen

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