The most important character in Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour is Mary, a teenager in a private girls’ school in a small town in New England. Mary is intelligent, manipulative, domineering, an accomplished actress and a consummate liar. She is the face of evil.
The Children’s Hour is now playing at the Comedy Theatre in London’s West End with an all-star cast. It was Hellman’s first play and it provides riveting drama even if the ending is a bit creaky.
Mary, played brilliantly by Bryony Hannah, is a rebellious student and her teachers and owners of the school, Karen and Martha, discipline her. Mary has a doting and powerful grandmother, Mrs. Amelia Tilford. In order to strike back at her teachers, Hannah whispers to her grandmother that she has seen Karen and Martha engage in “unnatural” conduct. The words lesbian or homosexuality are never mentioned.
(It is worth mentioning that the play was a great success on Broadway but it was banned in Boston, Chicago and even in England in 1934. The mayor of Boston banned it as “unfit” without bothering to see or read the play. Such moral perversion and sexual degeneracy was not going to infect those pure-hearted Bostonians.)
Mary’s accusation sets in motion a series of events which result in the ostracism and destruction of the lives of the two women. There is a nicely built climax to the play that leaves audiences sitting up aghast at the triumph of mendacity and injustice.
The play gets a great deal of help from director Ian Rickson who has the talent to coordinate and orchestrate magnificent performances. Keira Knightley as Karen is an intense, innocent-looking teacher who is about to marry the local doctor. When she is cornered, she breaks out into some superb dramatic acting.
Elisabeth Moss as Martha is a bit tougher but she has or she realizes that she has a dark secret. Moss provides outstanding acting as a contrasting character that complements Knightley’s performance.
Ellen Burstyn is the imperious Mrs. Tilford who has the assurance that comes with social position and wealth. She is right because everything that she believes in is right and she will not be gainsaid by anyone. Regardless of the source or flimsiness of the evidence against Karen and Martha, she believes it and pursues them to utter destruction.
Carol Kane plays the foolish and in the end passively vicious Lily Mortar. She is almost a caricature until she refuses to show up for the libel trial that is the ultimate fall of the two teachers.
Tobias Menzies plays the upright doctor who is all too human, to put it at its highest, and develops doubts about his fiancée’s sexual proclivities.
Near the end of The Children’s Hour we hear the sound of a gunshot. This was probably a good place to end the play but Hellman was not imitating Chekhov. She spends some time tying up loose ends and giving some moral satisfaction to the audience in terms of “good” getting the upper hand over “evil”. If only Hellman had asked me to edit her play.
A splendid night at the theatre.
The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman continues until May 7, 2011 at the Comedy Theatre, 6 Panton St. London. www.ambassadortickets.com/london