When I heard that Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss would star in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s classic realist play The Children’s Hour in London this spring, my first thought was, “Why now?” The play, written in 1934, remains one of Hellman’s most famous. Based on a true story about two headmistresses in Scotland in 1810, the play addresses the consequences of a lie spread by a difficult child at a school for girls run by long-time friends Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. The child, Mary Tilford, takes advantage of an incendiary accusation made by Martha’s dotty aunt, Lily Mortar, to spread a rumor that Karen and Martha are lovers. Although her story isn’t true, Mary’s powerful grandmother believes her and ruins the school she once helped champion.
Karen and Martha take Mrs. Tilford to court, but lose their slander case. Karen’s planned marriage to the loyal Dr. Joe Cardin is threatened. As the two women sit in their empty school, contemplating their now-ruined lives, Martha confesses that the lie was true, that she did indeed love Karen “the way they said.” Karen protests but Martha insists, and goes off to kill herself so that her friend will be free to continue her life.
Obviously, this isn’t a happy story for lesbians. It represents the time-honored tradition of realist plays in which lesbians have no choice but to kill themselves at the end (or die otherwise tragic deaths from inoperable cancer or other deadly means). When Hellman directed a Broadway revival in 1952, after her own black-listing by HUAC, she said that at that point in history, the play wasn’t “about” lesbians, but was rather about “a lie.” But The Children’s Hour has always been discussed as one of the first American plays with lesbian content.
The story is nothing but anachronistic, however, in an historical moment when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has finally been repealed in the U.S., and when President Obama has decided no longer to prosecute under the Defense of Marriage Act same-sex couples who want to marry. In the U.K., same-sex partners have long been allowed to marry, and they enjoy more legal rights than their counterparts in the States. So why, then, revive this play? Why now, in spring 2011, except as a vehicle for two women stars known primarily for their roles in film and television (Knightley most recently inNever Let Me Go and most famously in Atonement, and Moss for her performance as the stalwart, pre-feminist ad-woman Peggy Olsen on TV’s Mad Men)?
Director Ian Rickson answers that question in his London production by underlining the damage done in the play by those the program calls “the morally, or politically, or religiously self-righteous [who] stand in judgment and brook no doubt about the rightness of their world view.” I believe that Rickson has subtly altered the script, too, so that Karen appears unsurprised by Martha’s confession of her love, and so that Martha’s self-revulsion is down-played instead of highlighted as the rationale for her death.
Rickson’s deft direction moves the play along quickly and creates an appropriate hot-house atmosphere of sex and desire among the young girl students. Knightley’s and Moss’s performances bring a distinctly resistant strength to roles sometimes played as abject. As a result, The Children’s Hour winds up being a terrific, compelling, and even relevant production.
The wonderful setting—designed by Mark Thompson, with lighting by Neil Austin and sound by Paul Groothuis—signals that this revival sees the play as more than a domestic drama. The small stage of the West End’s Comedy Theatre is further narrowed with a high box set, painted in roughened gray wood that suggests the Dobie-Wright School for Girls’ farmhouse beginnings. A huge high door looms upstage, just right of center, through which all the significant entrances and exits occur, and at which Mary’s two young roommates are found listening during Martha’s fateful quarrel with her aunt.
To stage left of the door, a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, filled with volumes in the first scene, empty in the last, takes the visual temperature of the play, as Karen and Martha’s lives change from busy, over-filled happiness to devastated emptiness. The scene shifts to Mrs. Tilford’s mansion maintain the large door, but fill the bookcase with the precious knick-knacks of those wealthy enough to afford useless pretty things. Columns descend from the flies to mark the stately remoteness of the home to which Mary so wants to return from school that she makes up her lie to keep herself free. The set’s overwhelming height and magnitude emblematizes the pressure of social strictures bearing down on both the school and on Mrs. Tilford’s home.
Rickson covers the several scene changes and the play’s opening with wordless moments of interaction among the characters that help pinpoint Hellman’s rich subtext. At the opening, Mary appears, alone on stage, reading from a book that’s clearly meant for adults. She finds a place to hide herself by the wood-burning stove, and proceeds to swoon from what she’s reading. When her classmates arrive, the book becomes a much-coveted source of attention. That the book is about sex is clear from how titillated the girls act, and their glee in reading its pages over one another’s shoulders.
Rickson directs the eleven-odd young women playing the girls to act like a pack of puppies. They crowd together on the set’s lone sofa, roll over one another to get closer to the book, fall onto the floor, and huddle together, always moving, bumping up against one another, getting in each other’s faces with laughter, and whispering scandalized secrets in one another’s ears. Their behavior establishes the play’s over-ripe atmosphere of teenaged sexuality and longing, and the fine line between pleasure and danger that makes the school a powder keg of emotion waiting to explode.
Mary (Bryony Hannah) serves as the instigator, the alpha girl around whom the others circle, trying to accrue some of her power and access. Mary’s manipulations range from subtle to overtly cruel, as she cajoles or bends the other girls to her will. In the written play, Mary’s evil appears crafty and nuanced; through Hellman’s command of the realist form’s subtext, the audience gradually comes to see how Mary constructs her story to free herself and sully her teacher’s names, all because they don’t condone her bad behavior and won’t believe her lies, treating her exactly as they do the other girls, despite her wealthy grandmother’s influence.
In Hannah’s performance, however, Mary is a whirling dervish of malevolence whose machinations are obvious from the start. Hannah plays the girl with broadly physical mannerisms, almost like a cartoon figure of a whiny, pouting, willful young thing determined to get her way. She stamps the ground, flings out her arms, screws up her face, and throws herself across furniture in dramatic displays of Mary’s displeasure, raising her voice more often to shout her demands than to issue quiet, needling imperatives.
Critics apparently split over Hannah’s performance. Ben Brantley, in the New York Times, called it one of the worst examples of over-acting he’s ever seen on stage. But several London critics believe that Hannah stole the show from her more famous acting partners. I found her performance distracting. Although her strong bearing and gestures gave her an interesting, boyish appeal, her general gestalt put her in a different universe than the other actors, and struck tonally false notes in an otherwise coherent and cohesive production.
Where the other actors seemed to be genuinely listening and reacting to one another, Hannah seemed to be playing Charades, signaling to her stage partners in the broadest possible terms what she meant them to guess about her intentions. The one-note performance became exhausting to watch; Hannah started so high, she had nowhere to take the character as the play progressed. Since Mary’s important subtext was broadcast in Hannah’s overt telegraphing of her intentions, the production lost some of its enigmatic quality.
But Mary’s hateful leadership also created contemporary resonances, since she’s a prototypical bully who tells lies to absolve herself of her own responsibility. The pack mentality of a school for girls is palpable in Rickson’s production. Rosalee, the one student who knows Mary is lying about seeing Karen and Martha kissing and is willing to say so, is brought into line when Mary threatens to reveal that Rosalee stole a bracelet from another girl. Mary’s awful power over the others is physical, emotional, and psychological, and Rosalee, especially, drowns in its wake along with Karen and Martha.
In a deft choice, Rickson stages Karen and Martha’s relationship to mirror those of their young charges. At their first entrance, Karen (Knightley) and Martha (Moss) are physically intimate, sharing their morning coffee and cigarette by passing the cup and the smoke back and forth between them as they prepare for their day. Their establishing business makes them in fact seem like a couple, with all the comfort and familiarity of a long friendship.
Throughout the play, Knightley and Moss show their solidarity by touching one another casually, in passing. Those gestures of support and warmth work to make Martha seem more secure in herself, marking her friendship with Karen as less “sick” than simply long-standing and comfortable. These are women who know one another well, who’ve worked together closely for eight years after graduating from college to build their now-successful school. Their physical casualness might mark them as women of 2011 more than 1934, when the play is set, but it makes good sense, given their history.
Carol Kane, as Lily Mortar, Martha’s querulous aunt, presents a dashing figure as the faded stage actor who tutors the students in elocution, even as she instills in her girls foolish notions of heterosexual romance by having them read Antony and Cleopatraaloud to one another. When her niece insists it’s time for Mrs. Mortar to leave their house and employ, Kane conveys the insulted Mortar’s narcissistic excess and her destructive prattling about Martha’s “unnatural” feelings for Karen.
Mortar’s insinuations, overheard by Mary’s roommates, seed the lie that Mary waters to fruition. Mortar’s unwillingness to return from her stage tour to tell the truth at their trial seals Martha and Karen’s fate. When the two women confront her toward the play’s end, Mortar insists she had a “moral obligation” to the theatre, and would never have considered returning to address what she calls the “unpleasant notoriety” of Martha and Karen’s hearing. Kane’s performance is so theatrical, you actually can believe that she’d put her paltry and ridiculous touring job ahead of her niece’s well-being. Mrs. Mortar’s self-concern underlines that those who refuse to stand against falsehoods are as responsible for their corruption as those who perpetrate them.
Likewise, Ellen Burstyn’s performance as the righteous Mrs. Tilford demonstrates both the hubris of those who think they know what’s right and true and the devastating downfall of those who can’t buy their way back into blamelessness. When Karen and Martha rush to Mrs. Tilford’s home to challenge her in person, the elderly woman relies on a textbook homophobic response, despite her earlier support for the Dobie-Wright School. Burstyn is perfect in this scene, brushing aside their remonstrations with “I don’t want to hear about it” and “What you do is your business, but when children are involved . . .,” mouthing to the letter the narrow-minded moralism of those of who think their own values rightfully prevail.
Burstyn also lets spectators see how Mary works on Mrs. Tilford, finally exhausting her into believing her story. When her Mary’s lie is finally exposed, the contrite Mrs. Tilford comes back to the school to try to buy Karen’s forgiveness, but Karen scoffs at her offer of help. Burstyn plays the woman’s regret and shame as a physical symptom, bending forward over a chair in the now dilapidated school’s sitting room, as though she’s made ill by the consequences of what she’s done.
In The Children’s Hour’s second act, in particular, some of the dialogue sounded different than the play I remember, making me wonder if the production team had rewritten parts of the text. In Karen’s final scene with her fiancé, Joe, for example, she intimates that she knew Martha loved her, even perhaps suggesting that she loved her “that way,” too, and admitting that within every lie there’s always a shadow of truth. She forces Joe to ask the question that hangs between them, after he slips and insists that it doesn’t matter “what you’ve done.”
In their rearranged lives, Karen notes bitterly that every word has a new meaning; she’s an English teacher who’s been forced to realize how easily language can betray. Tobias Menzies, as Joe, plays the moment sad and ashamed, but he does indeed ask Karen if the accusation is true. She realizes that the poison of not finally knowing for sure that he believes her will always haunt their relationship and insists that he leave.
Joe says he doesn’t want to, but in a subtle bit of smart blocking, Menzies moves toward the door as he speaks, letting his body betray the loyalty he’s trying to perform. He agrees to Karen’s insistence on a trial separation, but she knows (and we know) that he won’t be back. In fact, one of the lines cut from this production is Mrs. Tilford’s hope, expressed very close to the play’s end in the original, that Karen will reconcile with Joe, to which she answers woefully, “Perhaps.” In Rickson’s production, the heterosexual contract is permanently sundered.
Martha’s destiny, sadly, can’t be changed. But in Moss’s performance, the way she arrives at her suicide gets a very different, much more powerful interpretation. As Karen and Martha sit together in their destroyed school, a week or two after the trial at which they lost their case against Mrs. Tilford, Moss plays Martha’s outlook with an ironic humor that makes her seem a tough survivor. She and Karen decide they should go for a walk, and that those who would look at them disapprovingly be damned. But Karen can’t leave the house. Martha is willing to face the world but Karen can’t find the strength.
When Martha opens the imposing school door to urge her friend to go out with her, their matching camel-colored coats hang side by side on hooks in the hall. The image is as redolent of their mutual affection and interconnectedness as the two male lovers’ shirts hung on the same hanger in one of the final images of Brokeback Mountain.
When Mrs. Mortar comes sidling back into their lives after her theatre tour, obviously broke and looking for shelter, Moss plays Martha’s rage with wonderful verve. Martha knows that her aunt set their destruction in motion with her insinuating suggestions. In response to the foolish woman’s sniveling demand that Martha care for her, Moss throws Mortar’s things out the large door, shouting, “I’ve always hated you.” The moment shows Martha capable of commanding huge emotions and remaining strong and intact.
But once Joe leaves, Martha can’t bear the responsibility for Karen’s unhappiness. She crosses to her friend to take her hand, and kneels in front of her to confess, “I’ve loved you the way they said.” When Karen moves away from her, Martha rises, and in her final speech, Hellman’s language (adapted or not) rings with contemporary resonance. Martha admits that she couldn’t call her feelings by a name, that it wasn’t until a stupid girl spread a silly rumor that she was able to finally see what she didn’t realize was in her all along.
But even though she says she feels “sick and dirty,” Moss won’t let Martha sink into abjection. She performs the woman’s anger, which becomes a kind of cri de coeuragainst a world that refuses to make a place for her love. She plays not Martha’s shame, but her fury at how she’s been forced to know herself, which dooms her to understand her desire and end her life at the very same time.
Martha moves to embrace Karen, but her friend shies away; you can see Moss realize that she’s lost her forever, and that without Karen, Martha’s life has no point. Moss’s face clears with resolve; she smiles; she straightens her back; and she exits, saying, “Good night, darling,” to Karen as she goes. A moment later, a gunshot echoes and we hear Martha’s body fall.
In the last scene of the play, Mrs. Mortar rushes in to see her niece’s dead body, declaring suicide a sin and continuing to moralize against her even in death. Mrs. Tilford forces her way into the house to tell Karen that she knows Mary’s story was a lie, too late to save Martha or the school. Karen responds with anger, refusing the money Mrs. Tilford offers to make things right, determined not to allow the older woman to ever be able to sleep with a clear conscience ever again.
Karen throws both women out of her home, pulls the sheet from the room’s window, and throws open the sash, breathing deeply of something that feels like freedom. The lights brighten on the image before they fade, and Knightley stands nearly defiant, cracking open the box of social moralism in which Karen has been confined for too long. This final moment provides an affecting image. Like so many others in Rickson’s production, it gives the old play new resonance and meaning, working against its more conservative ideological bent.
I’m still surprised by how moving I found the production. By empowering Martha at the end, and letting Moss play against the character’s shame, Rickson and his actors suggest that there really wasn’t any shame in Martha’s love for Karen. In her last speech, expressing her feelings seems like a gift for Martha; she directs her anger and judgment not at herself, but at a world that has no frame of reference for her love.
Of course, the play works against a happy ending, and it’s a stretch to find something progressive about it. But in addition to the new spin it puts on the play’s take on sexuality, the production also resonated as an argument against a poisonous atmosphere of general moralizing. Rickson and his cast clearly and powerfully indict the very circumstances the play narrates: The corruption of the elite, who create their own systems of meaning to damn and demean, at their whim, those with less access to power, who deserve so much more.
The Feminist Spectator
The Children’s Hour, Comedy Theatre, London, March 12, 2011.
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