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Lillian Hellman Biography

(1905?–84), The Children's House, Days To Come, The Little Foxes, petit bourgeois

American playwright and memoirist, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, educated at the Universities of New York and Columbia. Her first play, The Children's House (1934), written under the tutelage of her companion Dashiell Hammett, was the sensitive account of two teachers accused by a malicious student of concealing a lesbian relationship; the play had allusions to the misuse of power which acquired new resonances during the period of McCarthy's anti-communist witchhunts. Hellman's next play, Days To Come (1936), a drama of unionism, was followed by her highly successful The Little Foxes (1939), which established her as one of the leading playwrights of her generation. The central theme of the play—the rise to power of the petit bourgeois class, the rapacity of the newly rich—is subordinated to its melodramatic blend of blackmail, sibling rivalry, sexual manipulation, and murder, and to the powerful character of its evil protagonist, Regina Hubbard. Hellman was said to have drawn largely on memories of her mother's Southern family, which increased the appeal of the play; she returned to the Hubbard family in Another Part of the Forest (1946), which has been compared to the minor works of Shakespeare, and its emphasis on violence seen as an attempt to foreground the powerful themes of good and evil that continued to preoccupy her. During the Second World War her plays Watch on the Rhine (1941) and The Searching Wind (1944) were both highly topical, dealing with the fascist menace, and Hellman's reputation was assured for posterity. Later plays, The Autumn Garden (1951) and Toys in the Attic (1960), pay more attention to plot, technique, and psychology than to melodrama, and in this phase she has been compared to Chekhov. The settings of these plays were contemporary and drew again in part on Hellman's family. Hellman's reminiscences, An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (1969) and Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), earned the highest praise for their accounts of an unexpectedly heroic life. A third volume, Scoundrel Time (1976), raised a storm of controversy; Hellman's testimonial of her difficult position during the McCarthy trials was held to be inaccurate by such contemporaries as Mary McCarthy and Diana Trilling. Her last book, Maybe: A Story (1980), published as fiction, attempts to illustrate her technique of interweaving fiction and documented fact, memory, and imagination, and of turning life into text as she had done in the memoirs and the plays.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: William Hart-Smith Biography to Sir John [Frederick William] Herschel Biography