Lillian Hellman wrote THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, her first play, in 1934, a time when there was local censorship of any play that depicted homosexuality. In New York City, the theatre could literally be padlocked if the police and courts decreed that a play presented this taboo topic. Hellman managed to write a good, sensational melodrama that flirted with the subject, but at the same time avoided it. The setting is a small private girls' school in New England run by two young women in their early thirties. One of the students, a budding psychopath, tells her powerful grandmother that the women are a lesbian couple. The women, who are innocent of the charge, try to fight the malicious accusation in court and lose (we never see the trial). At the end, one of the women confesses to the other that she was in love with her, then goes into the next room and shoots herself (where did she get the gun?). Hellman was very cagey with this then volatile subject. There are accusations of homosexuality, but no homosexual action. There is a confession of homosexual attraction followed by suicide (pre-liberation, most confessed homosexual characters killed themselves). Of course, in 2011, homosexuality is hardly a sensational subject and the overreaction seems silly. Half a century ago when I was in high school we knew two of our teachers were a lesbian couple and we sniggered about it but there was no scandal. In 1952 Hellman directed a revival of THE CHILDREN'S HOUR as an allegory of the anti-communist witch hunts being carried out in Washington. The girl's lie and her grandmother's unfair destruction of the two teachers became images of martyrs to the House Un-American Affairs Committee and Joe McCarthy's madness (Lillian Hellman's most famous hour was her speech before the House Un-American Activities Committee) . This was a year before Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE in which another girl with psychopathological tendencies destroys the good people of Salem, Massachusetts.
What does THE CHILDREN'S HOUR mean in 2011? It's an intermittently good melodrama, but far from a great play. The two leading characters aren't well drawn. The girl is unbelievably awful like the little girl in THE BAD SEED. One expects her head to rotate 360 degrees and her to spew projectile vomit like the girl in THE EXORCIST. Who would believe the little monster? The fiance of the non-lesbian teacher is cardboard. Actually the only interestingly drawn character is the dotty aunt of one of the teachers, an out of work actress who unwittingly (wits aren't her strong suit) sets the problem in motion. This production came about because some star actresses were available and a play in the public domain (no royalty fee) had to be found for them. It is filling the theatre because of its starry cast.
Keira Knighley and Elizabeth Moss play the two teachers accused of a lesbian affair. Moss, of MAD MEN fame, has the better part (she gets the big pre-suicide confession) and is convincing in communicating Martha's jeaousy of her friend's fiance and her guilt at feeling that jealousy, her fury at the accusation, her painful confession and her silent acceptance that she cannot continue to live. Knightley uses the same two facial expressions we know from her films. Her character's big scene is her renunciation of her fiance and perhaps of a normal life when she realizes that he believes she and Martha were lovers. Knightley played it in a generalized way. I noticed that the audience was a bit restless during this scene. She wasn't grabbing them, though she was getting great support from Tobias Menzies who manged to flesh out his cardboard character. Menzies has to work on his American accent -- he sounded like Tony Soprano -- but he made Joe more than a plot device. Since he was more convincingly heartbroken than Knightley, he dominated his final scene. Ellen Burstyn wasn't imperious enough as the wealthy, powerful grandmother. She seemed too nice. I didn't believe she would call all the parents and make them take their girls out of the school. I have a feeling Burstyn built her character totally on what kind of person she thought would believe that monstrous little girl. The best performances came from Moss, Menzies and Carol Kane as the dotty, slightly alcoholic unemployed actress, Martha's aunt whom she hires out of kindness. Kane manages to make a real person out of a caricature. Little Bryony Hannah is delightfully creepy as the little monster. Ian Rickson directed effectively. I didn't care for Mark Thompson's massive design that made each scene look like it took place in a warehouse.
THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is not a play that cries out to be revived in the centenary year of Terence Rattigan and Tennessee Williams, two playwrights who could turn the stuff of melodrama into rich character studies. Hellman's play was never more than sensationalist melodrama. This production gave its audience a chance to see big stars on stage. That is what they paid West End prices for. I would have liked this fine cast to be used in a new play, but that would have cost the producers more money than they were willing to spend for a short run.
At a time when many British actors have mastered credible American accents, I was surprised that a fine actor like Tobias Menzies and even Ms. Knightley were having such problems sounding convincingly American, particularly when they were sharing the stage with American actresses.
A few people in the audience gave the cast a standing ovation. I had the feeling that they were Americans who now have reduced the standing ovation to meaninglessness by giving everything standing ovations. I have been trying to understand why the standing ovation has become obligatory in the United States. Is it a way of forcing the actors to acknowledge the standing audience members who are now performing for the cast? Does it stem from the fact that one has paid a lot of money to be there and wants to show that it was worth the investment? Is it just being nice -- "we've given a standing ovation to everything else so it would be rude not to stand for this one"? I hope the standing ovation remains highly selective in London. There was one for FRANKENSTEIN at the National, but that truly was an event, a brilliant production with a magnificent performance from Jonny Lee Miller.
I know I have made this point before, but at West End prices, one should expect to go into a theare that isn't a dump. My seat in the front row of the dress circle was barely attached to the floor. I looked around and could see bits of the ceiling and proscenium gone and a theatre that looks like it hadn't been painted or reupholstered since it opened in 1881. Each ticket has a £1 Theatre Restoration charge. Where does that money go? At a top price of £60 (almost $100), one can expect a theatre in a decent state of repair.
THE CHILDREN'S HOUR. Comedy Theatre. February 23, 2011.