An Unholy Ripple

3 Dec

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Now that “Twelfth Night” has completed it’s run, am ready to dive straight into the deep-end of “Children’s Hour” and start swimmin.’

Today: Some study time on Lillian Hellman, author of the show…and a particular favorite of mine. In other words, it’s more “review” than anything else, but you never know what you’ll find when following an already mined seam.

…The focus now is “History.” What made her write the piece, from where she got the idea, the autobiographical element of the main female relationship, where the title hailed from. In other words: it’s roots of inception, to better inform of the time in which it was written, the social significance of its theme, the years of various censorship made to it, the bannings, the revisions, the productions…all of it.

If we’re gonna get good n’ squidgy here, one should go all the way.

…Anyway, thought I’d bring you along on the ride.

***

She was all of 26, in 1934, when Hellman’s partner, Dashiell Hammett (of “Thin Man” and Sam Spade fame) told her to get off her ass, stop wasting all her creative energy doctoring Hollywood scripts, and come up with something of her own. Going completely against character, she decided to follow someone else’s advice, and began research on an intriguing court case, from 1810.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, Jane Cumming Gordon, a pupil at an all-girl’s boarding school, accused her schoolmistresses of having an affair in full view of the girls in their charge, upon occasion even in the same beds as where the pupils slept. The girl’s influential grandmother, Dame Cumming Gordon advised all to remove their daughters from the school immediately, within days leaving it deserted and the two respective schoolmistresses without a livelihood. Jane Pririe and Marianne Woods, filed, sued, and would go on to win the case, on libel and slander. Of course this was after an entire decade in the courts, and the printings of hundreds of damning articles, news posts, and social commentaries having been scattered to the winds, though oddly enough the court case transcripts themselves locked away by command of the court: fearful that their contents, if disclosed, “would corrupt the morals of any who chanced upon them.”

…The damage to the reputations of Pririe and Woods, beyond repair…they eventually dropped out of sight and headlines…until 1931, when four copies of the original court transcripts were found by Scottish Law Historian, William Roughhead, who added it’s commentaries in his book published that year, “Bad Companions”…a copy of which Lillian Hellman became soon after, captivated with.

Changes to the case would be made, alterations to the women’s relationship and it’s ending taking place… giving a certain more dramatic outcome…but by and large, this was to the be the meat of the stew which would within three years take the theatrical, sexual, moral, religious, and ethical world by storm once again…with the Broadway debut of, “The Children’s Hour.”

…Difficult to find actors willing to undertake the subject matter, the play was ultimately banned in Boston, Chicago and London…and the Pulitzer Prize committee refused it’s consideration for award, (despite it’s many hailings on importance in social awareness, human rights, and political controversy), due to (ironically) it’s impropriety.

…After two films based on the play, an updating of the script leading to a successful Broadway relaunch in the fifties, and Hellman herself showing up on McCarthy’s blacklisting, (thus further launching the play’s themes of secrecy, lies, malice and persecution)…a new autobiographical element to the piece, first came to light.

“Pentimento,” the second book of Hellman’s autobiographical trilogy, was first published in 1973, and with it, the telling of a close friendship lasting from school years to adulthood, with a woman called, “Julia.”

Later put on film, (earning Vanessa Redgrave an Oscar for her title role, portrayal), “Julia” told of the friendship of Hellman and a woman she idolized and idealized. A child, tossed by a gallivanting Actress mother, on her rich parents to raise…who did, within a strict and ridged regime. Julia, however, a free spirit, with the blood of a natural rebel, fought all contests of keeping her caged…to which the wide-eyed, uberly conservative and skittish Hellman became rapt and besotted with.

…Julia, later a political revolutionary and underground movement member in a number of causes throughout Europe through her College years abroad, eventually seduced Hellman so far into her power of spirit, that in WWII, Hellman (an American Jew) agreed to transport much of Julia’s inherited fortune with her across the German border, in order to buy Jews and other Political prisoners, out of harms way.

…A later foreign correspondent of many wars and revolutions…boasting a much road-leathered skin akin to Hemmingway…this was to be the first terrifying tryst with death in which Hellman ever attempted. Her recounting of it, a wonder if nothing else in the foreshadowing of what would eventually serve as a lifestyle so shockingly different from the little girl of so long ago. Much attributed not only to that one journey, but…in my opinion…for what happened to follow.

Julia, the single mother of a baby duly dubbed “Lilly,” (whom she had sent to live with a farming family, safely away from her Political workings), was murdered, not long after…by the Gestapo. Hellman, upon being informed, conducted an exhaustive search for the baby…who was never to be found. Her dedication to Julia: transforming her morally, socially, politically, from that moment onward…into something made of harder stuff…the kind of hard-hitting, information-digging, political-freedom-hailing, toughened broad, that she would later become so renowned for.

…And it was Julia, so she claims, who was her first love.

…Not in consummation, but an unrequited adoration…as, though Hellman confessed of her love, Julia’s devotion (but non-romantic inclinations), kept it forever snipped in the bud.

…It was in this way, that Martha and Karen were born.

So they lived a life together…stood by one another…loved and dedicated themselves to one another. A friendship of physical innocents, wrapped up in romantic desires and steadfast devotion.

…”This is not a new sin we have been accused of…” as Karen, states…long after the damage has been done, to a relationship, a school, a town, and two souls.

From the mouths of babes. A lie is told. Or perhaps, in it’s way, a “half-truth.” But the damage it can do, is as irreparable, once begun, as the bullet that ends a life.

Jane. Marianne. Karen. Martha. Lillian. Julia.

…When you know the history behind it all, the lines of fact and fiction begin to bleed together so thinly you can hardly make out where one begins and the other ends. Six women’s lives and relationships making up the whole of a piece of theatre so relevant still to this day.

…As Mr. Director noted, on our first read-through with the cast, “We’re designing the show on a very simple theme: a ripple effect. The set, the relationships, the conversations had…the lie that starts it all. One drop in a still pond of water…with endless consequence.”

This show is going to obliterate my everything.

…And I’m totally ready for it.

***

“The Children’s Hour”
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, o blue-eyed banditi,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

~D

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