Professor Moody's Miss Hellman

Article excerpt

Interest in Lillian Hellman has burgeoned of late. The Little Foxes was revived very successfully in New York during the 1967-68 season. My own critical study, the first beyond article or chapter length, appeared in the Southern Writers Series in 1969, and Miss Hellman's splendid memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, which surely contributed greatly to renewed interest, appeared later the same year. The past year has seen the publication of her Collected Plays--and while some writers' collected plays come out without much notice, Miss Hellman's received, for example, a splashy critique in the Saturday Review--and of Professor Richard Moody's book, the first critical biography.

Of course the juxtaposition of these phenomena is partly coincidence, but one is nevertheless entitled to ask why, as is clearly the case, Miss Hellman's stock on the literary and theatrical market is higher than it has been for a long time. Miss Hellman's last successful play was Toys in the Attic in 1960. Her last play of all, a flop, was My Mother, My Father, and Me in 1963. Professor Moody clearly doubts that she will write for the theater again; and Tennessee Williams expressed the same opinion to me earlier this year. The current interest is not, then, because of new work, either recent or expected.

Nor is her style the modish style of our day. In a theater rather deep in the doldrums, with direction uncertain and manner eclectic, it would be hard to say what the style a la mode is, but it is certainly not the dot-your-i's-and-cross-your-t's-and-good-is-good-and -bad-is-bad-and-people-are-what-they-are style for which we remember Miss Hellman at her best. Perhaps we are nostalgic for it. Perhaps we yearn for her clearcut and clear-sighted common sense, her uncompromisingly high standards for both art and life. Perhaps the dozen years since Toys in the Attic have given us a perspective which makes us recognize her as finer, and certainly more enduring, than we had thought her to be.

And while she would like neither the idea nor the phrase, she has become the grand old lady of the American theater. Professor Moody more than once groups her with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and I too have on occasion compared her with each. But the grouping is a distortion. Miss Hellman had been an important playwright for eleven years before The Glass Menagerie, thirteen years before All My Sons. She belongs as much to the Thirties as to the Forties and Fifties. Three of her six best plays precede Pearl Harbor. The Children's Hour came a year after O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!; a year before Anderson's Winterset, Sherwood's Petrified Forest, Odets' Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing!, and Kingsley's Dead End; two years before Sherwood's Idiot's Delight and Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You. The Little Foxes came a year after Wilder's Our Town, the same year as Saroyan's The Time of Your Life and Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner. It is a tribute to her staying power that we are inclined to think of her with the later playwrights, but she spans two eras, and so far only O'Neill in American drama has written plays of unquestioned excellence over so long a period of time as she. As An Unfinished Woman makes clear, her friendships included most of the great in the literary world (though, curiously, least with dramatists)in the middle years of the century. She is part of a great tradition. Suddenly we have awakened to all this. Suddenly Miss Hellman seems one of the handful of American playwrights likely to survive as classics. For her champions it is cause for rejoicing.

Lillian Hellman, Playwright is a useful contribution to the Hellman revival, primarily for two reasons. First, Professor Moody had the benefit, apparently, of very considerable help from Miss Hellman, to whom he says he owes a "major debt": "Although this is in no sense an authorized biography which Miss Hellman wanted written or on which she collaborated, she graciously jogged her memory to supply answers to my most trivial questions and provided many essential corrections on the manuscript" (p. …