Rumours, Gossip and Lies: Social Anxiety and the Evil Child in Lillian Hellman's the Children's Hour

Article excerpt

Summary

Most readings of American playwright Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934) focus on the psycho-social power of adolescent-driven gossip, rumours and slander, and the frightening outcomes that can emerge when people lose their ability to reason, question, analyse and criticise the world around them. This article argues that the drama also serves as a cultural and political commentary on the social anxieties of a changing America seeking a "return to normalcy" after war in the 1910s, cultural upheaval in the 1920s, and financial collapse in the 1930s. Mary's "evil" behaviour suggests that she is caught in a net of shifting social values concerning sexuality and gender roles and uses wickedness as a strategy to order and control her chaotic world. As an orphan, an outcast, and a young woman grappling with her own developmental issues, Mary desires to gain status within Lancet, Massachusetts, by exposing and attempting to eliminate cultural anxieties about gender and sexuality, as well as changes in social mores and challenges to the family unit. Populated by narrow-minded, heterosexist and self-righteous matrons, oblivious and self-serving adults, and spoiled children who seem unscathed by the Great Depression devouring the nation, the conservative denizens of Lancet succumb to Mary's "big lie" (i.e., that her teachers are lesbians) because it allows them to label and purge the "problematic" and independent women. Thus, Lancet willingly surrenders to the hysteria created by a group of children who, led by Mary Tilford, derive vicarious pleasure and status from the fall of Karen Wright and Martha Dobie--two promising, self-sufficient, educated women who challenge its rigid definitions of womanhood.

Opsomming

In die meeste vertolkings van die Amerikaanse dramaturg Lillian Hellman se The Children's Hour (1934) word klem gele op die psigososiale mag van adolessente se skinderstories, gerugte en kwaadpratery, sowel as die skrikwekkende gevolge van mense se onvermoe om dinge uit te redeneer, te betwyfel en te ontleed, en om hulle samelewing te kritiseer. Daar word in hierdie artikel aangevoer dat die drama kulturele en politieke kommentaar lewer op die sosiale onrus in 'n snel veranderende Amerika onder mense wat gesmag het na normaliteit na 'n oorlog in die 1910's, 'n kulturele omwenteling in die 1920's en 'n finansiele ineenstorting in die 1930's. Mary se "bose" optrede dui daarop dat sy worstel met veranderende sosiale waardes oor seksualiteit en genderrolle, en dat boosheid 'n strategie is waarmee sy haar chaotiese lewe probeer orden en beheer. Sy is 'n weeskind, 'n verstoteling en 'n jong vrou wat met haar eie ontwikkelingsprobleme worstel. Mary wil aansien verwerf in Lancet, Massachusetts, deur kulturele kommer oor geslag en seksualiteit asook veranderings in sedes en die verbrokkeling van gesinseenheid aan die lig te bring en te elimineer. Die konserwatiewe inwoners van Lancet bestaan uit verkrampte, heteroseksistiese en eiegeregtige middeljarige vroue, onsensitiewe en selfsugtige volwassenes, asook verwende kinders op wie se lewe die Groot Depressie oenskynlik geen invloed het nie. Hulle glo Mary se "groot leuen" (dat haar onderwyseresse lesbies is) omdat hulle sodoende die "probleem" met die rol van die vrou, wat reeds sedert die laat negentiende eeu in die Amerikaanse samelewing voorgekom het, kan etiketteer en kan besweer. Daarom laat die inwoners van Lancet hulle meevoer deur die histerie van 'n groep kinders wat onder die aanhitsing van Mary behae daarin skep om twee vroue tot 'n val te bring. Die twee vroue, Karen Wright en Martha Dobie, is belowende, selfonderhoudende en opgevoede vroue wat die samelewing se rigiede opvattings oor die rol van die vrou betwis.

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During the twentieth century, the "evil child" emerged as a major archetype within American literature. From the sociopathic serial killer Rhoda Penmark in William March's The Bad Seed (1954), to the demonic offspring in Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby (1967), William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971), and David Seltzer's The Omen (1976), evil children have infiltrated the American psyche through blood-chilling works of fiction as well as their film adaptations. …