Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in Literary History and Criticism

By Robert L. McDonald; Linda Rohrer Paige | Go to book overview

3
These Four: Hellman's Roots Are Showing

Theresa R. Mooney

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 20, 1905, Lillian Hellman spent her childhood as a Southerner. Long after leaving her birthplace, she maintained ties to the South. Few critics today, however, identify her as a regional writer. Nor did she consider herself one, though she conceded, during a 1977 visit home, “I suppose I see myself as Southern. Your roots are made very early. Mine are here in New Orleans” (qtd. in Isaacson 1). Applying broad definitions such as the one set forth in John M. Bradbury's Renaissance in the South (1963), we might classify Hellman as a Southern dramatist by virtue of her birth, her having lived in the region during her formative years, and her having set four of her eight original plays here.1 Extrapolating from the more complex definition asserted in The Female Tradition in Southern Literature, we might designate her as a Southern writer because these plays “examine the nature of the Southern family and community and the South's expectations … for womanhood and manhood” (Manning 52). Furthermore, the earliest reviewers of her Hubbard family plays—The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest— tagged them as Southern dramas.2 Only in retrospect, years after the original run of each play, did increasing numbers of critics view them as social or political parables.3 Then, after Hellman's memoirs appeared, greater numbers of critics reinterpreted her four Deep South dramas as feminist in theme.4

Beyond her disavowals of regionalism and beyond the reclassification of her set-in-the-South plays as social or political or feminist is an equally strong factor leading critics to overlook Hellman as a Southern dramatist. I would argue that the gradually diminishing centrality of region as dramatic setting causes many to discount the influence of the South upon Hellman's writing. The South as setting is paramount in The Little Foxes (1939) and in Another Part of the Forest (1946); far more than historical backdrop, the region and its economic realities drive the actions of each play's lead characters. The Gulf Coast setting in The Autumn Garden (1951) though is merely relevant, while the New Orleans of Toys in the Attic (1960) is mostly incidental. Paralleling this shift in the pri

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