The 1934 stage play written by Lillian Hellman entitled, “The Children’s Hour” is a drama set in an all female boarding school ran by two women characters named Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. Once an angry student named Mary Tilford runs away and refuses to be sent back, she starts a rumor about the two women having a lesbian affair. This false rumor then begins to ruin the two women’s lives, careers, and relationships.
A few reoccurring themes can be seen throughout the entire play. One example of these themes that are displayed in the playwright is power. The concept of power gives a person the ability to control things other than themselves that is beyond them. In the play “The Children’s Hour”, the power exhibited was about the destructive power a lie told by a young girl. The young girl named Mary Tilford is unaware of the great damage her small lie will cost these two women who have no idea how drastic their lives are about to change. Towards the end of the play, Karen agrees to let Mrs. Tilford give her money in order to help the older woman “feel better” about somewhat being the cause of Martha’s death.
Mrs. Tilford exercises this power she has unchecked; sympathy for the victimized because the perpetrator detroyed the lives of Karen and Martha over a lie. This perertrator happened to be her young granddaughter who she is blinded by her credibility because she loves her so much. The sympathy shown in the play reveals that the power is constructed, not inherent in a righteous position. In the 1961 film version of the story, however, Karen is first cold and angry with Mrs.Tilford when she goes to share her condolences over the tragic death of her former friend and colleague Martha.
She addresses her by saying, “Go away Mrs.Tilford, there’s nothing that we want from you” (67). In the play Karen, in a way, takes her power back that was taken from her by her refusal to show any compassion or mercy when Mrs. Tilford confesses to her Mary’s horrible lie. She does not extract any money from her nor any apologies that Mary’s grandmother tries to give her nor Mrs. Tilford’s public humiliation. Instead, Karen sees how difficult Mrs. Tilford’s remaining years will be for her, and that whatever she does for Karen “won’t bring her peace”(68).
Another theme that can be found within the story and play, “The Children’s Hour” is good and evil. It is obvious to identify the decent, good characters as Karen and Martha while the other bad characters are Mary Tilford and in some ways Mrs. Tilford. Mary is the more complex character because her problem seems to stem from some inner ugliness that cannot be explained. In the first act of the play, Karen remarks that she and Martha always talk of Mary as if she were an adult and as if she had never been “blessed with childhood innocence” (15). She is a pathological liar and manipulator capable of any strategy to satisfy her evil hidden agenda by controlling others.
Once her influence over her classmates is threatened by Martha and Karen, she sets out to devise a plan to destroy them both. The character of Mary is the font of evil in the play. Her invented tale cost two innocent women their careers due to the shutdown of the school, their relationships with the town and people around them who shunned the two women because of the rumor, and ultimately took the life of Martha because of the constant ridicule. The character of Mary is characterized as a treacherous liar whose tactics were effective with her grandmother because she feigns reluctance to divulge what she “knows” and thereby makes her accusations credible.
Although Mrs.Tilford is a kind and good woman, she is also self righteous and very stubborn. Once she is convinced that she has uncovered the disturbing truth about Karen and Martha’s relationship, she closes her mind to the possibility of Mary might having lied about the whole thing. This major theme shows that there is often no defense against deceit and slander and that the damage that deception can do may be tragically irreversible. Martha suggests to Karen about having a talk with Mary’s grandmother but Karen finds that it will be useless to try to speak with her. She states that “she’s too crazy about Mary to see her clearly” (16).
Ultimately, the central theme of power displayed in the play has many different uses and therefore it yields many different consequences to the characters of the story. Those who decide to use power in a negative way, as did Mary, the small abuse of power can cause things to end fatally.