(1905-1984), arguably the most famous female playwright of the last century,
earned her place in the canon of great American writers such as Williams,
Miller, and O'Neill. Born in 1905, Hellman saw her first show reach
Broadway less than thirty years later; The Children's Hour was both a critical
and commercial success. Ms. Hellman went on to write more than a dozen
plays, her most famous of which is the biting family drama The Little Foxes;
others include The Autumn Garden, Another Part of the Forest, and Watch
on the Rhine. Toys in the Attic is considered her last major play.
Toys opened on February 25,
1960 at the Hudson Theatre, New York City to a mostly positive critical
response that heralded the work as a breath of fresh air in a stale season.
As usual with Hellman, her stark lack of sentiment, her use of uncompromising
language and subject matter, and her willingness to go to the ugly places
in human beings shocked her audience, even as they were riveted by the
depths of the family drama.
Interestingly, those familiar
with the 1963 film version of Toys may be surprised by what they see and
hear on the stage this evening. For various reasons, the film, not written
by Ms. Hellman, abandoned much of her dialogue and changed quite a few
plot points. As some may recall, it starred one of the big draws of the
day, Dean Martin, as wayward brother Julian Berniers.
Hellman wrote Toys in the
Attic between 1957 and 1960. These were, in fact, trying times for Hellman
both emotionally and financially. Her previous work for the Broadway
stage was Candide, a commercial flop. Mystery novelist Dashiell Hammet
(Dash as he was affectionately known), Hellman's partner of thirty years,
was suffering from lung cancer and their monetary resources were greatly
depleted. Out of this hardship, Hellman seemed to reach into her past.
Much like our ingénue, she too was often called by her nickname,
Lily. And she did have two single aunts (her father's sisters) with whom
she spent much of her childhood living in New Orleans. Some have
argued that Toys is Ms. Hellman's most autobiographical work.
And indeed, two major "characters"
in Toys in the Attic could be said to be money, and the city of New Orleans.
Theatre director Robert Brustein
once said, "Lillian's major subject was money, how it is made, how it changes
lives and what people do to acquire it--in Toys in the Attic money is stroked
as if it were a domestic animal." The money at the heart of Toys that is
sought after, adored, loved, and loathed is certainly no small amount:
$150,000 in 1957. The equivalent cash value today is almost a million dollars.
And New Orleans, which often
serves as a setting for evocative Southern dramas such as Williams' A Streetcar
Named Desire, is no less provocative here. The city has a rich history.
Even in the latter half of the 1950s, in the vibrant area of New Orleans
known as the French Quarter, a melange of cultures and religions was the
order of the day; race, sexual preference, and even status could become
nearly irrelevant. However, outside of the "Vieux Carre," the town was
an entirely different story and the usual class, race, and social code
barriers were firmly in place. (Toys' Berniers family does not live in
Lillian Hellman had a complex
and liberal bias in her own relationship to race, a conundrum which she
explored in many of her plays, and especially in Toys in the Attic. And
in 1957 the country was experiencing the rapid growth of the Civil Rights
Movement. Nine of the 17 segregated states integrated their public
schools that year. However, Louisiana did not join them officially
until 1960, at which point riots erupted. Nonetheless, when President Eisenhower
ordered Federal troops to Arkansas as a way of insuring that nine African-American
children were admitted to school, even the most stubborn of holdouts were
on the cusp of change.
Ms. Hellman, a richly complicated
woman who was a mainstay in the elite literary circles of the time, was
a political animal. She was called upon by The House Un-American Activities
Committee, where, after being told to name names or face personal consequences,
she stated, "...to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order
to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot
and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."
Ms. Hellman's plays reflect
this uncompromising world view.
With a Special Thanks
Ted Guth, Anjali Bal, Bardwell's
on the Boulevard, Priscilla Davis, Susan Gratch, Occidental College, Doug
Haverty, Art + Soul Designs, Shelby Jiggetts-Tivony, Salvador Palacios,
California Lighting & Power, Mi Piace, Wadler Data Systems