Lillian Hellman

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 12th grade November 2001

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In her distinguished career in the theatre, spanning more than thirty years, Lillian Hellman penned a dozen plays. Of these, "most were hits, or near hits. Only two, Days to Come and My Mother, My Father, and Me were out-and-out failures. Only these two and Mostserrat were not included with the ten "Best Plays" of their seasons. Among her contemporaries only Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller have matched her record; they alone belong in her league" (Moody 1). In spite of this lavish praise, however, Lillian Hellman is nearly forgotten as a playwright. While this fact may seem surprising at first, the reason behind it is quite simple: Hellman was never quite able to break away from melodrama into serious drama. Interestingly enough, however, when her career in the theatre ended, Hellman turned to nonfiction and collected her memoirs in three works: An Unfinished Woman, Scoundrel Time, and Pentimento. Ironically, these works "“ Pentimento in particular "“ are the first to reflect her abilities as a true dramatist.

Though Hellman always wished to be taken seriously as a dramatist, her original plays are better categorized as melodramatic well-made plays; her later vignettes, however, reflect a deeper nature and greater dramatic maturity.

Although the term "melodrama" has come to have a derogatory connotation in our time, it is important to recognize that the strict definition of the word "“ in and of itself "“ is not critical. A melodrama is merely defined as a play that emphasizes theatricality, action, and plot over characterization. Hellman employed melodrama in her plays in the sense that she wrote strong characters and strong actions. Much of the strength of her plays was derived from its melodramatic qualities. Hellman recognized, as Walter Kerr remarked, "America was melodrama in 1900," and she capitalized on an area that...