Conversations with Lillian Hellman

Image: João Nitsche


Commentary on the book edited by Jackson R. Bryer

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) became better known in Brazil mainly through the film Júlia (from 1977, directed by Fred Zinnemann), in which Jane Fonda plays Hellman and, Jason Robards Jr., Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). “Júlia”, in turn, is a chapter of less than 40 pages of Pentimento – A Book of Portraits (1973) who, along with An Unfinished Woman (1969) Witch hunt (1976) and Maybe: A Story (1980), constitute the tetralogy of Hellman's “memories”, written after he lost interest in writing for the theatre.

Lillian has secured her place as a first-team playwright experiencing, throughout her 13 plays, resounding successes and failures. She was also a highly paid screenwriter. But early in her career, after she married Arthur Kober and moved to Hollywood, she worked furiously, earning just $50 a week to read scripts at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: “You sat around 15 or 18 people in a large room. And I was required to read, unless I picked up something very special, two or three manuscripts a day. It really was slave labor” (p. 235).

Furthermore, Hellman came to prominence when, in May 1952, at the height of McCarthyism, she was subpoenaed to testify before the Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities, refusing to provide any information about others – in April 1951, Dashiel Hammett, with whom Lillian lived for about 30 years, was sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to give names of people who contributed to the bail fund of the Congress of Civil Rights, considered a pro-communist organization.

She was not convicted, but was included in the call. blacklist of Hollywood, started in 1948. Unemployed or underemployed (when she got a job she earned only 20% of what she was previously paid) she had to sell the Hardscrabble farm for a negligible price and, also, to work in a department store using a false name.

Jackson R. Bryer scoured dozens of newspapers and archives, locating about 150 interviews with Hellman, given over 50 years, that is, since 1934 (when his first play, The Children's Hour premiered on Broadway, with great success) until his death, in 1984. Of the 150 interviews, Bryer selected 27 and the result was the book Conversations with Lillian Hellman.

Miss Hellman, as she liked to be called, has always been involved in some controversy during her long career: ever since she came up with The Children's Hour, a play that included hints of a lesbian relationship between two characters, until her death (June 1984), when her defamation suit against Mary McCarthy remained unresolved. The interviews in this volume are arranged in chronological order, the first dating from 1936 and the last from 1981.

After the success of his first play, he met a great failure in 1936, with Days to Come, where he discussed issues related to the labor movement, the strike and the repercussions of it all on a family of industrialists in a small town in Ohio. The play ended the season after only seven performances. The little foxes (1939), his third work, was concerned “with the evils of avarice and exploitation in a Southern family, whose public policy or private lives do not serve as any paradigm of morality” (p. 28). Temporarily located around the turn of the century, the play repeated the success of the premiere, both being transposed to the cinema.

Watch on the Rhine (1941) and The Searching Wind (1944) also experienced the same fate. In 1946, Another Park of The Forest reworks the same characters from The little foxes, now in youth. In 1951 see staged The Autumn Garden, considered his best play, again achieving critical and public success. Five years later, Hellman adapts Cândido, by Voltaire. Critical success and precarious box office. Toys in the Attic (1960) wins the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best American play of the year, running for 556 performances. the failure of My Mother, My Father And Me (1963) – only 17 performances – led Hellman to abandon the theater altogether and, little by little, return to literature (in his youth he had written several short stories).

In these pleasant conversations, Hellmann also talks about a series of subjects, giving his opinion about contemporary North American dramaturgy, the Second World War, his travels in Spain and the Soviet Union in the 30s and 40s, McCarthyism, the politics of his country and Hollywood. He does not hide his admiration for Woody Allen and Robert Altman, in addition to liking, with reservations, Lina Wertmüller and Bergman. And, to everyone's surprise, he states in 1962 that "the only writer of importance to have appeared in the theater in the last ten or twelve years is Samuel Beckett".

Logically, Hammett is quoted from beginning to end, as well as references to their alcoholism, their abortions, their frustration at not having a child, their friendships, etc. The latest interviews speak of Lillian practically blind, struggling with severe bronchial problems and unable to go out and fish on her boat. In 1979, Marilyn Berger asks her how she would like to be remembered. Her answer is direct, pronounced firmly and without false modesty: “Like a good writer“.

*Afranio Catani, retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF, is the author, among others, of The Shadow of the Other: Cinematográfica Maristela and Cinema Industrial Paulista in the 50s(Panorama, 2002).



Jackson R. Bryer (ed.). Conversations with Lillian Hellman. Translation: José Eduardo de Mendonça. Sao Paulo: Brasiliense.

This article reproduces, with minor changes, the review published in the extinct Jornal da Tarde of 15.01.1988.


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