Playwright Lillian Hellman makes a fascinating subject. A successful writer in Hollywood and New York during the 30s and 40s, she had stories to tell about Dorothy Parker, Tullulah Bankhead, and Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived off and on for 30 years. In 1952, when she was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she refused to “tell tales.” A biographical sketch of Hellman could easily be filled with name-dropping and bravado, and though Lillian–a one-woman show written by William Luce and based on Hellman’s autobiographical writings–has a little of both, it succeeds because it also draws on the strengths of its subject, and Hellman was a skillful storyteller offering a unique mix of cynicism and sentimentality.
At the start Lillian warns us, “The tales of former children are not to be trusted.” History is pliable in the hands of memory, and admittedly her father’s unmarried but unspinsterlike sisters, her stern and beloved nanny, and her mother’s money-obsessed brothers, who made Sunday dinners “full of open ill will,” are part fiction. But the way she remembers her past is more than mere entertainment: it reveals Lillian at various stages of her life, as a precocious child, a self-righteous young woman, an anxious first-time playwright, and finally a middle-aged woman afraid of her lover’s impending death. An incredibly intelligent, funny woman, she was also human: egotistical, proud, scared.
Lillian says her memories “are out of order, out of time,” and wisely Luce presents them that way, letting them bounce back and forth much as Hellman moved from place to place throughout her life. To accommodate her father, who “settled for life as a successful traveling salesman,” Lillian grew up living half of each year in New York and the other half in New Orleans, where she was surrounded by relatives offering colorful advice, like “Don’t revenge yourself until you’re as tall and as heavy as your aunt.” After meeting Hammett in Hollywood, Hellman moved with him to the east coast, where they lived on an island, on a farm, and in New York City. Though chronology and geography are scattered, Hellman’s story is cohesive because it’s populated throughout by her family, her writing, and Hammett.
Luce’s portrait of Hellman and Hammett as a couple takes in their periods of excessive drinking and Hammett’s cheating and verbal cruelty, which for Hellman were balanced by his dignity and honesty. Clearly she adored that “line of a man” with a “knife of a nose” and considered him the mentor she always needed, the man who “annoyed and baited” her into writing. Appropriately, Luce sets Lillian’s reminiscences in a hospital waiting room, where she anticipates Hammett’s death–a pivotal point in her life.
The breaks in her monologue, however–when she stops, looks offstage, and talks to an imaginary nurse–are artificial and disruptive. She also explains to the audience that “a very dear friend” is dying, and proceeds to describe Hammett in irritatingly impersonal terms: as the writer of The Thin Man, a soldier in two wars, etc. When Luce returns to Lillian’s free-floating memories, he defines Hammett much more successfully, spotting deer on the farm or facing prison for refusing to testify before the HUAC. Near the end of the monologue, when Lillian’s reveries are again interrupted by the present and she learns that Hammett has died, her sobs seem unconnected to the man we’ve come to know through her memories.
Apart from the awkward hospital scenes, Caitlin Hart (directed by David Perkovich in this Interplay production) handles the incarnations of Lillian and her entourage exceedingly well. In basic black pants, jacket, and pearls, with her auburn hair combed back impeccably, she’s the picture of easygoing sophistication. Puffing on a cigarette, Hart can conjure up both Hammett’s harsh voice and the more soothing tones of Lillian’s mother. Sounding alternately like Dinah Shore and Jason Robards, Hart re-creates an argument Lillian recalls her parents having before the opening of her first play, The Children’s Hour. Trying to calm Lillian’s nerves, her mother says reassuringly, “All I know is you were considered the sweetest smelling baby in New Orleans.” In a loud, thickly indignant voice the father returns, “That’s what they said about me!” The fight that ensues illustrates not only what Lillian sees as her parents’ inability to praise her but Hart’s uncommon ability to talk by herself and to herself and make you “see” two distinct people. The play is filled with such illusions: Lillian the schoolgirl hiding in a fig tree; Lillian drinking for three days before her play’s premiere; Lillian sweating before Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting committee. The result is a one-woman show that packs the stage with people, places, and past eras.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolock.