Poor Zoe. Poor William. Poor Lillian.
As if it were a conspiracy to compensate for what they deemed a distortion of the facts, the critics seized Zoe Caldwell’s one-woman show Lillian, written by William Luce, as an occasion to say more about Lillian Hellman than to discuss the biodrama they were offered. The most prevalent criticism of Luce’s script, in fact, is that he misrepresented Hellman by glossing over the more controversial aspects of her life and by whitewashing her notorious career as a playwright, a mendacious memoirist, a relentless Stalinist, and a vindictive, self-serving celebrity.
“While Mr. Luce’s Lillian admits to Haws,” bemoaned Frank Rich in his review for the Times, “her flaws are never as grave as those of her antagonists’ and her anger is always in the cause of right.” What Luce provides, Rich claims, is “a sanitized Hellman portrait that, like all bowdlerized official biographies, lacks the conflict and depth essential to create a dramatic or psychologically gripping character.” John Simon resented that “there is nothing about what it was like to be married to a writer, Arthur Kober, and very little about living with another, Hammett, except for some oft-rehearsed incidents grown shopworn. Nothing about what it is like to be a writer oneself, or about how one evolved one’s politics and just what they were. Nothing about Russia, very little about Broadway and Hollywood, and not much about literary and other friendships and enmities. A lot of this has to do with Hellman’s own omissions. . . . The harshest bit of self-criticism is an understatement such as ‘Alexander Woollcott once said I looked like the prowhead on a whaling ship.'”
But why should we expect Hellman to present herself in anything but a positive light in a “biodrama”? How could Luce have fulfilled such an expectation, yet remained true to the format?
The problem here may have as much to do with the form itself as with Lillian Hellman. In recent years, our stages have suddenly become cluttered with what many are calling the “monodrama” (though biodrama seems more germane). Regardless of its name, the genre goes back at least as far as 1959, when Hal Holbrook appeared on Broadway in Mark Twain Tonight. Subsequent years introduced Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow; Emlyn Williams as Dylan Thomas; Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson (in William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst); James Whitmore as Will Rogers; Pat Carroll as Gertrude Stein; and, of course, Roy Dotrice in Brief Lives.
If these successes are not enough, the past three seasons have seen, on or off Broadway: Donal Donnelly as George Bernard Shaw; Katharine Houghton as Louisa May Alcott; Alec McGowen as Kipling; Edward Herrmann as T.S. Eliot, and more recently as Siegfried Sassoon to Dylan Baker’s Wilfred Owen; Kate Nelligan as Virginia Woolf; Andrew Robinson as Jack Henry Abbott; Jan Miner (who most theatergoers would recognize as Madge from TV commercials, and who incidentally popped up briefly in 1982 as Winifred Wagner) as Gertrude Stein to Marion Seldes as Alice B. Toklas.
And these are only the literary lives; at least an equivalent number of historical figures, musicians, painters (and even their models) have provided grist for the mill. I also want to emphasize that the above list represents only what I’ve seen. Not even the Shuberts or Variety could definitively account for what I’ve missed, although I know of at least two Zelda Fitzgeralds, one Rimbaud, and one Hemingway in only the past two years, and there’s an O’Neill scheduled to arrive this spring.
The theater runs the risk of becoming a dramatized version of the Norton Anthology of Literature. What is worse, our drama has succumbed to the culture’s obsession with celebrity and fame. The impulse to render the life of a writer on stage becomes particularly irresistible, it would seem. Since the biodramatist as a rule incorporates many of the writer’s original words from all available sources, he relies on the notion that he is creating an inviolate or an accurate portrait; one which has been endorsed by the subject, as it were, in absentia.
Although we might prefer to construe some benefit from the current abundance of biodramas (in the way that Isak Dinesen, for example, acquired more readers since the film Out of Africa opened in the last few months than she did in the preceding 50 years), the trend to immortalize writers on stage seems more rooted at this point in celebrity for celebrity’s sake, than in any ambition to enlarge the audience for the work. Interest in the personality, in the driving force behind the work, has eclipsed the achievement which made the person worthy of attention in the first place.
But in the case of Lillian Hellman, such a difference may be negligible. As with a number of her contemporaries—consider especially Capote and Mailer and even Tennessee Williams—the tack of fiction and the compass of nonfiction became more negotiable than ever before. These writers’ lives became fictions even as they presented their fictions as if they were their lives. The more contemporary writers have been part of and party to the cultural craze with personality, as facilitated by technological and media developments which, as Neil Postman has articulated so well in Amusing Ourselves to Death, make all business into show business.
It seems curiously relevant that after “abandoning” her career as a playwright in the early 60’s, Hellman resumed her writing career in the early 70’s as a memoirist (An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, Scoundrel Time, and Maybe, each of which figures in the Luce version). In his tribute to Hellman shortly after her death on June 30, 1984, even Robert Brustein, her friend and colleague, devoted precious little space to discussing her plays—roughly one and a half paragraphs out of 10. As he summarized it, “It may be that her life, with its strong alliances, combative courage, and abrupt domestic scenes, will eventually be considered her greatest theater,” Brustein, of course, understood that it wasn’t Hellman’s work which needed to be defended, but her character, her reputation, and her very being. And he alone seemed to have the desire or the ability to assume the burden. Marsha Norman’s article, “Lillian Hellman’s Gift to a Young Playwright,” for the Sunday Times was also a tribute, but it read like a child’s essay on a great American; Hilton Krammer’s epitaph, on the other hand, as it appeared in his own The New Criterion, seemed as interested in prolonging the controversy that had plagued Hellman in the last two decades of her life, as in resolving it.
Hellman insisted on the integrity of her “memoirs,” even though their veracity had been questioned in and out of the courts. In any event, her prose was impeccable enough to surmount—or undermine—any debate that ensued. It was this quality that Luce ostensibly set out to capture. And to that end, he couldn’t have had a more appropriate collaborator—Hellman herself: the fact that Hellman had reviewed Luce’s script during its development already distinguishes Lillian from all other biodramas that have come before. It also should satisfy those critics who complained that Luce was too favorable in his presentation.
Luce had the wisdom to pose the moment of the meeting, or the session, in 1961, on the eve of Hammett’s death. The setting is a hospital waiting room. Her beloved “Dash,” we are made to understand, is sequestered in a room stage right, where he is dying. The loaded circumstance would put her in a reminiscent and sentimental mood, as well as a loquacious one, just as it makes the otherwise artificial context of biodrama more plausible in this case. She begins, “I think I’ve always known about my memory . . . ” as she proceeds to recall her upbringing in New Orleans and New York, the influence of her family (both immediate and extended), on her development as a precocious child, certain anecdotes from her Hollywood days, the events surrounding her Broadway premiere of The Children’s Hour, and her stormy relationship with Hammett. As both her detractors and her champions would agree, Hellman’s most dramatic moment was her testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her appearance there is relived in Act II with all due weight.
The challenge of Lillian has little to do with the recalled events, however, most of which would be familiar to anyone who has read Hellman’s memoirs. Since Hellman herself had, on talk show after talk show, visited our living rooms, the real question was how could an imposter pull it off. Neither Luce nor Hellman could have hoped for a better accomplice than Zoe Caldwell.
Aside from the frighteningly effective makeup, Caldwell breathes heavier than usual, chain-smokes, and shakes her head for the palsied effect. She also delivers the most effective innuendo and facial expressions to persuade us when she is being sincere and to suggest when she is being coy. She never loses the character she has inhabited, or the figure who appears to have inhabited her. The applause which follows her reading of Hellman’s letter to the HUAC could be for Caldwell as well as for Hellman—at that point, it’s as if there’s no difference.
At the end of Luce’s scenario, Hammett dies, leaving a maudlin Lillian who lapses into profundity: “The past with its punishments, its rewards, its foolishness is there for each of us. . . . But the then and the now are one.” Though the closing may seem too pat. Luce’s subtext suggests what no one else has. Hellman never really survived Hammett’s death, devoting the rest of her writing career not to plays and the creative output he evoked, but to exercising her memory, perhaps in hopes of retaining him that much more fully. Still, at best, it becomes a partial answer for a woman whose life was a riddle till the end. Her milestone remark in 1952, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” was ludicrously superseded by the most prominent image of her 20 years later in an ad for Blackglama furs, boldly asking, “What becomes a Legend most?”
The controversy surrounding Lillian Hellman continued until her death. Perhaps the greatest testimony to the success of Lillian is that the reception of the show reflected perfectly the response that Hellman herself received. It aroused the imbroglio no less than the woman. Once again, a Hellman work was overshadowed by the controversy her life provoked.
[Lillian; Written by William Luce; Directed by Robert Whitehead]