The Children's Hour

About the Play

First Production

20 November 1934, Maxine Elliott Theatre, NY

Cast Breakdown
12 women, 2 men

Amazon. The Children’s House is covered by copyright, largely because of the film adaptation.


Karen Wright and Martha Dobie run a boarding school for girls in which they have invested time and money, aided to a degree by Martha’s meddling aunt, Lily Mortar. A mischievous girl named Mary Tilford spreads a rumor that the headmistresses are having an affair, and spreads it to her aunt Amelia, who spearheads the mass withdrawal from the school. Martha and Karen attempt to sue Amelia Tilford for libel, but they lose. Later, Joe, Karen’s fiancé, tries to convince Martha and Karen to relocate with him and start over, but Karen feels guilty for the stress the rumors have put on his reputation and her own life. Karen attempts to break up with Joe, and Martha reveals that she has feelings for Karen. Karen is dismissive, and Martha kills herself. Amelia Tilford then arrives to apologize, Mary’s lies having been uncovered, but the damage has been done.


Based on a courtroom story passed on to her by Dashiell Hammett—based on a scandal in 1810, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, the headmistresses of a boarding school, were accused of lesbianism by a rebellious student. The grandmother of the student informed all of the parents, and the students were withdrawn. The headmistresses sued for libel, but they lost their case and the school never reopened.

The play’s staging was fraught by decency laws and the illegality of mentioning homosexuality on the New York Stage—the themes of lesbianism were enough to get the play banned outright in Boston, Chicago, and London, and to have The Children’s Hour passed over for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in favor of The Old Maid by Zoë Akins, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1924 novella. (In response to the slight, outraged critics founded the Drama Critics’ Circle Award.) The play was a critical and commercial hit, running for 691 performances.

Scenes from the Play

The Children's Hour, Act 1, Excerpt 1
(2W) Karen and Martha scene concerning student Mary Tilford’s obstinate behavior, Martha’s aunt Mrs. Mortar’s inefficiency with the students, and… View Scene

The Children's Hour, Act 1, Excerpt 2
(2W) Mrs. Mortar and Martha scene where Martha tells Mrs. Mortar she must leave the school. View Scene

The Children's Hour, Act 3, Excerpt 1
(2W) Karen & Martha talk about their trial, their loss of their school and freedom. (cutting has been made of grocery boy character) View Scene

The Children's Hour, Act 3, Excerpt 2
(1W, 1 M) Joe Cardin & Karen discuss where their relationship is now after the trauma of the trial and how to proceed. View Scene

The Children's Hour, Act 3, Excerpt 3
(2W) Karen and Martha after Karen leaves Cardin. Martha reveals her feelings for Karen.  View Scene

About the Playwright

Lillian Hellman
Lillian Hellman
Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) ranks among the most famous and controversial of American playwrights. She never shied away from provocative, social justice-based themes. Her first play, The Children’s Hour (1934), about two owners of a girls’ school accused of having a lesbian affair, was considered so shocking that some members of the Pulitzer Prize committee refused to see it, costing it a nomination. Toys in the Attic (1960) featured two eccentric Southern sisters whose potential was never value…
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One Play at a Time Participating Universities

Adriana Baer
Portland State University
Sheila Confer
University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg
George Contini
University of Georgia
Carla Corona
Antelope Valley College
Anne Fliotsos
Purdue University
Carolyn Grimstead
Long Island University, Post
Victor Holtcamp
Tulane University
Alma Martinez
University of La Verne
Jennie Pardoe
University of Missouri
Jennifer Popple
Augustana College
Tara Brooke Watkins
Eastern Nazarene College
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