Annie Davison (Mary Tilford)

The Children’s Hour: the power of a lie

Annie Davison (Mary Tilford)
Annie Davison (Mary Tilford)

talks to the cast and director of Lion Theatre Company’s ‘The Children’s Hour’.

Schoolgirl Mary Tilford tells her grandmother that two of her teachers are having a lesbian affair to avoid being sent back to school. Whilst the treatment of lesbianism is certainly a prominent theme of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, Clara Duncan, who plays Amelia Tilford, aptly summarises that at the heart of a play is “the power of a lie”. Duncan is completely right in her approach, according to Hellman’s own philosophy anyway.  Hellman said that The Children’s Hour is not really “about lesbianism, but about a lie. The bigger the lie, the better, as always.”

The power of a child telling the lie makes its effects all the more slanderous. Izzy Mitchell, who plays Martha Dobie, emphasises that using a child to tell the lie makes it all the more damning because a child is not supposed to be “emotionally mature enough to tell a lie, this is a very mature lie”, and that since she “is a child, she couldn’t have made it up”. The lie itself was therefore more scandalous than the implication of lesbianism on the play’s premiere. The idea that children could know about sex, never mind “sexual perversion”, sparked outrage and even protest in some literary circles.

Whilst lesbianism is central to the play’s action, director Izzie Price insists that what’s most important is that “it’s said that they’re lovers, but it’s not said what they’ve done. Mary only ever whispers the lie onstage, so you don’t know what’s said. It could mean anything. The audience is forced to use their imagination”. The importance of this lie is therefore how far it travels and how it implicitly develops through gossip. Price explains that the nature of gossip is how the play retains its resonance. “Gossip, that’s just everywhere today,” Price says, “you post something on social media and it can reach anywhere”.

Annie Davison (Mary Tilford) and Lydia Feerick (Rosalie Wells)
Annie Davison (Mary Tilford) and Feerick (Rosalie Wells)

Price says in her direction “doubt” is particularly important, and that she has used “little looks and touches” in order to instill doubt into the events of the play. A very significant moment is when Doctor Joseph Cardin doubts his fiancée Karen Wright. Tim Blore, who plays Joseph, explains his character as a “nice bloke who wants to believe Karen”, but “gets caught up in the lie so he needs to ask to convince himself”. Therefore, the play, as Feerick who plays Rosalie Wells so aptly puts it, is about more than just a “horrific lie, but the idea that this lie might be true”.

However, the fact that this lie is “horrific” emphasises that the effectiveness of the play is still grounded in its history. Annie Davison, who plays Mary Tilford, explains that “they would rather believe the word of a child because they are so scared of homosexuality”. Feerick agrees that “the fear is so strong”, because they have to be seen “to be scared of it” or else they may be as guilty as the accused.

It is ultimately the judgement which springs from the doubt, gossip and original lie which makes the effects of the action so poignant. In the end, the content of the lie itself is not really the problem. Judgement arises everywhere. Judgement occurs between the characters, the alien force of society onstage and most significantly in the audience’s perception. The beauty of Hellman’s text therefore is that it allows the audience to watch the lie transpire. The audience therefore have the most important judgement because they have a fuller account of events, and don’t form a judgement based on something as menial as gossip.

The Children’s Hour is at Hatfield Chapel from Thu 18 June to Fri 19 June.

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