In 1941, with the spread of Nazism overtaking Europe, American playwright Lillian Hellman premiered her own snapshot of what could happen if that insidious party captured hearts and minds in the United States, a land infused with democratic values. The result, her play “Watch on the Rhine,” is once again strikingly relevant in a new world order where distinguishing friend and foe amid the politics of divisiveness has become a daily occurrence.
Hellman was born to a German-Jewish family in New Orleans. Later the Hellmans divided their time between New York and New Orleans, giving the young Lillian a sense of the outsider as she navigated two very different milieus — Southern gentility and New Yorker brashness.
This month, Arena Stage continues its season-long Lillian Hellman Festival, honoring the iconic playwright for her numerous critically acclaimed works, including “Toys in the Attic,” “The Children’s Hour,” “The Little Foxes” and “Autumn Garden,” among others. Under the leadership of Amelia Acosta Powell, Arena’s artistic associate and casting director, the theater will present a series of free staged readings, film screenings and panel discussions in conjunction with the full production of Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine,” which runs from Feb. 3 through March 5 and stars Broadway and Hollywood actor and director Marsha Mason.
Hellman became a pioneering woman playwright at a time when important plays were written by larger-than-life men like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and, on the lighter side, Neil Simon.
With the publication of her first, and perhaps most controversial, work “The Children’s Hour,” in which the conflict is precipitated by a young girl in a staid New England school who accuses two teachers of having a lesbian relationship, she made a name for herself and built on that in the boys club of American theater in New York and in the equally chauvinistic film world of Hollywood.
In 1934, when “The Children’s Hour” premiered, homosexual relationships were an absolute taboo and this brought much opprobrium to the work. When it was made into a movie, it focused on a love triangle, adding a male suitor to the relationship to make it acceptable.
Hellman often used her own experiences as fodder for her writing, including the conflicts in her insular southern Jewish family. Later, on a trip to Europe, she reportedly observed a rally where Nazi Brown Shirts — the paramilitary wing of the party — were marching.
“She was galvanized by that experience,” said Arena’s Acosta Powell. “I read her saying that experience in Germany was the first time she encountered anti-Semitism, yet when you read her memoirs and she talks about her time in Hollywood or attending these society dinners and balls, I would argue that that’s not at all the first time she experienced anti-Semitism.”
Even so, that trip to Berlin inspired Hellman to pen “Watch on the Rhine.” The suspenseful drawing-room tale features German-American couple Kurt and Sara Muller, who are visiting the Farrelly family in Washington, on the cusp of the United States’ entry into World War II.
The outsider and antagonist, impoverished Romanian count and so-called friend Teck de Brancovis, steals the Mullers’ suitcase full of cash, to pass on to the German underground, while Kurt Muller decides to return to Germany to help his friend, who has been arrested as a resister to the Germans.
Tensions rise during the play, and in this tightly knit cocoon of family and friends, it becomes clear that no one is safe and no one is innocent. It seems a prescient moment for this play to return to the stage.
Hellman isn’t thought of as a Jewish playwright, Acosta Powell agrees. “That has to do with two main things. One is that the average American theatergoer and average American literature student really associates Hellman with the events surrounding McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, thinking of her as a leftist radical. Of course that identity is not mutually exclusive with a Jewish identity.
“In fact, there was lots of overlap,” Acosta Powell continued. “Hellman herself downplayed her Jewish identity, not out of shame or distancing from that community, but because she was a Southerner. She really identified with her Louisiana upbringing more than her Jewish upbringing.”
That said, “Watch on the Rhine” might be her most Jewish play, with the looming shadow of Nazism hanging over the characters.
Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith noted that Hellman “lived life large as a writer, radical activist and lover of the juiciness of live. She was dangerous and provocative and brilliant at her craft as a writer.”
The Lillian Hellman Festival
The Lillian Hellman Festival opens on Jan. 25 and runs through Feb. 5 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington. Programming includes:
Toys in the Attic, a staged reading by Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Jan. 25, 8 p.m. about the middle-aged Berniers sisters and their prodigal brother who returns with a small fortune and the discord that produces.
Julia, film screening, Jan. 27, 8 p.m. The 1977 film is based on Hellman’s book “Pentimento,” about the playwright reuniting with an old friend in Russia to smuggle funds into Nazi Germany.
The Children’s Hour, staged reading by Howard University’s Department of Theatre, Jan. 28, 8 p.m.
Beyond Gender: Inspiring Generations of Female Writers, panel discussion, Jan. 29, 4 p.m., looks at the influence Hellman has continued to have on contemporary female playwrights; featuring playwrights Mary Kathryn Nagle, Karen Zacarias and Georgetown University professor/playwright Christine Evans.
Another Part of the Forest, staged reading directed by Arena Stage’s Amelia Acosta Powell, Feb. 3, 8 p.m.
Communitywide reading of Pentimento, Feb. 4, 1-5 p.m. Members of the public are invited to read and listen to sections of Hellman’s 1973 memoir. Attendees can read a few sentences to a few pages aloud, or just listen to Hellman’s life story in her words.
Hellman: The Radical, a panel discussion, Feb. 5, 5 p.m., features panelists Jackson Bryer, editor of “Conversations with Lillian Hellman,” and Alice Kessler-Harris, a Hellman biographer.
Watch on the Rhine, Feb. 3-March 5, starring Marsha Mason; Fichandler Stage; tickets from $55, call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.