A controversial writer, in all her complexity

The life of playwright Lillian Hellman is the subject of a one-woman play at ATP

Few people were neutral about American playwright Lillian Hellman.

Hellman, who died in 1984 at the age of 79, led a tempestuous life. She was the longtime companion of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett for three decades until his death in 1961.

She was an unapologetic leftist whose political activities in the 1930s and 1940s earned her the wrath of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, and who stood up against the anti-Communist witch hunt that came to be known as McCarthyism, after U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis.

She saw great success and abject failure on Broadway, as a playwright, and in Hollywood, as a scriptwriter. She made as many friends as enemies in her personal and professional dealings.

The Actors Theatre Playhouse will present William Luce's “Lillian” on Saturday, July 20 and 27, as Terri Storti portrays Hellman in this one-woman staged reading, directed by Nancy Stephens.

The setting of “Lillian” is an austere waiting room in a New York hospital where Hellman awaits the death of Hammett. Through the fatigue and weariness of this long night, she reminisces on her life and loves.

As Luce writes at his website (, “She recalls incidents which shaped her life: figures from the worlds of Hollywood and New York theater; literary giants who were both friends and foes, and dearly loved personal associates. Most of all, she dwells on her black nanny, Sophronia, who perhaps more than any other, helped to create in her a burning social consciousness.”

Luce has specialized in writing one-person plays. His most famous work, “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman show about Emily Dickinson starring Julie Harris, premiered on Broadway in 1976 and was later filmed. He has also written one-person shows about Zelda Fitzgerald, Isak Dinesen, and John Barrymore.

“Lillian” ran on Broadway in 1986 and starred Zoe Caldwell.

Luce's play was composed with the blessing and supervision of Hellman herself.

“I first met Lillian Hellman in 1981 in a Beverly Hills restaurant, where producer Ann Shanks and I joined her to discuss my writing a play about her life,” Luce writes in the preface to the printed play of “Lillian.”

“Among many things discussed that afternoon, she told me that she had seen my play 'The Belle of Amherst' and had phoned Julie Harris to obtain assurance that I was not a disagreeable man to work with Other than from her memoirs, I also worked from Marilyn Berger's television interviews with Lillian and from transcripts of her HUAC testimony. Since [Hellman] had script approval, I was not free to stray from how Lillian saw herself in her three memoirs.

“After hearing the play, Miss Hellman gave me notes which were excellent suggestions. She asked for deletions of certain anecdotes in favor of others not in her books. Two months before she died, I phoned her about revisions which she had requested. Her last words to me were, 'It's my voice. Thank you.'”

Hellman died before she could see a staged production of “Lillian.”

“I really love this play,” says Actors Theater director Stephens. “Hellman was a very tough, hard drinking, hard smoking, ballsy pixie. It was pretty amazing how she stood up to power in the McCarthy era.”

Storti finds portraying such a formidable figure a definite challenge.

“I do not really do an imitation of Hellman,” she says. “I don't look like her at all. I just try to suggest the woman. But more than just capturing her persona, I also have to convey all the different people in Hellman's life. In the play Lillian talks in the voice of various friends and enemies. As an actor this is a difficult, because I have to do imitations of other people as Hellman might have done them herself.”

This is Storti's first performance of a one-person show.

“It is difficult to keep things lively when there's no one else on the stage to react to or with,” she says. “Nancy tried to move me around the stage a bit to keep the production from being stagnant. Nonetheless, this is not a fully staged production, so I was a little worried how it would come off as a reading.”

Stephens says she thinks a one-person play works better than most plays in the reading format, as a one-person play, like a reading, forms a dialogue, not with others on stage, but with the audience.

“We will have a bit more stagecraft than most readings however,” she says. “There will be some voices recorded by Eric Cutler, Jon Mack, Peter Eisenstadter and Richard Epstein; a few lighting changes, and a minimal set of a chair and table.”

“What may be lacking in stagecraft is made up by an emphasis on text,” says Storti. “So we can really show off the beauty of the language of the play and in Hellman's own writings.”

Storti had always admired Hellman, particularly for her plays and her actions during the McCarthy era.

“'The Children's Hour' (1934) is an amazing work, well ahead of its time with its sensitive depiction of lesbianism. “The Little Foxes” (1939) is one of the most powerful plays written in this country. I had read “Scoundrel Time” [her 1976 memoir] about her involvement with HUAC. But when I was asked to play Hellman, I didn't know that much about her life.

“Our play tries to understand how Hellman fits into history. Through her connection with different people, we are given a different sense of herself other than a writer. The play gives a fuller portrait of her as a woman than I knew. Lillian was very angry as a child. She believed that she did not belong anywhere in the world. This may be why she was not at all political then. That came later.”

Storti is aware of the controversy about Hellman's truthfulness in her three books of memoirs: “An Unfinished Woman” (1969), “Pentimento: A Book of Portraits” (1973), and “Scoundrel Time.”

Novelist Mary McCarthy famously said in a 1979 television interview that, “Every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'” Hellman sued. For the slander trial, Mary McCarthy combed through Hellman's memoirs looking for inconsistencies, and places where she might have out-and-out lied and came up with a 40-page document. Journalists also began to examine the story closely and inconsistencies began to pop up.

When Hellman died, the case was dropped before it went to court. But doubts linger.

Reviewer Tammy Thiébaud writes, “Is [Hellman's] work a series of facts and events over a lifetime retold as they had actually occurred, or had they been diluted, polished, aggrandized in some way to allow the author to invent a better account of herself, which effectively turns it into a work of fiction?”

Storti believes that even if what Hellman has said about her life may not all be honest, she can be explained if not excused as Hellman writes from her memory. “Memory that can be notoriously unreliable,” Storti says. “Luce makes clear in 'Lillian' that Hellman uses dreams to connect with memory to form a revisited reality.”

Beyond the controversy, Stephens says she thinks it important to emphasize that “Lillian” ultimately is a show that tells a very good story. “It's the love story of Hammett and Hellman,” she says. “When Dashiell dies, Lillian feels very alone. I predict everyone in the audience will feel a little heartbroken, if [they're] not outright crying.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates