Two women, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, have worked hard to build a girls' boarding school in a refurbished farmhouse. They run and teach the school with the somewhat unwelcome help of Lily Mortar, Martha's aunt. One pupil, Mary Tilford, is mischievous, disobedient, and untruthful, and often leads the other girls into trouble. One day, when Mary feigns illness and is being examined by Dr. Joe Cardin, a physician who is Mary's cousin and also Karen's fiancé, Martha asks Lily whether she would like to go back to traveling to the places she misses, now that they can afford it. Lily becomes angry and starts shouting about how, whenever Joe is around, Martha becomes irritable, unreasonable and jealous, taking her jealousy of Joe out on her. Two of Mary's friends, listening at the door trying to discover Mary's condition, overhear Lily's outburst.
Mary is found healthy and is sent to her room and squeezes the information out of the girls. Mary plans to ask her grandmother, Amelia Tilford—who not only indulges her but who also helped Karen and Martha a great deal in setting up the school—to allow her not to return. When Amelia refuses, Mary cleverly twists what the girls had overheard. With the help of several well-crafted lies and a book that the girls have been reading in secret, Mary convinces her grandmother that Karen and Martha are having a lesbian affair. On hearing this, Amelia Tilford begins contacting the parents of Mary's classmates. Shortly, most of Mary's friends have been pulled out of school. Rosalie Wells, a student whose mother is abroad, stays with Mary.
On discovering that Rosalie is vulnerable, Mary blackmails her into corroborating everything she says. When Karen and Martha realize why all their pupils were pulled out of their school in a single night, they go to Mrs. Tilford's residence to confront her. Amelia tells Mary to repeat her story. When Karen points out an inconsistency, Mary pretends to have been covering for Rosalie, who reluctantly corroborates Mary's story for fear of being exposed herself. Resolving to take Amelia to court, Martha and Karen leave.
Seven months later, after Martha and Karen have lost the case, everyone still believes that they were lovers. When Lily returns from abroad to take care of her niece, the women are angry with her for not having stayed in the country in order to testify to their innocence. Meanwhile, Joe, who has remained loyal throughout, has found a job in a distant location. He tries to convince Karen and Martha to come with him and start over. As Martha goes to prepare dinner, Joe continues his attempts to persuade Karen, who now believes that she has ruined his life and destroyed everything that she and Martha had worked so hard to achieve.
At Karen's insistence, Joe reluctantly asks her whether she and Martha had ever been lovers. When Karen says that they were not, he readily believes her. Nevertheless, Karen decides that she and Joe must part. She explains that things can never be the same between them after all that they have been through. She asks Joe to leave and he refuses. He agrees to leave if Karen will think things through before finalizing the break-up. When Martha returns and finds out from Karen what has happened, she is consumed with guilt. Her discovery that she might indeed have feelings for Karen overwhelms and terrifies her. Before Martha tells Karen how she feels, Karen tells Martha that she would like to relocate in the morning and wants her to come with her. Martha says it's impossible for them to live comfortably again and eventually admits her feelings for Karen. Karen responds dismissively, saying that they never felt this way for each other. Martha continues, but Karen tells Martha that she is tired and they can talk about it in the morning. As Karen sits in her room, she hears a shot. Martha has killed herself. Shortly after, Amelia Tilford arrives to beg Karen's forgiveness, since Mary's lies have now been uncovered. Karen explains to her that it is too late: Mary's lies, together with the community's willingness to believe and spread malicious gossip, have destroyed three innocent lives.
After her graduation from New York University, Lillian Hellman was a play reader in the office of theatrical producer Herman Shumlin. In May 1934 Hellman asked Shumlin to read a play of her own—the sixth draft of The Children's Hour. He read it as she waited. After he read the first act Shumlin said, "Swell". After reading the second act he said, "I hope it keeps up". After reading the third act he said, "I'll produce it."
Shumlin and Hellman worked through the details of the production together over the next months. Shumlin felt the title of the play was misleading and wanted Hellman to change it; but Hellman loved it and refused. Hellman recalled being rudely treated by Lee Shubert, then-owner of the Maxine Elliott Theatre, at a rehearsal. Shumlin faced Shubert down and barked, "That girl, as you call her, is the author of the play."
After writing one unsuccessful play with Louis Kronenberger, Hellman wrote The Children's Hour as an exercise, to teach herself how to write a play. Believing that she would do better to find a subject based in fact, Dashiell Hammett suggested the idea for the play to Hellman after he read a book titled Bad Companions (1930), a true-crime anthology by William Roughead. It related an incident that took place in 1810 at a school in Edinburgh, Scotland. A student named Jane Cumming accused her schoolmistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, of having an affair in the presence of their pupils. Dame Cumming Gordon, the accuser's influential grandmother, advised her friends to remove their daughters from the boarding school. Within days the school was deserted and the two women had lost their livelihood. Pirie and Woods sued and eventually won, both in court and on appeal, but given the damage done to their lives, their victory was considered hollow.
Produced and directed by Herman Shumlin, The Children's Hour opened November 20, 1934, at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York City. The settings by Aline Bernstein were executed by Sointu Syrjala. The three-act drama closed in July 1936 after 691 performances.Eugenia Rawls as Peggy Rogers
Aline McDermott as Mrs. Lily Mortar
Elizabeth Seckel as Evelyn Munn
Lynne Fisher as Helen Burton
Jacqueline Rusling as Lois Fisher
Barbara Leeds as Catherine
Barbara Beals as Rosalie Wells
Florence McGee as Mary Tilford
Katherine Emery as Karen Wright
Anne Revere as Martha Dobie
Robert Keith as Dr. Joseph Cardin
Edmonia Nolley as Agatha
Katherine Emmet as Mrs. Amelia Tilford
Jack Tyler as A Grocery Boy
The financial and critical success of the New York production encouraged Shumlin to present The Children's Hour in other cities. In December 1935, authorities in Boston declared that the play did not meet the standards of the Watch and Ward Society and that it could not be performed there the following month as scheduled. Shumlin filed a $250,000 suit for damages, but in February 1936 a Federal judge refused to prevent the city from interfering in the presentation of the play. In January 1936, a municipal censorship ordinance was used to decline granting a performance permit for The Children's Hour in Chicago.
Les Innocentes, André Bernheim's French-language translation of The Children's Hour, was first presented April 21, 1936, at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris. Although the Lord Chamberlain banned the public performance of The Children's Hour in Great Britain in March 1935, the play was presented in its entirety on November 12, 1936, at a private performance at the Gate Theatre Studio in London, managed by Norman Marshall.
The Children's Hour was in serious consideration for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for 1934–35. The award was presented instead to Zoë Akins' play The Old Maid. Accused of rejecting Hellman's play because of its controversial subject—one of the Pulitzer judges had refused to see it—the selection committee replied that The Children's Hour was not eligible for the award because it was based on a court case and was therefore not an original drama. Critics responded that since The Old Maid was based on a novella by Edith Wharton, it also should have been deemed ineligible. Angered by the Pulitzer Prize decision, the New York Drama Critics' Circle began awarding its own annual prize for drama the following year.
Lillian Hellman directed a Broadway revival of The Children's Hour, produced by Kermit Bloomgarden and presented December 18, 1952 – May 30, 1953, at the Coronet Theatre. The cast included Kim Hunter as Karen Wright, Patricia Neal as Martha Dobie, Iris Mann as Mary Tilford, and Katherine Emmet reprising her original role as Mrs. Amelia Tilford. The revised stage production was construed as an implied criticism of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In 2008 Sarah Frankcom directed a production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. It starred Maxine Peake (who won a MEN Award) as Karen Wright, Charlotte Emmerson as Martha Dobie, Kate O'Flynn (who won a TMA Award) as Mary Tilford and Milo Twomey as Dr Joseph Cardin.
A revival starring Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss, directed by Ian Rickson, was presented at London's Harold Pinter Theatre January 22 – May 7, 2011.
In 1936, the play was made into a film directed by William Wyler. However, because of the Production Code, the story was adapted into a heterosexual love triangle, the controversial name of the play was changed, and the movie was eventually released as These Three. Hellman reportedly worked on the screenplay, keeping virtually all of the play's original dialogue, and was satisfied with the result, saying the play's central theme of gossip was unaffected by the changes.
In 1961, the play was adapted, with its lesbian theme intact, for the film The Children's Hour, also directed by Wyler. In the UK, New Zealand and Australia it was released under the title The Loudest Whisper and starred Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and James Garner.
In 1971 the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series, starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margolyes and Margaret Robertson.