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It looked, for a minute or two, like The Children’s Hour might get abbreviated. Representatives of playwright Lillian Hellman’s estate, alarmed by a June 8 Washington Post review detailing aggressive alterations in the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of the grand old melodrama, threatened a withdrawal of the show’s performance license.But many of those changes, says company chief Christopher Henley, weren’t WSC’s. They were Hellman’s.
Post reviewer Nelson Pressley came away from WSC startled by how much of what was onstage wasn’t in the copy of the script he keeps in his library. His review cited “a steady stream of alterations…major cuts…radical recalculations”—including the casting of male actors in two important female roles—that added up to a “textual makeover…pronounced enough that it is surprising to see no ‘adapted by’ credit.”
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Cue the alarm bells: The chop-shop treatment is a huge no-no in the theater, at least when authors (or their heirs) are around to take issue. In 2001, the Studio Theatre took liberties with David Grimm’s play Kit Marlowe, which was shut down after the playwright saw it. So Dramatists Play Service, which licenses The Children’s Hour for the Hellman estate (and, incidentally, licensed Kit Marlowe to Studio), was predictably peeved about what the Post review implied director H. Lee Gable had done at WSC. At least until Henley pointed out, in an exchange with Craig Pospisil, Dramatists’ director of nonprofessional rights, that the “original” language Pressley quoted in his review seemed to be from a 1930s-vintage script—and that the version Dramatists had licensed to WSC was a ’50s revision updated by Hellman herself.
Sure enough, Pressley reports, his Children’s Hour is the ’30s version. That doesn’t mitigate his overall feeling about the show: “Any description of this Children’s Hour would have alarmed Dramatists,” he says. “It’s a major departure, deeply cut and radically cast.”
Unauthorized cuts are a thorny question, and the cross-gender casting wasn’t exactly a nonissue for the Hellman family, either. Such gambits are common enough among adventurous theater companies, but they do “represent a change from the intention of the text, figuratively and literally,” says Pospisil. “So we have to find out what the authors or the authors’ estate will allow.”
A tense weekend followed, with WSC brass panicky about the financial disaster a shutdown would entail. But last Monday, Dramatists agreed that Gable’s production would be allowed to continue—albeit with a public slap on the wrist. As patrons enter the lobby of the Clark Street Playhouse, they’ll see this sign:
The casting for this production was done without prior authorization from the Hellman estate and does not reflect their wishes, but they have graciously allowed the production to continue.
Henley hopes that both Dramatists and the trustees understand that WSC didn’t mean any disrespect. “We’re not a museum-piece theater company,” he says, “and part of what we do is to try to allow a little breath of fresh air into the classics.…But we always hope to do that with respect for the heart of the material, and not in any way to subvert it—just to illuminate it in a slightly new way.”—Trey Graham