Fighting Censorship of The Children’s Hour Set the Stage for the ACLU

Published: 
Friday, September 4, 2015

The ACLU-WA is cosponsoring the Intiman Theatre’s production of The Children’s Hour, running from Sept.9-27 in the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center. The historic play has special significance to the ACLU’s own history.

The Children’s Hour helped establish the ACLU’s reputation for defending art and literature from censorship and marked the ACLU’s first involvement in LGBT issues.

Lillian Hellman’s play tells the story of two headmistresses at a girls’ boarding school who find themselves embroiled in scandal after a disgruntled student accuses them of being lovers.

Based on a historical account of two Scottish headmistresses, The Children’s Hour garnered critical and commercial success on Broadway after it opened in 1934. But when producer Herman Shumlin decided in 1936 to take the play to Boston, he met resistance.

Boston Mayor Frederick L. Mansfield informed Shumlin that the play’s content made it unfit by established community standards and threatened that the Board of Censors would review it if it opened in the city. Mansfield later admitted in a hearing that he had not seen the play but claimed to understand from hearsay that it was about “lesbianism.”

Shumlin sued the city of Boston for $250,000 in damages, with Mayor Mansfield as the primary defendant. The ACLU, founded in 1920, assisted Shumlin in the case.

It was “possibly the first time” that the “time-honored right of the Boston Mayor and his city censor” to ban plays they consider immoral or indecent was challenged, according to an AP report published in the Dec. 28, 1935 edition of The Lewiston Sun.

The judge ruled that there was no basis for damages since the Mayor had not banned the play and only deemed it unfit. Shumlin decided to pull the production from Boston as he knew that the authorities had been successful in censoring many other plays.

Shumlin’s fears were not unfounded; The Children’s Hour was subsequently banned in Chicago and London, but earned positive reviews when it opened in Paris, where it was retitled Les Innocents.

Hailed as the literary precursor to Arthur Miller’s 1953 witch-hunt parable The Crucible, The Children’s Hour reached the big screen several times, including a 1961 film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley McClain.

The ACLU went on to challenge efforts to suppress gay-themed artistic endeavors on numerous occasions. In the 1950s, for example, the ACLU came to the defense of City Lights Bookstore owner and prominent Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, which was deemed obscene due to its unapologetic references to gay sex. The closely watched trial, in which ACLU lawyers cited Balzac, Shakespeare and the Bible as examples of works with “erotic” content, resulted in a complete acquittal.

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