Lillian Hellman’s house is hidden from the road, but everyone knows where it is. Knowing where it is, however, is not knowing what it is, or who it is that lives there. The house has thick white walls that face the world, and clear glass panes that face the water. It is a writer’s house.
Inside her house, Miss Hellman is quite thin and very sick. There are nurses round the clock, but there is also a boat on call, for the fishing that is as good for her as the medicine, her friends say. Readers will, perhaps, expect me to describe her more fully, as she is rarely seen in public any more. But my desire is to protect her. Quite simply, I owe her a great debt. And if leaving her privacy undisturbed is what I can do for her now, then that is what I will do.
Robert Brustein made the arrangements for this interview. He joined Miss Hellinan and me as we talked in the house on Martha’s Vineyard during the summer of 1983.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I hear your play is very good, Miss Norman.
MARSHA NORMAN: I am so surprised by the reaction to ’night, Mother. When I wrote it, I was so angry, I didn’t care if anybody ever saw it. And I was convinced nobody would want to.
LH: Well that’s the way to write. The idiot Pulitzer Prize people picked right for once.
MN: It’s so good to have an opportunity to say what you did for me. But I don’t know if you want to hear that.
LH: Oh, I’d love to hear it.
MN: I was a kid who didn’t really know it was possible to write for a living. I grew up in a religious fundamentalist family in Kentucky, and mother hoped I would work for the airlines for a few years and then marry a doctor. But all through high school, there were teachers who put your plays in my hands. And finally there was a moment during my first marriage, when I had begun to refer to my first husband as “the keeper,” when Martha Ellison, a dear friend and former teacher, gave me An Unfinished Woman and said, “Lillian Hellman said this better than anybody has ever said it,” and she was referring to your line about the driving desire to be alone when you want to be and not alone when you don’t want to be.
LH: It’s still true for me, isn’t it for you?
MN: I don’t even like to think about how true it is.
LH: That one gets more and more true. And I am less and less alone. It’s not possible for me to be alone any more. I have three rounds of nurses. And I have so much more desire to be alone, and I’ll never be alone again.
MN: Why is it people are afraid when you tell them you want to be alone? Why does that scare people?
LH: I don’t think it scares them; I think it offends them. Also I think it attacks them in some way. They don’t want to be alone. It’s very hard to explain to somebody who always wants to be with somebody. It must sound awful. Hammett used to say that you could watch me plan to be alone. You could watch me sit on the couch and say, “Now how can I get out of this room in 10 minutes?” I once had a beau who went to Hammett for advice. This particular beau wanted to marry me for money, of course, but can you imagine going to Dash for advice? Isn’t that wonderful?
ROBERT BRUSTEIN: You were living with Dash then.
LH: Yes, I was living with Dash. And he went to Dash for advice. And this man said, “You know, Dash, I don’t know what to do, I love Lillian very much.” (Probably what he loved was what he thought was money.) “But,” he said, “she seems to leave the room every now and then. I know what she’s doing, she must be having these wonderful deep, profound thoughts, but what should I do?” And Hammett said, “If I were you I would do nothing. If she’s thinking anything at all, it’s not very profound. Maybe she’s thinking how to move the sofa up against the chair. The only other thing it could be is she’s trying hard to find out how to leave you.” And so this man asked me if that were true, and I said it was, and I never saw him again. I literally never saw him again.
MN: I’d like to keep asking you about these lines of yours that have meant something to me. Right at the beginning of An Unfinished Woman, you say that your mother fell in love and stayed in love with Max for her whole life. Is that possible, or how was that possible with your mother?
LH: To answer that, we’d have to discuss the nature of in-loveness, which I think we’d better not do. What I meant was her passion was as great, wherever passion comes from. She was on her death bed and accusing him of infidelity, which was probably 25 years after the original marriage. I don’t know whether it means in-loveness or not, but she was still fascinated by him, or interested in him. After all that time, she still wanted him.
MN: You don’t hear about that kind of love anymore.
LH: Women like my mother—whether they knew what they were doing or not—they sort of invented it, perhaps. I think it would be wise to go back to inventing it.
MN: I’m very concerned, right now, about those articles of faith that we have left behind.
LH: I am too.
MN: I hated that old religion. I fought it, I rebelled, but now I find myself coming back and wanting there to be things to believe in.
LH: I find myself in exactly the same stage. I don’t know whether I want that religion to believe in, but I want other things to believe in. I don’t look on the past with the glamour that most people do. It’s too bad that certain moralities have been lost. I think that’s one of the reasons I like John Hersey. Because there’s an uprightness to him I miss. He’s very pleasant. He’s reassuring to me. Someone who will not be evil, who will not betray, some elegance of spirit is what I really think it is. There’s an enormous amount of betrayal along with the violence now, isn’t there? That makes me almost sicker than the violence.
MN: There’s a line of yours about fear, about “showing off against it.” I see an awful lot of that.
LH: I think we all do.
MN: What do you know about fear now, that you didn’t know when you wrote that line?
LH: A lot. I have a lot of physical fears now that I never knew anything about. This illness has taught me a lot. How physically frightened I am. I am a total coward. Hammett guessed it once. He said I acted bravely so I wouldn’t show the fear, and he was absolutely right.
RB: Lillian, you forget how you behaved before your operation last fall. You were out having a dinner party at the Parker House and then you cooked a goose the next night.
LH: Did I?
RB: You were showing no fear whatsoever.
LH: I didn’t know what the operation meant. I blocked out the whole thing, all of last summer. I can’t remember anybody who was here. Thank you for telling me, Bob, that’s wonderful. Where did I do this?
RB: In Boston. You came out of the hospital and took us all to the Parker House for dinner and the next night you cooked two geese.
LH: Oh, that’s right.
RB: And the next day you went in and had those operations.
LH: That’s just my way of forgetting things. That ain’t brave. Oh how nice of you to tell me. What a pleasant memory that is.
MN: If that isn’t brave, what is?
LH: Well, you see, I don’t know. Maybe it is brave, I don’t know. I think of myself now as a mass of fears. I had totally forgotten about the geese.
Then there is a discussion of the Styrons’ anniversary party the previous night, to which Miss Hellman had sent a case of beer, with a card saying, “This will be clearer and better than I am.” One of the housekeepers lights a cigarette for her.
MN: There’s another one of your lines I want to ask you about. You said the theatre had been your life, but not your world. I have the feeling that you were never comfortable in the theatre in America.
LH: No, I wasn’t. Not with the people. I feel comfortable in a theatre, I feel comfortable in a rehearsal, for example, but I don’t like theatre people very much. Never have. A few isolated instances, maybe.
MN: What was it exactly, you didn’t like about theatre people?
LH: They’re silly people, most of them. They’re very vain. Vanity is a disease in the theatre, it’s actors, it’s directors, it’s everybody. God knows I have it, but I’ve tried very hard not to let it control me. It’s a very dangerous streak in all of us.
MN: Do you think there’s a way to make theatre without vanity?
LH: No, no. You have to have some, but you don’t have to let it run away with you. You don’t have to be that interested in yourself. You don’t have to get up every morning and stand in front of the mirror and then spend the day there.
MN: What advice do you have for dealing with success in the theatre?
LH: Just forget it. Just earn the money and forget it. Don’t let all those silly people tell you how wonderful you are. It’s very nice to listen, just don’t pay any attention to it.
MN: You just see so many people who have been destroyed by their success in the theatre.
LH: Yes, but we destroy everything else by success in America. We want it so terribly and we don’t handle it very well. We feel we have to top ourselves every time around. We can do anything—sexually—we want, but we cannot have an artistic failure.
MN: I think the truth is, nobody really knows whether they can survive an artistic failure. I worry about that. But people keep saying, “But Marsha, you’re so strong…”
LH: Oh, they always will, darling. Any successful woman they’ll always talk about this way. It’s partly to put you down, I must warn you. It’s not always entirely admiration. It’s probably to make you feel that they’re tiny and attractive, and you’re the strongest, most miserable piece of fascist violence ever put on earth.
MN: Is there a good way to deal with that?
LH: I don’t listen to it any more. When men do it, it’s for another reason. But when women do it, it’s exactly what I describe, to say “I’m pretty and so darling and look at you, over there earning a living. And you’re powerful and ugly and miserable.”
RB: Who was your favorite director, Lillian? Who were you satisfied with?
LH: Herman Shumlin was. We had terrible fights, every other day, but we did fine together. We used to actually throw things at each other.
MN: Do you find that a lot of your fights are about the same things, even though they’re with different people?
LH: Well, I made the unfortunate mistake of having an affair with this man. And he made the even more unfortunate mistake of falling in love, or whatever you call it, with me.
MN: Who have you really liked working with?
LH: I liked Maureen [Stapleton], I still like her. But one night..
There ensues a largely unprintable discussion of a dinner which ended with the restaurant staff escorting them both to the door. Hellman calls a nurse to come and stand her up and massage her back.
MN: Are there things you would like to have done more of? More war reporting, for example?
LH: I would like to have had the courage to do what I wrote about. You remember I once had an offer to go with the Russian army to Berlin? I wish I’d had guts enough to do that. I wish I’d been there for that.
MN: That’s exactly what I was wondering about. If you were writing today and able to move around, would you be in El Salvador?
LH: I hope so. I’ve been thinking about it anyway, to tell you the truth, and I realize I couldn’t take a nurse to El Salvador, but I’ve been in constant communication. I fortunately have an ex-student who is among the rebel leaders, who gets in touch with me all the time.
Then she tells how this man gets in touch with her and where they meet and what he brings her from El Salvador, and she asks me not to print the details because it could be dangerous for him.
MN: What is it about those people that excites you?
LH: Oh, I like the idea of people revolting against what they have, what they haven’t got. It’s a wonderful human quality. In the end, you can’t fool people. You can’t keep them down. I come from a banana republic family, and my Sundays were spent with my Uncle Willie getting up, pushing the table aside and saying, “Well, we’ll send Johnny Christmas down with some guns.”
MN: So your family would have been on the establishment side.
LH: Oh yes.
MN: How did Vietnam seem to you?
LH: Absolute crap. Some series of dopes, here, thought it would work. Disgusting. The most disgusting event of my whole life. We don’t know anything about the rest of the world and we don’t care about ourselves. Imagine sending Americans to die in that place. Most Americans couldn’t even place it on the map. And we don’t give a damn about the people who came back from it either.
MN: Another piece of yours that I love is the introduction to the Chekhov letters. And in it, you say, all great art requires a kind of spiritual violence.
LH: Did I say that?
MN: You sure did.
LH: Thank you very much. That’s very nice. That translation has been under attack.
MN: There’s another place in it where you talk about the “need that shallow people have for emotional fancy dress. Their desire to deck out ordinary trouble in gaudy colors, and to teeter around life like children in their mother’s high heeled shoes.”
LH: Did I write that? That’s good.
MN: Well, there’s so much more. All you have to do is ask me and I’ll come read you the whole thing.
LH: Well that would be wonderful. Do you live in New York?
LH: Well maybe you’d come down and see me. Would you?
MN: I sure would.
LH: I’ll fix you and your husband a goose.
And the nurses take her upstairs and Bob and I walk out of the house. He says she liked me. And I wonder why the National Endowment doesn’t have a program that sends unemployed actors over to old writers’ houses to read their work to them.
Marsha Norman’s newest play, Traveler in the Dark, was staged this season at American Repertory Theatre. Her ’night, Mother won the most recent Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!