|Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn in a film version of The Children's Hour (1961)|
The play was first staged on Broadway at the Maxine Elliott Theatre on November 20, 1934, produced and directed by Herman Shumlin.
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.
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.
Screenwriter and playwright Paddy Chayefsky considered The Children's Hour to be one of the most carefully structured plays ever written, and learned play-structure in his youth by copying in longhand the entire script.
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. 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. 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 and starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and James Garner. In the UK, New Zealand and Australia it was released under the title The Loudest Whisper.