Forthright Quotes by Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman (1905 – 1984) the renowned and sometimes controversial American playwright and memoirist wrote plays that dealt with difficult subject matter. Though the height of her creative endeavor was in the mid-20th century, she was still considered a pioneering female playwright.

The Children’s Hour (1934) was the play that launched Hellman’s career in theater. This was followed by number of other successful productions, includingThe Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, and Toys in the Attic.

Hellman was blacklisted in the McCarthy era, since her work challenged the political system. Her longtime parter was Dashiell Hammett, known for his classic detective novels. Here are some forthright quotes by Lillian Hellman, an accomplished woman and legendary American playwright.

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“Nothing, of course, begins at the time you think it did.” (An Unfinished Woman, 1969)

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“Failure in the theater is more dramatic and uglier than any other form of writing. It costs so much, you feel so guilty.”

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“If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”

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“People change and forget to tell each other.” (Toys in the Attic, 1960)

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Lillian Hellman & Dorothy Parker
Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker: The Friendship of Two Difficult Women

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“I am a moral writer, often too moral a writer, and I cannot avoid, it seems, the summing-up. I think that is only a mistake when it fails to achieved its purpose, and I would rather make the attempt and fail, than fail to make the attempt.” (On her own writing)

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“Nobody outside of a baby in a carriage or a judge’s chamber believes in an unprejudiced point of view.”

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“Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind.

Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.” (From the introduction of Pentimento, 1979)

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“It is best to act in confidence, no matter how little right you have to it.”

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“If you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the beginning. But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then you will probably write melodrama.”

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“We are a people who do not want to keep much of the past in our heads. It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to think about them, psychotic to dwell on them.”

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“I do not believe in recovery. The past with its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness, its punishments, is there for each of us forever, and it should be.” (Scoundrel Time, 1976)

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Lillian Hellman

You might be interested in An Unfinished Woman

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“Belief is a moral act for which the believer is to be held responsible.”

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“For every man who lives without freedom, the rest of us must face the guilt.” (Watch on the Rhine, 1941)

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“It is a mark of many famous people that they cannot part with their brightest hour.”

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“Nothing you write, if you hope to be good, will ever come out as you first hoped.”

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“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.” (From a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, 1952)

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Lillian Hellman & Dashiell Hammett

When Lilly met Dash: Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett’s Love Affair

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“Things start out as hopes and end up as habits.”

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“Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth.” (The Little Foxes, 1939)

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“We will not think noble because we are not noble. We will not live in beautiful harmony because there is no such thing in this world, nor should there be. We promise only to do our best and to live out our lives. Dear God, that’s all we can promise in truth.” (Candide, 1956)

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“The failure of a second work is, I think, more damaging to a writer than failure ever will be again. It is then that the success of the first work seems an accident and, if the fears you had as you wrote it were dissipated by praise, now you remember that the praise did not always come from the best minds and even when it did it could have been that they were not telling the truth or than you had played good tricks.”

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An Unfinished Woman by Hellman cover

Lillian Hellman page on Amazon


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