The Children’s Hour is one of the most famous (sometimes infamous) play-turned-film about a lesbian relationship, and it doesn’t include any women kissing, much less scandalous scenes of Sapphic sex. Yet it’s a story that has made itself relevant decades after its debut (the play was first produced in 1934; the film starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine came out in 1961), and the new West End theater production has found a way to make it even more enticing for theatergoers: Elisabeth Moss and Keira Knightley are in the starring roles.
Elisabeth is best known for playing Peggy Olsen in Mad Men, and on the last season of the AMC drama, Peggy befriended a lesbian, Joyce. In the past, Elisabeth has shared some on-screen lesbian sex in the film Virgin, for which she was nominated for Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards. Now that she’s playing the iconic lesbian role of schoolteacher Martha, it might surprise some people that the very gay-friendly actress is a Scientologist, a religion known for being largely homophobic.
“I understand the curiosity,” Elisabeth told The Guardian when asked about the public’s interest in her being a Scientologist. “I don’t fault anyone for it. Ultimately my religion is a personal thing for me. People have questions and people are curious. I think the press has made a big deal out of it, which makes people more curious. I do feel there’s definitely more attention on it than if I were Jewish or something, but it’s a new religion, there’s questions asked. There’s things people want to know, and I understand it.”
Elisabeth also said that she thinks something as personal as her religion can go into how she plays a role, even the one of a lesbian in The Children’s Hour.
“You draw on all kinds of things that are trying in life: on past experiences, or on yoga, or on a call to your mom, or, yeah, you might draw on your religion, or you might draw on your friends,” Elisabeth said.
So if you’re able to move past Elisabeth’s religion (which, hopefully, you are, because she doesn’t appear to share in the homophobic ideals that some Scientologists are known for), she also talked about how relevant the themes of The Children’s Hour are in 2011.
“The relevance in terms of the gay community is obvious,” she said. “But the play tells a very important story for all of us. How making things up about people is a very dangerous thing to do. … I believe it’s essentially about the power of a lie. And it’s why this play is so relevant so many years later, because no matter who you are – a teenager, a 45-year-old man, a child – you can identify with the concept of an injustice being done.”
If you’re not familiar with the plot, The Children’s Hour is about boarding school teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, and a student who runs away from school and decides to tell grandmother that the two teachers are lesbians so that she won’t have to be sent back. When the school finds out, the women lose their jobs and ultimately sends them into deep depression. It’s not an incredibly uplifting story, but it centers around gossip, outing and homophobia — all themes that are are still (unfortunately) alive and well today.
Participating in a play like The Children’s Hour can be a downer at the end of the night, so The Guardian notes that Elisabeth and castmates go out dancing after each performance to “lift spirits.” Elisabeth tells the paper that she and co-star Keira are on their way to being great friends, and when the interviewer mentions that Shirley MacClaine used to say of Audrey Hepburn, “I taught her how to cuss and she taught me how to dress,” Elisabeth said of Keira, “We both can cuss and we both can dress. I think we’re good.”
The Children’s Hour premiered at the Comedy Theater on Monday, and will run through April 30. Tickets are a little pricey, but if you’re a fan of the story and the actresses involved, it’s likely worth it. Also, the film is getting an update in the next year with a made-for-TV adaptation, so it’s as good as time as any to (re)familiarize yourself with writer Lillian Hellman‘s work.