The rhetoric of economic agency and gender of leading female characters in selected works of Lillian Hellman
In many of her plays, Lillian Hellman depicts situations related to women and economic equality in American society during the early twentieth century. Many of Hellman's dramatic works focus on family life, demonstrate to readers and viewers the roles of men and women in typical American households during the 1930s and 1940s, and challenge conventional views regarding women, power, and economic agency. As a playwright who was reared among rich family members and poor family members, Hellman developed an astute ability to write about both wealthy and impoverished families and to depict for audiences the dramatic consequences that may result for female characters who attempt to live as independent wage earners, or who rely solely on their husbands or fathers for economic survival during the first half of the twentieth century.
Using theories and philosophies developed by twentieth-century rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke, this study examines three of Hellman's plays through the lens of gender, economics, and power. The Children's Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939), and Another Part of the Forest (1946) are three plays that depict situations regarding women and money. This study uses Kenneth Burke's Dramatistic pentad as a way to illustrate how leading female characters in many of Hellman's plays are sometimes shunned for their choice to live as independent wage earners, or treated as marriageable objects for families who desire wealth and property through arranged marriages. In addition to the dramatistic pentad, Burke's theories related to content and form are applied to Hellman's works in an effort to demonstrate the rhetorical strategies that could be used to persuade audiences of the potential dangers associated with limiting economic agency for women during the first half of the twentieth century.