Fire Is Catching
Lily Mortar is a supporting character in Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour.” While not having all too much stage time, she really is a key factor in the outcome of the play. Mortar bookends the play without having developed her character in any way. She is the same self-serving, past romanticizing, crazy aunt that was in the beginning of the play. Lily Mortar is the spark and the extinguisher of the revolution created by Mary Tilford.
Lily Mortar is described as, “A plump, florid woman of forty-five with dyed reddish hair. Her dress is too fancy for a classroom.” (Hellman 451). From these two lines alone you get the exact feeling for who Lily Mortar is. She is living in the past; she was once an actress. Mortar is trying to keep the young look alive and fresh in her. While doing this, she is acting as if she is the greatest person to ever walk the Earth. She wants to teach the girls “her” way, while they really consider it the “old” way.
Mortar also falls great victim to any type of flattery. When Mary Tilford is coming to class very late, Mortar begins to yell at her. As soon as Tilford says she was late because she was picking flowers for Mortar because, “You were telling us last week how much you liked flowers, and I thought that I would bring you some and-” (Hellman 452) Mortars demeanor changes entirely. She is now very humbled and forgiving. “That was very sweet of you, Mary; I always like thoughtfulness. But you must now allow anything to interfere with your classes. Now run along, dear, and get a vase and some water to put my flowers in.” (Hellman 452). She immediately changes her tune, and forgets about Mary’s wrongdoing.
Mortar says, “Courtesy is breeding. Breeding is an excellent thing. Always remember that.” (Hellman 452). Mortar then asks her students to write it down. They respond that they wrote it down last week. This is very interesting and ironic. Mortar says, “courtesy is breeding.” However when it comes down to it, Mortar did not give Martha and Karen the courtesy of coming to the trial on their behalf. She appears to be in such high social standing, her breeding very excellent. However, at the bitter end, she does not even appear that way.
Mortar also enjoys name dropping. She is always going on about Sir Henry. She also said, “It was I who saved Delia Lampert’s life the time she had that heart attack in Buffalo. We almost lost her that time. Poor Delia! We went over to London together. She married Robert Laffonne. Not seven months later he left her and ran away with Eve Cloun, who was playing the Infant Phenomenon in Birmingham-” (Hellman 456). Mortar feels as if she name drops all the time people will consider her to be “above” them, more talented, known, and privileged. However, her rambling on about people that no one seems to care about any more makes her look wild, foolish, and desperate.
Karen and Martha feel as if Mortar is not helping their situation any by being there. They finally have enough money that they almost aren’t in debt anymore. Martha offers her aunt the chance to go to Europe, expenses paid by her and Karen. Mortar immediately turns it around and says, “You’re trying to get rid of me. So? You’re turning me out? At my age! Nice, grateful girl you are.” (Hellman 457). Mortar is insistent about complaining about any and everything. She can’t see the good in anything thrown her way.
While Mortar and Martha are arguing, Mortar is the spark of this entire play. “Every time that man comes in this house, you have a fit. It seems like you just can’t stand the idea of them being together. God knows what you’ll do when they get married. You’re jealous of him that’s what it is.” (Hellman 457). She then goes on to say, “You’re fonder of Karen, and I know that. And it’s unnatural, just as unnatural as can be. You don’t like their being together. You were always like that even as a child, if you had a little girl friend, you always got mad when she liked anybody else. Well, you’d better get a beau of your own now- a woman of your age.” (Hellman 458). This is it. This is what Evelyn and Peggy hear from outside the door and relay to Mary. This is what gives her the idea for her revolution. Lily Mortar was the spark.
At the end of the play Mortar comes back to the destroyed remnants of Karen and Martha’s lives. She tries to pretend as if nothing happened. She pretends that everything is just as it was. When asked why she did not respond to their telegrams and why she did not come testify for them she says, “Why, Martha, I didn’t refuse to come back at all. That’s the wrong way to look at it. I was on tour; that’s a moral obligation, you know. Now don’t let’s talk about unpleasant things anymore. I’ll go up and unpack a few things; tomorrow’s plenty of time to get my trunk.” (Hellman 477). Even when trying to defend herself, she tries to act as if nothing is wrong, and the entire outcome of the trial, and their lives did not hinge on her coming home. She continues to live in her dream world.
After Martha kills herself Mortar is sad for her for only one moment. It then immediately turns back around to her. “I’ll never forgive myself for the last words I said to her. But I was good to her, Karen, and you know god will excuse me for that once. Suicide’s a sin.” (Hellman 482). She then goes on to say, “She shouldn’t have done it, she shouldn’t have done it. It was because of all this awful business. She would have got a job and started all over again- she was just worried and sick and-” (Hellman 482). Her niece has just killed herself, and she is worried if God will excuse the last thing she said to Martha. She then is very angry and resentful towards Martha for killing herself.
Mortar then almost immediately is worried about what will happen to her now that Martha is gone. She will not be getting any money from her, or a home to live in of hers or any other means of living. “What will happen to me? I haven’t anything.” (Hellman 482). She then says “I did everything I could I- I haven’t any place to go.” (Hellman 482). She believes that she did everything she could to help Martha. She does not understand why she would kill herself. Mortar also has no place to go now that her niece is gone.
Lily Mortar is the spark of the revolution. By not returning for the trial, she is also the extinguisher of Martha and Karen’s hope for justice. Mortar is a self-interested, past romanticizer, who is interested in no one but herself. She does not see the world as a whole. She is only interested in her best interests and who and what can help her achieve that. The entire play hinges on her attitude and her self-interest. She said those words to Martha in a fury, and she did not come home to testify because she was busy enjoying herself with her theatre and traveling.