‘Hobson’s Choice’ by Harold Brighouse struck me initially as a well constructed play with a plot that was skilfully unravelled for us by the characters that Brighouse introduced. Each character had a role to play in bringing the plot of the play to a conclusion. The pace of the comedy was maintained throughout and was therefore easy to follow and enjoyable. On closer inspection it is possible to identify the subtlety and craftsmanship of the playwright. In order to fully appreciate Brighouse’s work it is necessary to understand the social and historical setting of the play and the audience for whom it was written at the time.
In the introduction of the edition we used by Charles Wood we are given an insight to Brighouse. We learn that Brighouse was a literary leader and artistic writer who was very aware of the tradition he was working in. The play is set in the late Victorian era where opportunities for self-advancement due to the industrial revolution had altered societies perception of class and a substantial middle class had evolved. Within this brave new world society was changing and people were unsure of their place in it. Furthermore when the play was first produced in 1916 the suffragette movement was very much a topic of the day and a strong character like Maggie would still be seen as challenging the values of the day. Her behaviour would have been as shocking to some of the audience as it was to Hobson.
These factors alone would have further heightened the dramatic tension of the comedy. It is also important to note that Brighouse in common with the playwrights of his time was acutely aware of the traditions of playwriting and ‘Hobsons Choice’ is a classical comedy, which has its roots in the classical comedies of Aristophanes and Aristotle. The classical theory of comedically exploiting the battle between the generations and siding with lovers against elders is used in Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, Aristophanes ‘Clouds’ and later in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’, ‘Maggie, I’ve none kissed you yet. I shirked before. But, by gum.
I’ll kiss you now.’ It is also a comedy of character, Hobsons character has many echoes of Falstaff in ‘Henry 1V(they are both fat invariably drunk and boastful). ‘Hobsons Choice’ is also a comedy of action with parallels to the fairytale ‘Cinderella’, only in this case Will plays Cinderella and Maggie plays Prince Charming with Mrs Hepworth filling the role of Fairy Godmother. Thus Brighouse by drawing on various traditional dramatic techniques weaves his story in what he feels is a contemporary way. Hereby he prepares us for the final confrontation where Willie overcomes the whole Hobson family to make his fairytale ending come true.
Closer inspection of the characters and the relationships between them will show how Brighouse prepares us for the ending. The relationship between Willie and the sisters starts out with Willie playing a dutiful and respectful cobbler employed by Hobson. He is portrayed as someone lacking ambition and self-confidence although a very good cobbler. Described as ‘not naturally stupid but stunted mentally’ and the ‘raw material of a charming man’.
Only Maggie recognises Willies potential ‘everything I’ve seen, I’ve liked. I think you’ll do for me.’ Both Alice and Vicky fail to see Willies potential ‘you’re mistaken if you think I’ll own Willie Mossop for my brother-in-law.’ The sisters continue to underestimate Willie throughout the rest of the play and fail to adapt to the changing situation brought about by Willies growing self-confidence. Brighouse exploits the comedy of the sister’s failure to grasp what is going on. ‘Will Mossop hasn’t the spirit of a louse.’ Maggie’s response ‘Maybe Wills come on since you saw him, Vicky.’ exploits the sisters ignorance and shares with the audience something they are ‘in on’ that the sisters just cannot see.
The relationship between Willie and Hobson moves along similar lines to the relationship with the sisters. Initially Hobson fails to realise Willies potential and true worth and the fails to recognise the change that Willie undergoes. This has disastrous consequences for Hobson and to the end he misses the impact this has on his own circumstances ‘over reached by whom? Willie Mossop! I may be ailing but I’ve fight enough left in me for a dozen such as him’ Thus Brighouse further develops the drama and comedy of the situation creating something of a pantomime. Everyone, including the audience can see what is happening except the characters whose lives are most effected.
Perhaps the most interesting relationship in the play is the one between Maggie and Willie and this is pivotal to the plot. Maggie sees an opportunity ‘My brain and your hands ‘ull make a working partnership’. Maggie is under no illusions initially regarding Will as all but a fool yet realising that by working together she can bring about a successful partnership. The suffragette movement of the time may have appreciated this and the audience challenged by Maggie’s views. As the play develops even Maggie is surprised by the transformation in Wills character ‘Wait a bit, Will I don’t agree to that.’ Will emerges as the plays hero and the transformation in his relationship with Maggie is touching as they dedicate their commitment to one another.
Brighouse further enlightens the audience by cleverly using the physical metaphor of a staging device. The play is staged on three levels at Hobson’s the cellar the shop and ‘upstairs’. Willie ascends from the cellar to eventually being his own master ‘upstairs’. Further physical metaphors parody the action of the play. Henry Hobson’s ‘downfall’ into Beenstocks cellar and his enforced ‘come down’ into Oldfield Road before Willie ‘comes up’ in the world to Chapel Street on his way to St Anne’s Square, Manchester. Brighouse carefully manages the characters location to coincide with their fortunes as they develop through the play. Here we get a physical preparation for the final confrontation scene.
To conclude Hobson’s Choice is as appealing to a modern day audience as to its original audience. The theme of a working class hero making good and bettering himself with a strong driving female partner is still relevant to to-days audience. Although it would not nowadays be seen as challenging or shocking in the same way as it would to its original audience the traditional classical comedy themes remain contemporary. The skill with which Brighouse tells his story using stage devices and popular themes with strong characterisation will ensure that the play will remain popular, for although set in a historic setting the human element will have a timeless quality.