Eh oop! That’s what I’ve got to say, and gladly. Eh oop! And eeh by goom!
In case you’re wondering what’s come over me, let me explain that this quaint North of England vernacular, which is so dear to my heart, can now be heard in all its earthy glory in the Atlantic Theater Company’s winning revival of Harold Brighouse’s 1915 vintage comedy, Hobson’s Choice . I hope you don’t think it oopish of me if I immodestly point out that I happen to be the world’s expert on this one beloved, singular play. No one else has so far made the claim, true. But that is beside the point. Stick with me, my friends, and we will now discuss together remarkable things.
You may know of the 1954 film version of Hobson’s Choice , a small, lovely classic directed by David Lean and starring Charles Laughton as the pickled and tyrannical–yet lovable–merchant of the shoe trade, Henry Hobson (usually pronounced “‘Enry ‘Obson”). When the old codger’s pre-feminist daughter, Maggie, who slaves for him in his shoe shop, marries his best workman, meek-as-a-mouse Willie Mossop –eh oop! –trouble ensues. She and Willie strike out boldly to start their own rival business, and Hobson is humbled. (‘Obson is ‘umbled.) And that was enough, Sir Richard Eyre points out admiringly, for Hobson’s Choice to hold a lasting place in the North of England’s psyche along with Mendelssohn’s Elijah and the Manchester United soccer club.
Personally, I thought the Atlantic Theater Company was nuts to even think of reviving it here. But I was being presoomptuous . For one crucial thing, the troupe, led by the one-and-only Brian Murray as Hobson, has mastered the flat North Country accent marvelously well. There’s a surprise! New York actors often get the posh accents and nuances of the English upper classes painfully wrong, but they apparently have no problem with the working class! Mr. Murray, in particular, relishes the sound of the language like a connoisseur, rolling words ’round his tongue with his comically gleeful pronunciations of disgoosted , boomptious and oopish .
“It’s the same old tale. Oopishness !” moans Hobson, fancying himself a member of the emerging worthies of the middle class of England, as he lectures his rebellious, unmarried daughters in no uncertain terms. Nothing is uncertain about him, until his comeuppance. “I’m British middle class and proud of it! I stand for common sense and sincerity …. “
Mr. Murray is a law unto himself, of course. It’s a good law. As a star actor, he communicates one vital thing above all others, which is his love of theater. He can convey disdain for a modest porkpie the way Lady Bracknell is outraged by mention of a handbag. He plays with a role the way great actors do, and his bullying, crushed Hobson is one of his big, infectious inventions. Another pleasure of the David Warren production is the revelation of Martha Plimpton as bossyboots Maggie. The heroine Maggie is her father’s daughter, and she’s his match. Ms. Plimpton is simply terrific. Lost to films of late, to my mind she’s one of America’s best candidates for theater greatness. Look closely at her resolute and flawless portrait of Maggie and you’ll find the making of a leading actress in the greatest classical roles. Bring them on! If Ms. Plimpton can find the right home and direction in New York, the crown is hers.
Hobson’s Choice is subtitled “A Lancashire Comedy” and is set in Salford, which is in the backyard of mighty Manchester (where I was born). I used to speak with a Manchester accent close to those of Hobson’s Choice until I went to Oxford and learned to speak like Judi Dench. The Manchester man portrayed in the play Hobson’s Choice is typically decent, down-to-earth, independent, plain-speaking, tough but fair, and not easily fooled by anything, least of all by the pretentious. They are, you see, the ideal attributes of drama critics. But despite all English appearances, Hobson’s Choice is a most un-English play. For to be from Lancashire in the North of England is almost worse than being Scottish. England–the England you know best from the theater–-is habitually represented by the South and the metropolis of London, where people speak properly, except for the lovable Cockneys.
Hobson’s Choice , bless it, is sui generis. It goes far beyond the proud place in the Northern psyche that Sir Richard Eyre claims. To we Mancunians, it is our national play. As the theatergoers of the North of England put it in their irrepressible way, “Shakespeare is all very well, but he can’t hold a candle to our Harold Brighouse.”
Although his other plays remain more or less unknown, the dramatist of Hobson’s Choice was a leading member of the so-called school of social realism known historically as the Manchester School. The better Northern dramatists go back to Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes at the turn of the century. For me, they created a rosy, sentimentalized image–just the sort of cozy picture of the North that goes down well in patronizing London. But let’s not drift into class warfare and bitterness. The important point is that plays like Hobson’s Choice actually put the North of England onstage.
Astonishing though it is, the working classes were otherwise excluded from the stage until the new dramatists and social revolution of the Royal Court in 1956. Remember that the great working-class plays of D.H. Lawrence remained unproduced until the Court discovered them in the 1960’s. Up to then, the London theater reflected the lives of its thoroughly middle-class audience. The distasteful lower orders were acceptable on the London stage only if they were foreign, Irish or “charming,” like the folk in Hobson’s Choice . The working class was otherwise represented by “characters” and servants–the discreet valet, the ever-friendly copper, the unflinching butler, the comic Cockney maid out of Noël Coward played by a refined actress in curlers speaking “stage common”: “Will that be all for today, Miss, or may I be off ‘ome?”
In a neat form of revenge, the traditional working-class comedies portrayed anyone upper-class as either a fool or a villain. There were broad North Country comedies–the roots of Hobson’s Choice –with risqué titles like My Wife’s Lodger that used Lancashire dialect for gaumless effect: “Eeeh by goom, moother, I’ve got me ‘and stook in joog!” (“My goodness, mother, I seem to have got my hand stuck in the jug!”) Willie, the natural-born genius at making boots, is the idiot-savant cousin to the half-witted heroes of the end-of-the-pier Northern comedies that were similar to the chitlin circuit of cheap entertainments still touring America with ghetto stereotypes for the black underclass.
The language itself includes the archaic use of “lad,” “lass,” “wench,” “thine,” “thy,” “dost” (“Dost know what you’re talking about?”) and “ye” (“I’m well rid of ye!”). Nobbut is “nothing but”; nowt is “nothing”; and owt is “anything.” “You’ll not do owt of the sort!” They add texture and muscle to everyday familiar words. But you’ll have no difficulty understanding the archaic language that divides us. The question– eh oop! –is how good is Hobson’s Choice really?
Here I must defer to the oracular voice of Aunt Clarissa of Manchester. You would like my elderly aunt. Everyone does, although she is not one to hold back. I was talking to her by phone, as I do, and mentioned that I was just off to see Hobson’s Choice . “Oh Johnny, lad,” she sighed. “It must be as old and tired as I am!”
Good to report, then, that the new production is surprisingly alive, and there’s much to enjoy. The long hair of David Aaron Baker’s Willie Mossop, as well as the hair of Willie’s two oopitty brothers-in-law, is a lapse. The Northern style known as the Short Back and Sides, or Pudding Bowl, is essential for period flavor. But it’s easy to fix. Place a pudding bowl on head, shave round it. Don’t forget to remove pudding bowl.
There will be those, no doubt, who will claim that Hobson’s Choice represents an underlying analysis of class-ridden England, a turn-of-the-century, proto-feminist tract, and the equivalent of a lost Rembrandt. Talk sense, as my Aunt Clarissa would put it. Hobson’s Choice is an endearingly sweet fable about Cinderella and her wicked sisters, a Big Bad Bear and a Simpleton. It’s a warmhearted, comforting Lancashire hot pot of a play with muck and brass and clogs on–a “slice” of working-class life washed down as nicely and snugly as a pint of foaming Northern beer.
And by goom to that!