Sunday, October 16, 2016


Hobson’s Choice, a comedy, by Harold Brighouse (1882-1958) is still amusing more than a hundred years after its New York City premiere at the Princess Theatre on November 2, 1915.  Within a week, the production moved to the Comedy Theatre where the production scored a total of 135 Broadway performances.  Seven months later, the comedy was produced at London’s Apollo Theatre opening on June 24, 1916. Hobson’s Choice moved to the Prince of Wales Theatre on November 20, 1916. The London production ran for more than 400 performances before touring the cities of Great Britain. The production toured for years sometimes returning to cities visited previously since it was still popular. Hobson’s Choice is Brighouse’s most famous play.

Brighouse, a prolific British playwright, originally belonged to Annie Horniman’s (1860-1937) Gaiety Theatre group in Manchester, England. During Brighouse’s time with this group, he established a relationship with Ben Iden Payne (1881-1976) who directed many of Horniman’s productions. Payne, a native of Manchester, moved in 1913 to the United States.  When the London producers would not mount Hobson’s Choice, Payne produced it in New York for the Schubert Organization. 

The title of this play was a common term in Great Britain and was also known in the United States.  I have seen newspaper advertisements with the banner HOBSON’S CHOICE as well as articles proclaiming a politician was faced with a “Hobson’s Choice.” The term originated in the sixteenth century. Tobias Hobson (1544-1631) was the owner of a livery stable in Cambridge, England. He believed each horse needed an equal period of work and rest and he would never allow a horse to leave the stable out of its turn. He offered customers the choice of either taking the horse he had placed in the stall nearest the door or taking nothing.  This practice became known as “Hobson’s Choice” and it signified that the choice was between either taking what was offered or receiving nothing. It also became known as “no choice.”

It is fascinating to see how Brighouse clearly incorporates “Hobson’s Choice” situations into his play multiple times.  Each “Hobson’s Choice” moment leads to the next situation in the plot. Act One is set in the interior of Hobson’s Boot Shop in Salford, Lancashire, England. The year is 1880.  Henry Horatio Hobson, the shop’s owner, has three daughters: Maggie who is age 30, Alice is twenty-three and Victoria is twenty-one years. Henry spends a lot of his time at the “Moonraker’s”, a local pub.  Maggie manages the shop and she is an excellent sales person. The daughters receive no payment for their labors. Maggie delivers her first ultimatum to her father when he threatens to fire his best boot maker, young Willie.

Act Two takes place in the same location one month later.  Maggie comes to the shop, where she no longer works, to invite her sisters to her wedding. She is to marry Willie that afternoon.

Act Three is set in a cellar space that is a workroom, boot shop and living-room.  Maggie and Willie are hosting their wedding reception for her sisters and their boyfriends.  Hobson arrives and he is distraught since he is charged with drunken trespass resulting in damages for goods ruined in the neighbor’s cellar.  Once again Maggie manages the situation to her benefit and Hobson is placed in a position to take her choice in order to escape ruination.

Act Four is in Hobson’s living-room that is attached to his shop.  It is eight o’clock in the morning. It is one year later than Act Three.  Hobson is very sick as a result of chronic alcoholism.  He is living alone since all the daughters are married. The issue becomes who will take care of him. Once again Maggie provides Hobson with a final “Hobson’s Choice.”

While this plot outline will not bring a smile to your lips, the lines of the play will. It is a fast paced comedy that allows Maggie to be a spunky, take-charge female character.  Some reviewers who saw the original production believed it was a bow to the suffragettes.  The London critics labelled the play “a sparkling comedy.”  It was a relief from the dreary days and nights of World War One.

It was believed by the reviewers that this play provided the right amount of laughs to make it an event that was pure escapism. But it seems to me that this delightful comedy written in a time of war does reflect on daily life during a war that makes nearly everyone eventually faced with a “Hobson’s Choice.” The housewife who plans to spend her meat rations on a day when the butcher only has pork that her family will not eat. The young man who has not enlisted in the armed services and is confronted with the stigma of being a coward. The soldier whose turn it is to climb out of the trench and cross No Man’s Land. I would think that many audience members who viewed this play during the war understood that point despite the merriment presented on stage. Brighouse served the Royal Air Force during World War One as a member of the intelligence staff of the Air Ministry and undoubtedly saw his share of “Hobson’s Choice” situations.

Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice continued to have a life long after the conclusion of World War One. It has had several major revivals as a play in the United Kingdom and the United States. This listing represents several of the professional productions: a 1964 version was produced by the National Theatre in London; 1977 Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut; 2002 Off-Broadway production at Atlantic Theatre; a 2011 production at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England and the 2016 production mounted by Theatre Royal of Bath, England that toured the West Country in the spring prior to opening in London at The Vaudeville Theatre on June 8th and closing September 10, 2016.

Hobson’s Choice was adapted as a musical titled Walking Happy. The production opened on November 26, 1966 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway.  It ran for 161 performances.  The play was also developed into a popular ballet in 1989 titled Hobson’s Choice by David Bintley (1957-    ). This ballet toured to Hong Kong during January, 2011.

The play was also made into several films beginning in 1920. This first version was silent and it was directed by Percy Nash and made in the UK by Master Films. A 1931 film directed by Thomas Bently was made by British International Pictures and unfortunately there is no available version today.  The 1954 film Hobson’s Choice is still the favorite starring Charles Laughton with John Mills and directed by David Lean for London Film Productions.

In 1950 BBC-TV created a version of Hobson’s Choice for "Sunday-Night Theatre." Hobson’s Choice in 1967 was remade by BBC-TV into a one season series. UK Granada Television in 1962 made a ninety minute version of Hobson’s Choice.  In 1983, Hobson’s Choice was also made as a television film with the same title by CBS Entertainment Productions for the United States audience.

Not to be forgotten is the BBC radio play version of Hobson’s Choice in 1942. It was still being aired into 1944. This delightful comedy has had a long, productive and varied run during the past hundred years.

No comments:

Post a Comment