Twentieth Century Drama Rachel Cormack 10JGR/H1
“Hobson’s Choice” by Harold Brighouse
In Hobson’s Choice, how does Harold Brighouse make the audience aware of the changes in Willie Mossop’s character?
In this assignment, I will be looking at the play “Hobson’s Choice” which was written in 1914 by Harold Brighouse. I will scrutinize the way that the playwright makes the audience aware of the changes in William Mossop’s character using quotes from the script.
“Hobson’s Choice” was a saying used in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds and to have Hobson’s choice was to have no choice at all. Brighouse saw this as a title with scope for a play and wrote the script to fit the title. He set the play back in eighteen eighty, in Salford, Lancashire two years before he was born near Salford.
“Hobson’s Choice” tells the story of the Hobson family who live in Chapel Street, Salford and run a prosperous family boot making business. The head of the household is Henry Horatio Hobson, a widower with three daughters, Alice, who is twenty-three, the twenty-one, pretty Victoria and Maggie, the eldest at thirty. Maggie is invaluable to Hobson as she is an incomparable shop hand and obliging to the customers. The story begins with an argument occurring between Hobson and his daughters, concerning their manner towards himself. He proposes that, if their “uppishness” towards him does not cease, he shall choose husbands for Alice and Vickey to get them out of his way. When Maggie enquires about her fathers option of punishment for herself, he dismisses any chance of her marrying as she is too old, although in truth he finds Maggie too useful a shop hand to let her go. Hobson tells his companion Jim of his plans, but shortly after changes his mind on marrying his daughters off, as he feels the settlements are too expensive.
Maggie later proceeds to marry an employee of Hobson’s, William Mossop, who is a mentally stunted man with an exceptional talent for making boots, and with Maggie’s management and organisation skills, the couple set up their own boot making company. Maggie also organises both her sisters’ marriages to influential businessmen of the time, leaving Hobson alone. Hobson’s business gradually begins to fail, as does his health, where Maggie and Willie prosper.
In Act One, Willie Mossop is an inferior, un-intelligent man who is very low class with little money but as the story progresses through to Act Four Willie changes significantly. With Maggie’s help, he sets up his own business, becomes educated, and transforms into a respectful businessman. Maggie moulds him into a man that would have been considered a gentleman of the time and without Maggie’s self-less help, he would still be a poor, bottom class employee of Hobson.
Hobson ends the heated discussion with his daughters by walking out of the shop, but as he does so, he notices one of his high-class customers beginning to step out of her carriage, Mrs Hepworth. He retreats into the shop and warns his daughters of her coming. Mrs Hepworth explains she is visiting the shop to find out who was the workman that made her latest pair of boots in Hobson’s shop. Hobson nervously reassures her that if the boots caused any inconvenience, he will make sure the workman receives the punishment due. After quizzing Tubby, a boot maker from Hobson’s cellar, he informs Mrs Hepworth that William Mossop was the maker. Tubby calls for Willie and he appears up the trap a few seconds later, stopping half way up as Tubby did. Willie immediately comes across to the audience as a shy, lower class man, but he has the potential to change himself.
“He is a lanky fellow, about thirty, not naturally stupid but stunted mentally by a brutalized childhood. He is raw material of a charming man, but, at present, it requires a very keen eye to detect his potentialities. His clothes are an even poorer edition of Tubby’s.”
This stage direction tells us Willie is not an intelligent man but he is not naturally stupid. Brighouse describes him as being “stunted mentally” by a somewhat abnormal childhood, maybe even a violent one by the use of the word “brutalized”. Brutal gives the impression of violence, and the reader is made aware that Willie may have been beaten as a child by his parents or siblings. Willie is described as charming and this allows the audience to feel that he is a good, honest man. He is polite and respectful towards Mrs Hepworth, which is typical of a man in his position. He has the potential to be a charming, respected citizen but his talent is very raw at present and by his description of dress, the audience will easily identify that he is not wealthy in any way.
After verifying Willie had made Mrs Hepworth’s footwear, she then preceded to hand him a business card. Willie reacts to this, as he feels threatened by what her intended actions are.
”Mrs H: Take that.
Willie bending down rather expects “that” to be a blow. Then he raises his head and finds she is holding out a visiting card. He takes it”
Willie is expecting Mrs Hepworth to hit him, not to give him a card. This tells the audience that Willie is a nervous man, he expects to be beaten not praised, and so he has little confidence in himself as a boot maker. Willie may have had a “brutalized childhood” in the sense that he was treated brutally and violently by his family and he may even have been beaten by employers, possibly Hobson. Even though Mrs Hepworth did not strike him, Willie was accepting she would, he did not retaliate, allowing the audience to see he is a good-tempered, non-violent person.
When the blow does not arrive, Willie looks up, takes the visiting card from Mrs Hepworth, and attempts to read it, although he cannot. Mrs Hepworth may regard him as stupid, however he is not naturally dumb, just uneducated.
”Mrs H: Read it.
Willie: I’m trying. (His lips move as he tries to spell it out.)
Mrs H: Bless the man. Can’t you read?
Willie: I do a bit. Only it’s such funny print”
Here the audience learns that Willie is illiterate. Many people of Willie’s class at this time were illiterate although Willie can read a little. He struggles to read the italics of Mrs Hepworth’s visiting card and she tells him that she wants him to contact her if he ever moves on to another shop. She orders Willie to make her boots in future and Hobson answers for Willie. Willie is a very quiet character and Hobson does most of the speaking to Mrs Hepworth.
When Hobson dismisses Willie, he retreats quickly back into the cellar as fast as he could, showing the audience he tries to avoid conversing with people of the higher classes.
” Hobson: That’ll do, Willie. You can go.
Willie: Yes, sir.
He dives down trap. Maggie closes it.
Mrs H: He’s like a rabbit”
Mrs Hepworth describes Willie’s movement down the trap as “like a rabbit”. This gives the audience the impression of a fleeing rabbit darting down a hole, Willie is diving down the trap away from Hobson and Mrs Hepworth who he obviously feels intimidated by. He goes away so quickly he does not close the trap, Maggie does. Willie seems to the audience to be shy and lacking self-confidence.
Brighouse described him as having “potentialities” but for this talent and charm to shine through he would need the help of others.
Maggie decides to try to help Willie to move up the society ladder by proposing that they should marry and start a business together and so after Hobson leaves to go to the Moonrakers, Maggie asks Willie to come up from the cellar and talk to her. Willie is hesitant.
”Maggie: Come up, and put the trap down; I want to talk to you.
He comes, reluctantly…Maggie points to trap. He closes it.”
Maggie has a lot of control over Willie; she asks and he does. She tells him that she wants him to talk to her and, although he is not comfortable, he does not refuse. He tells her that they are busy in the cellar as a way of an excuse but Maggie ignores this. She points to the trap for Willie to close it, the way a person would command a dog to fetch or sit. She does not tell him what to do but he understands her body language immediately and follows her orders. The way that Maggie, a normal woman could control a man and not have him argue back, would be uncommon at the time the play was set or even written. Women and men were not treated as equals, usually with the men being dominant. Willie, however, is submissive, obedient and respectful towards Maggie.