In comedy a happy ending does not always resolve all. The case in point is Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, whose hilarity so overtly predicates on the wretchedness of the victim that, when one laughs there follows inevitably a conscience tug that one is gloating over someone’s misfortune.
My disquietude may seem misplaced here, for the importance of the play is really on its revolutionary illustration of an upending of the age-old hierarchy in traditional domesticity. Henry Hobson is the imperious, blustering, perennially sottish shoeseller bestriding his three unmarried daughters, who skivvy away at the shop and the household without pay. The story is set in late 19th century Salford, just a few miles from where the first suffrage movement germinated. The play presents a hallmark in heralding the birth of female empowerment: Maggie, the eldest daughter who is deemed too old to be marriageable at 30, is impelled to prove her father wrong by marrying William Mossop, the most skilled bootmaker in the shop, and gradually gaining upper hand with her calculated mind and steely ambition. The moral lesson seems to be, crudely, that parents should not underestimate their children’s potentials, and that upward mobility is an insidious power in transforming a society.
If it seems that I am equivocal with the play’s ostensible feminist statement, it is because I sense Brighouse’s doubt regarding the prospect of the rising number of self-made, independent women. This is especially evident in the characterisation of Maggie, who, despite embodying a fine mixture of sense and intelligence, is too set on fashioning her humble husband to become the top shoemaker that, instead of unfettering from the paternal yoke and asserting her strength, she is merely lurking in the outsized shadow of her father’s. The final triumphant moment with Maggie and Mossop patronisingly proposing working partnership with the ailing, subdued Hobson seems more of a vindictive display of their reversed fortune than a solicitous love for the defeated party- here lies the pathos that single-handedly eclipses whatever positive message the play wishes to convey.
David Lean’s 1954 adaptation of the play brilliantly enlivens a story that may seem too austere for silver screen. There are inventive moments of great comedy: like the opening scene with Charles Laughton’s paunchy, endearingly fractious Hobson tottering up the stairs to his room like a drunk high-wire artist, and the sequence when he, also drunk, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in a puddle only to be confronted by his own bloated face staring stupidly back at him. As Lean’s last film in black-and-white, the visuals yield a symbolic pessimism for the future: Maggie and Mossop discuss their marriage plans in a pleasure garden that is bounded by industrial plants and river floated with scums.