|by Harold Brighouse
Directed by Valerie Clark
February 5, 6 & 7, 2004
Henry Horatio Hobson
Timmy Wadlow (Tubby)
The phrase "Hobson's choice" is proverbial; to have Hobson's
choice" is to have no choice at all. Its origin lies in the
practice of the seventeenth-century Cambridgeshire horse trader
Hobson, whose customers in theory had a free choice but in practice
always ended up with the horse nearest the stable door, which
was Hobson's choice.
Its origin as the title of a play is told by Ben Iden Payne
in his autobiography. After the performance of a play he had
directed at the Gaiety Theatre, Brighouse and his fellow writer
Stanley Houghton were sharing a drink with Iden Payne in the
bar of the Midland Hotel. They asked him why a particular actor,
who had given a bad perfpormance, had been chosen for the part:
"My retort was that it had been Hobson's choice; there was
no-one else available who would have been any better. . . No
sooner had I said this than it occurred to me that the phrase
would make a good title for a play. I said so and Houghton and
Brighouse agreed. A friendly argument arose as to which of them
should be the author of the hypothetical "Hobson's Choice".
I suggested they toss a coin. This they did and Brighouse won."
As Houghton was not to die until 1913 and the play was not
written until 1914-15, it is clear that the gestation period
for the play in Brighouse's imagination was a long one.
Although a prolific and popular playwright and novelist during
his lifetime, the reputation of Harold Brighhouse today rests
almost entirely on his play Hobson's Choice. Born in Eccles
near Salford on 26 July 1882, his mother was a teacher and his
father was in the cotton business. Despite gaining a scholarship
to Manchester Grammar School, not a keen student, at seventeen
he left school to start work in the textile industry. The nearby
music hall and theatres provided a form of escape from his job,
and he soon became obsessed with the theatre.
When he moved to London on business in 1902 his playgoing became
voracious and he became a regular attender at the first nights
of new plays. "It was a first-nighter's point of honour to miss
no first performance. The gallery cost a shilling. Quantity
could be coped with."
By now Brighouse was engaged to a fellow theatre-lover. He
returned to Manchester to be married but maintained weekly visits
to London, combining his cotton business with his pleasure in
theatre. During one of these visits, as he describes it, "I
saw the first performance of, as it happened, an outrageously
bad play" and suddenly realised that in probability he could
write a better play himself.
Following an initial rejection, he took advice and wrote a
one-act play, (very common at this time). Lonesome-Like
was accepted at once by the Manchester Gaiety Theatre and, when
staged two years later, clocked over three thousand performances.
His output eventually totalled fifty one-act and fifteen full-length
plays. Although most of these are firmly rooted in Lancashire,
Brighouse nevertheless exhibits a wide range of styles and topics
in his work. Thus with The Game (1913), a play about
football fanatics, he anticipated modern drama (fictional and
factual), while with The Price of Coal (1909), a moving
study of mining life, he all but beat D H Lawrence at his own
It is for comedy, however, that Brighouse will best be remembered.
His own personal favourite play was Lonesome-Like (1911),
in which a prototype Willy Mossop character decides not to get
married, but adopts a mother instead.
London producers refused the play "Hobson's Choice" in 1915
and Brighouse sent it to his friend in New York where its successful
run paved the way for its presentation at The Apollo Theatre,
London in 1916.
In addition to playwriting, Brighouse also wrote eight novels.
His last major piece, published in 1953 (five years before his
death in 1958) was his autobiography, What I Have Had,
on the cover of which he was identified as the author of "the
famous play Hobson's Choice".
The shoe trade in the 1880s
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, during which
Hobson's Choice is set, the footwear industry in Britain was
still primarily a handicraft trade. Most shoes were sold from
the same premises in which they were made. So important was
the shoemaker that every village would have at least one shoemaker,
while towns and cities could boast many. Often these were family
firms, based within or adjacent to the owner's home and staffed
by family members. Until late into the century, almost all shoemaking
was still done by hand. Machines weren't used until the 1850s
at the earliest.
Family life in the 1880s
Division in society ranged from an elite composed of leading
families, through recognised strata down to the 'lowest of the
low', or 'simp class'. Shopkeepers, publicans and skilled tradesmen
held the premier positions, each family having its own sphere
of influence. Those striving to 'get on' tried to ape what the
believed were 'real' middle-class manners and customs. Publicans'
and shopkeepers' daughters, for instance, set the fashion in
clothes for a district.
The real social divide existed between those who, in earning
daily bread, dirtied their hands and those who did not. By entering
into any business at all a man and his family grew at once in
economic status, though social prestige was gained much more
Modern ideas about the Victorian family system, in which men
worked and took up professions, while women were forced to stay
at home, are broadly accurate but can be misleading.
Women virtually counted among the possessions of a man (a father
or husband) and had very few legal rights and no right to vote.
A married woman's wealth belonged to her husband and, with few
exceptions, she had no right to divorce. Unless a woman was
lucky enough to be independently wealthy, she had little choice
but to marry; single women were socially frowned upon.