I was talking to a friend recently about the relationship the rise and fall of ‘traditional’ narrative structure has to our current mode of capitalism. The rising action, crisis and fall to a resting state seems to map the boom and bust of the stock market. He was talking about a tv series he’d been watching about stockbrokers or something, how it was well-dramatised. I talked a bit about Enron, by Lucy Prebble. When a play is described as ‘Shakespearean’ or ‘handling universal themes’, I assume it is about property and capital. When the history of a theatre like the Royal Exchange has been programming work for a largely bourgeois audience, perhaps a successful show in that space can be read to diagnose the current relationships we have to that capital.
Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Hobson’s Choice uses the moment of uncertainty occupied by British Indians in the 80s to create a drama situated in the serpentine dips, falls and knots of a bourgeois family. Hari Hobson (formerly Patel) runs a tailors. He takes his new surname from the shop; since the blanket expulsion of South Asians from Idi Amin’s Uganda he embraces his new nationality tight; he is ever grateful to Ted Heath; he has gotten where he is through his hard work and his intelligence; he is forward-looking, progressive. His white British mate Jim enthusiastically describes a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony to him at one point and Hobson isn’t particularly interested. He runs a successful business and is comfortable and that has little relationship, to him, to his cultural history.
Hobson lives with his three daughters, Ruby, Sunita and Durga, who work unpaid in his shop. In the basement beneath the shop’s back room, tailors Tubby Mohammed and Ali Mossop work to make the suits they sell above. Ali is maybe the best tailor in Manchester, but he is feeble and disempowered and has neither the imagination or agency to profit by his own means. Instead, Hobson is the classic employer; charismatic and exploitative, demanding graciousness from his family and employers for whom he does the minimum he can.
Thinking he’s instilling his daughters with a faith in male power, Hobson instead teaches them the techniques of the bourgeois manipulator. When you treat you daughters like property and show them how to exploit people, what do you expect the smartest of them to do? As the play progresses it becomes clearer that Hari Hobson is in fact the antagonist: an anchor of a character, pinning his daughters in tight to him. Elder daughter Durga drives the action from about thirty minutes in and never releases her grip.
Her father does not pay her, and refuses to give permission for her to marry, because she is too useful to him. Durga sees she is being used as a resource and lays claim to her personhood. Though Hobson is powerful, he is old and widowed. The only meaningful production for the bourgeois is the reproductive power of the family, implied by the heterosexual couple. Hobson has had his shot at this, and his empire is built. Durga understands he way out is through the couple-bond and insists that Ali Mossop marry her.
Love is an invention of necessity. Durga neatly dispatches Ali’s existing engagement, fuses him to a new nucleus and uses the power of legal marriage to leave her father and make the life she wants. She manipulates her means and legal state to suit her. It does not matter if she is Hindu and Ali is Muslim: they discard those customs, adopt the plainest interpretation of UK marriage law to suit them and wed with a brass band from a drawer of odd parts. Durga’s sisters claim until this point they thought she was a lesbian – she has shown no interest in the heterosexual couple, or a family of her own, until she could turn it to her own liberation.
In the wake of this, she facilitates the blackmail of her father – who has turned to alcohol after she left the shop (of which she was a vital part: the business disintegrates without her). He passes out drunk in Piccadilly Gardens and she sends Sunita’s fiancé, a photographer, to catch the evidence. On this crutch she forces Hobson to allow Sunita and Ruby to marry who they wish, which they do. Hobson is left with no family, no star tailor, and a business whose custom has jumped ship, following Ali to his independent label, managed by Durga.
Hobson’s doctor is convinced that Hobson’s alcoholism is a symptom of his abandonment by women. She prescribes the return of his daughter to save his life from his own self-destructive, impotent single masculinity. Durga and Ali’s condition for coming back is that they take the shop. They take the shop.
I see Gupta’s Hobson’s Choice as an expression of what happens when capitalist exploitation is confronted and challenged on its own terms. The exploitation simply shifts. Hobson’s Choice is Durga’s play; she is masterful in her manipulation of the violent power of capital and propaganda. She ends the play holding everything her father once held.
In the closing moments, director Atri Banerjee shows us Hobson’s sympathy for two recently married British Indians carving their business into the place where his once stood. He stands in the doorway, looking fondly on as the younger couple embrace. Hobson’s faith in the reproductive heterosexual couple bond is not misplaced; it is what comes back to save his life. Ultimately it recreates itself. Were Hobson not a father, his exploitation would be final. Only female love comes back to tear him from alcohol and destitution, remedy and balance his babyish maleness.
Hobson’s Choice is shifts in power enabled by education and property. Durga is the bourgeois exploiter par excellence. She goes further than her father, has disdain for any history that does not serve her. Her success is her willingness to risk the life of her father, her ability to dangle a carrot of prosperity and wield a rod of destitution, to convince those around her they will be crushed beneath the wheel without her help.