July 23, 2003
Hobson's Choice

A colloquial English phrase for a choice that is not a choice - either there is only one option, or two options that are equally undesirable or virtually identical. Not to be confused with “catch 22” A catch 22 is when both (or all) choices are contradictory.

Apparently - the origin of the phrase can be traced to a Tobias Hobson (c. 1544-1631) who was a Cambridge stable manager who let horses. He insisted customers take the horse in the stall closest to the door (the next one up) or take none at all. Hence, a Hobson’s choice is no choice at all. Made famous by Milton. Phrase dates to 1660.

And a play by the same name was written by Harold Brighouse in 1914. Some history from Applause Southwest:

Although a prolific and popular playwright and novelist during his lifetime, the reputation of Harold Brighouse 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, Harold was not a keen student; at seventeen he left school to start work in the textile industry. In 1913, Brighouse’s friend and fellow playwright, Stanley Houghton, fell ill in Venice and died on his return to Manchester. Brighouse put together a memorial edition of Houghton’s plays and, while compiling the book, had discovered a notebook in which Houghton had listed the titles of projected plays. One of these was Hobson’s Choice.

Following the outbreak of war in 1914, Brighouse, at that time in France, made his way to the Channel. The emotional reactions of the other passengers to the impending historical tragedy combined in Brighouse’s mind with the memory of his dead friend and provided the impetus for a new play. It was to take place in the year 1880 because that had been the year in which his parents had decided upon their marriage. It was to be set in the very cobbler’s shop in Eccles to which his mother had taken him as a child to buy his boots. Even the cellar trapdoor of the place would be duplicated exactly. The character of Maggie was to be drawn from that of his sister Hilda. It was as if, in the face of massive hostilities and destruction, Brighouse wished to write a play which would represent all that was most admirable and humane in the Lancashire character. Finally, the title of the play itself would represent a tribute to his late friend.

Hobson’s Choice has been a very popular play over the years - and has staged numerous productions in theatres on both sides of the Atlantic. It was last staged in the West End in 1995. A more recent production was staged at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

AND NOW - we switch back to the present day: modern-day Asian playwright Tanika Gupta has adapted the famous Brighouse plot - this time Hobson is an anglicised Asian tailor-business owner - with three daughters who help run the shop for no wages. The setting is still Salford, Manchester though! This version of Hobson’s Choice is currently showing at the Young Vic theatre in London and I joined a group of friends from the office to see this yesterday evening - and it was superb! Acting was great - funny throughout - the “feet” scene was absolutely hilarious! And the music, imagery and original stage setting (the act immediately after the interval involved the audience leaving the theatre and going across the road to a disused church for the wedding day scene - complete with bilingual wedding invitations and Indian sweets!) were simply brilliant.

Hari Hobson: “I’m British - I’m middle class, and I’m proud of it!”

The music used to accompany some of the imagery at the end of the show was very infectious - I am determined to get hold of the “soundtrack”! Personally I was a little disappointed that there weren’t many more Asian folks in the audience (even though it was completely sold out) - as this sort of comedy has a great introspective element to it which more of us should laugh at - but it was great to know from the long applause at the end that this was thoroughly enjoyed by everybody. In fact I’ve heard that the show has extended it’s run at the Young Vic due to popular demand.

Check out some the reviews:

The Guardian | Whatsonstage.com | Redhotcurry.com | The British Theatre Guide | The Stage

Posted by jag at July 23, 2003 10:10 PM

When biking in Cambridge, it’s always a good idea to be aware of Hobson’s runnels. I’m always expecting a tourist to step off the pavement and break an ankle. Nevertheless, I’d hate to see them covered: http://www.stationcycles.co.uk/HobsInfo.htm

Posted by: Lisa on July 25, 2003 11:33 AM

Hobson’s runnels! so THAT‘S what those funny things are! Who would have thought that old Hobson would have such lasting legacy! I remember wondering what those funny channels down the side of the roads are in your quaint little town. Thx for the fascinating fact Lise!

Posted by: Jag on July 25, 2003 09:51 PM

Hobsons choice by Harold Brighouse is a outstanding play which has a array of themes which makes the play both memorable and an enjoyable read. As the plot develops and unfolds it is bound to get any reader gribbed right until the finish.

Posted by: laura on October 23, 2003 05:35 PM

Coulcn’t agree more Laura! (Thanks for commenting here.)

Posted by: Jag on October 24, 2003 09:53 PM

hia. we’re performing the play hobsobn’s choice in my drama for a comedy night. im in year 10. we’re doing the scene wer maggie tells will he’s to marry her, and argues with ada, and the bit wer she tells her father, hobson. i am to play maggie. need background info on her character. help?!?

Posted by: katy parry on December 8, 2003 09:12 PM

I love boys

Posted by: john young on November 26, 2004 09:42 AM

I love rusty. hes my boyfriend who is dead and in a wheel chair and he’s only 5 years old. I’m a necro peodophile and proud

Posted by: Wolfie on November 26, 2004 09:45 AM

We’re alcoholics :)

Posted by: Alannah and becca on November 26, 2004 09:46 AM
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