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“To Kill A Mockingbird” reaches the Broadway stage: theatre review

“The flaws in this dramatization are not so great that I would put anyone off from seeing it.”

David Elstein
31 December 2018
Screenshot 2018-12-31 at 09.40.03.png

Screenshot: Aaron Sorkin and Jeff Daniels in Mockingbird publicity. YouTube. Fair use.

Harper Lee’s classic novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, set in Alabama in the mid 1930s, tells the story of a black man falsely accused of rape, and his defence in court by the saintly Atticus Finch, all narrated by Finch’s 8-year-old daughter, Scout (or Jean Louise, to use her baptismal name).

Written by Lee before she was even 30, and basing her characters on her own family, the book has been in print for nearly sixty years, has accumulated 30 million sales, and was memorably translated to the screen in 1962, winning Gregory Peck an Oscar for his performance as Atticus. Until just before her death, a year ago, Lee was thought to have written no other book, though a manuscript of a sequel about Atticus Finch twenty years later – of disputed provenance – was published under the title of “Go Set A Watchman” in 2017.

Forming a bridge between Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield, Scout’s story has became a staple of the American classroom, so it was no surprise when busloads of schoolchildren in uniform lined up for a matinee preview in December of a new stage dramatisation by Aaron Sorkin, of “The West Wing” fame.

With Jeff Daniels – who starred in Sorkin’s last TV series, “Newsroom” – playing Atticus, and Bartlett Sher – the Nicholas Hytner of American theatre – directing, it was no surprise to learn that the box office had taken an unprecedented $16 million in advance bookings before it opened on December 13. What was a surprise was that the Lee estate had gone to court (unsuccessfully) to prevent the show going ahead, claiming the script was not a fair reflection of the book.

Rudin’s take

The lead producer of the drama is the prolific Scott Rudin, whose name is attached to at least half a dozen of Broadway’s most successful recent offerings. His ability to spot a hit, to support a script he likes, or to manage a transfer from London or off-Broadway, is unmatched amongst the cluster of producers who dominate the Great White Way, in his case with shows ranging from new musicals like “The Book of Mormon” to major revivals of Pinter, Miller and Albee. He has also received 11 Oscar nominations for films he has produced, including “Moneyball”, “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs” (three movies scripted by Sorkin), “No Country For Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood”. He has been a film studio executive and a TV executive producer (“Newsroom”, inevitably), and is one of the few people to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy.

The reviews of this “Mockingbird” have been respectful, but in truth the production is largely a disappointment, partly for the reasons offered by the Lee estate. Apparently, Rudin swiftly rejected Sorkin’s first draft, which followed the book more closely than the finished version does: “get the trial up front!” (in the book, we are half way through the 300 pages before the trial starts). Sorkin also decided to “let the African-American” characters speak – notably, Tom Robinson, the accused, and Calpurnia, the Finch family maid (Scout’s mother had died when she was just two, and her brother Jem six).

Starting with a scene from the courthouse makes a certain amount of sense dramatically: but it forces on the director a series of set changes which become clunkier as the play proceeds. At the performance I attended, some scenery got stuck, causing a 15-minute hiatus, and bringing grudging applause from the audience when Jeff Daniels turned to them and said: “it’s a preview!” (I am too embarrassed to admit what I paid for two seats in the last row of the orchestra – or stalls, as we would say in the UK – for a Wednesday afternoon performance a week before opening night: such is the marketing oomph of five famous names as author, adaptor, producer, director and star – and, of course, a book title of lasting fame).

Letting Tom and Calpurnia ‘speak’

But the decision to let Tom and Calpurnia ‘speak’ is hard to understand. In the book, Tom’s evidence takes up six pages. Sorkin has added almost nothing to it, other than to interpolate, rather clumsily, an invented scene of Atticus showing dismay when Tom admits to having felt sorry for his supposed victim, the white trash teenager, Mayella Ewell, left by her even trashier father, Bob, to look after half a dozen younger siblings single-handed. “I told him not to say that: juries don’t want to hear a Negro saying he feels sorry for a white woman!”

As for Calpurnia, Sorkin invents some kind of resentment on her part, which Atticus struggles (understandably) to comprehend. She comes across as surly and sassy: which is not just anachronistic, but quite false to the book. One reviewer likened the relationship between the two as that of sister and brother, which only underlined the glaring absence of Atticus’ sister Alexandra from the adaptation. Presumably in keeping with this re-interpretation, the most affecting scene in Lee’s original story is simply omitted by Sorkin: where, after Tom’s conviction, Calpurnia explains to Atticus why so many of Tom’s friends and neighbours have left offerings of food at the Finch kitchen door, showing gratitude for his efforts in defending a hopeless case; thereby reducing Atticus to tears.

Instead, Calpurnia challenges Atticus when he tells his children – Jem is particularly outraged by the jury verdict – that it is wrong to judge people, let alone a whole community, until you have lived inside their skin. It will take a while, he says, before Maycomb County (the small community where the Finch family lives) learns to treat all people alike, regardless of skin colour. “But how long do we have to wait?” Sorkin has Calpurnia sulkily objecting: a piece of updating that he and Rudin have robustly defended, but which feels quite out of place in 1935.

Of course, the New York audience lapped that line up (the lady sitting next to me leaned across, before the curtain rose, to apologise for the tragedy of Trump – “it’s not New York’s fault!”). Even more applause greeted the “coming out” as gay by the young friend of Scout and Jem, Dill, as he bade them farewell before the final curtain: an absurd and gob-smacking invention – Dill is not even 9 years old in the book, and is – apart from one scene – an entirely dispensable character, even if Sorkin thinks Lee based him on her friend Truman Capote, with whom she grew up in Monroeville, Alabama (the model for her fictional Maycomb County).

Far too adult

Sorkin and Sher try to finesse the deep unlikelihood of this plot development by having the three children played by adults. The male actors are thirty-ish, while Scout is played by the 40-year-old Celia Keenan-Bolger. It is no criticism of their performances that this casting profoundly undermines belief in the drama: even dressed in dungarees and clutching Daniels’ waist when her character needs comfort, Keenan-Bolger cannot convince as an 8-year-old. Perhaps the decision was driven by the number of lines the three characters have to deliver, but it would have been much simpler to have allowed an older version of Scout to frame the action, and given real child actors more sculpted parts.

Reportedly, Rudin told Sorkin that Atticus had to “grow” during the action, but it’s not clear how this has been achieved, other than to have Atticus losing the seat he has long held in the Alabama legislature, because of his taking the Tom Robinson defence; which suggests shrinkage rather than growth.

Either way, that does not happen in the book. Surely only the most unobservant reader of Lee’s work would fail to see that it is the “growth” of the two children which is at its core. Lee’s skill as a ventriloquist enables us to “hear” Scout distinctly, first as a 6-year-old and then as an 8-year-old, learning lessons from the court case and events surrounding it. And Jem grows from the play leader daring to approach the door of the neighbouring Radley house – where Arthur Radley, known as “Boo”, has holed up as a recluse for decades and has become in the children’s imagination some kind of bogeyman – into an impassioned 12-year-old, following the trial from the gallery (where all the African-American citizens of Maycomb must sit) and pronouncing his dismay at the verdict.

In the play, perhaps for reasons of economy, there is no gallery, and so no room for Dill’s big scene, running from the gallery in tears, distressed by the prosecutor continuously addressing the accused as “boy”: something Dill, from out of state, is probably not used to.

What Atticus teaches Jem is that he must not judge people collectively: there is good and bad in each one; and that, actually, it was something of a triumph to have had the jury spend three hours considering their verdict (again, something ignored by the play), giving real grounds for hoping that an appeal hearing might succeed, where justice can distance itself from the prejudices of a local jury made up of poor white farmers.

Atticus believes that it was one of the farmers, Walter Cunningham, who prolonged the deliberations: the man that Scout recognized (he is a client of her father’s, too poor to pay his bill in cash, so supplying farm produce instead) as one of the lynching party that turned up at Maycomb jail the night before the trial. She engages him in conversation (as Atticus had told her was the polite way to deal with people), asking after his son, who is her classmate: “tell him hey for me, won’t you?” Cunningham pauses. “Then he did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders. ‘I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady.’ He said. Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. ‘Let’s clear out,’ he called. ‘Let’s get going.’” So, inadvertently, Scout defuses a crisis.

Unsubtle Sorkin

Sorkin introduces us to Scout at the start of the play with a little concoction of his own: the mystery (apparently, in the eyes of Scout and Jem) as to how – after the trial – Bob Ewell managed to fall on his own knife and stab himself to death in the stomach. But this little tease, however dramatically useful, is actually false to the book. What Scout actually learns at the end is that the mysterious “Boo” Radley, who, so she later realizes, had left the children little tokens in the hollow of a tree when they were smaller, had actually emerged from his self-imposed reclusiveness, and intervened to prevent Bob Ewell from stabbing both her and Jem. He had then carried Jem, who had suffered a broken elbow in the attack, back to the Finch house. Scout’s Halloween costume for the school pageant – she is dressed as a ham – has a knife slash in it, but was robust enough to prevent her being wounded, and the wire structure left clear marks on her assailant’s arms.

To begin with, Atticus believes the sheriff, Heck Tate, is shielding Jem from a charge of killing Ewell. Then Heck tells Atticus that Ewell has been stabbed with a kitchen knife: and there was no way that Jem would have been carrying such a weapon on his way back from the school pageant. Scout quickly understands how wrong she had been about the imagined bogeyman: “Boo was our neighbour. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.”

There is no “mystery” about Bob Ewell falling on his own knife, or at least not one that exercises Scout. And she fully understands why Tate wants to close down the investigation, and leave Boo out of it, telling Atticus “well, it would be like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” – reminding him of his own words when he bought his children air rifles: “shoot all the bluejays you want if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”. As one of the Finch neighbours, Miss Maudie Buford, explained to Scout, “mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” After the sheriff leaves, Scout takes Boo by the hand, and escorts him home. “He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again.”

Unfortunately, much else of Harper Lee’s subtlety eludes Sorkin, or is ignored by him. In the era of “Black Lives Matter”, it was inevitable that there would be a nod to official as well as unofficial violence towards Tom Robinson. When he is shot trying to escape from prison, the theatre audience is left to think that this was a deliberate, even inevitable, act to eliminate the risk of acquittal at appeal. But Lee’s Atticus is more nuanced: yes, he says, “seventeen bullet holes in him – they didn’t have to shoot him that much”.

But he also says that the guards first fired above Tom’s head to warn him, and only when he was almost over the fence did they shoot at him, reporting afterwards that he would have made his escape if his withered left arm had not handicapped him – the same disability which Atticus had deployed in court as proof that Mayella’s father, not Tom, had given her the beating that could only have been inflicted by a left-handed man. Atticus simply rues the fact that Tom lost hope after the conviction, and was not prepared to wait for his appeal hearing.

Courtroom drama

The big scenes of Mayella and Bob Ewell giving evidence in court are the most successful in the play, and Sorkin has sensibly left them almost unchanged from the book (apart from making Bob an anti-semite as well as a racist, which, as the New York Times noted, seemed like another instance of “pandering to the Broadway audience”). Frederick Weller and Erin Wilhelmi act their socks off, and it is to the credit of Jeff Daniels that he restrains his performance rather than trying to match their fireworks. This is Sorkin’s forte – his first big success was the courtroom drama “A Few Good Men – and he does not fall short.

These scenes alone ensure that everyone leaving the Shubert Theatre will have experienced dramatic excitement and moral uplift for at least part of their visit, especially if they have never read – or cannot remember – Harper Lee’s original.

The director, Bartlett Sher, is not noted for lacking in bright ideas. His “South Pacific” made brilliant use of the depth of stage at the Lincoln Center (US spelling), and his “The King And I” pulled off a stunning coup de theatre with the giant prow of a ship carrying the royal governess to Siam thrusting into the same auditorium as the show opened. His revival of “Fiddler On The Roof” may have been outshone by the latest version, this year, all in Yiddish, but his revivals of two Clifford Odets plays, “Awake and Sing!” and “Golden Boy”, won deserved critical plaudits.

“Awake And Sing!” is dominated by the claustrophobic Berger apartment, and all the action seems to pass through its crowded rooms, especially the kitchen. Then, in the final scene, as the key protagonists, grandson and grandfather, make their way to the roof of the building, the scenery magically pulls away, allowing the audience the belief that the young man and his idealistic hopes will be allowed to escape from the mundane realities of his family’s struggle for survival.

Paradoxically, in “Mockingbird”, Sher reverses this brilliant action. The scenery repeatedly flies in, rather than off, with cast and extras pushing furniture back and forth, re-creating the courtroom and the front porch alternately. It is all unduly laborious, reflecting the awkward structure of the play. Even the mournful incidental music, which is specially composed, and performed on guitar and pump organ by two musicians on-stage throughout, feels misjudged. This is not Sher’s finest hour.

Artful simplicity

Despite the mis-steps and mis-judgements by the production team, this “Mockingbird” is still a recognisable version of Lee’s original. The purist might wish that her estate had prevailed in its court case, but the flaws in this dramatization are not so great that I would put anyone off from seeing it – assuming the seat prices do not have that effect. At least the cost of entry will swell the estate’s income, over and above the $100,000 rights fee paid by Rudin. And for $8, anyone can buy the paperback and enjoy Harper Lee’s artful simplicity on its own terms – again, or for the first time.

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