Hard Times

To paraphrase Robert Wuhl as the wacky minor-league coach in the fabulous baseball movie Bull Durham (he was actually talking about working at Sears):  Theories suck, man. Sell Lady Kenmores.

At least, that’s my theory after a weekend of theatergoing that included Candide at Portland Opera and Stephen Jeffreys’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times at CoHo Theatre. Theories? Just shut up and hit the ball.

Twedt (left), Cettina, deChatelet. Photo: Gary Norman

You can’t walk around the art world, let alone the culture at large, without bumping into a theory or twelve. Essential to science, where they’re part of a continuing process of discovery, they tend to harden into dogma in the cultural, political and religious realms. In art circles people sometimes forget that theories work best when they explain what’s happening in art, not when they try to drive how it’s being made. And when applied rigorously to something as unpredictable and emotional as human beings, theories can create havoc. Ask B.F. Skinner’s kids. Ask Dickens and Voltaire.

Except that both are adapted from classics, these two plays don’t seem to have a lot in common. Hard Times, published in 1854 and adapted by Jeffreys in 1982, was a response to the pressures of conformity that came along with the Industrial Revolution. Candide is the legendarily troublesome 1956 Broadway-musical adaptation of Voltaire’s satiric 1759 novella, with glorious music by Leonard Bernstein and a book that seems forever stuck betwixt and between. Candide, closer in spirit to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels than to anything by Dickens, is a continent-hopping picaresque. Hard Times is also sweeping, but far more focused and coherent in its storytelling.

Under the skin, though, Hard Times and Candide are blood brothers. Each is a sharp rebuke in fictional form of a social theory that seems to map out the betterment of society but in fact can be cruelly detrimental to the people living in it.

Amid war, famine, slavery and even cannibalism, Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss posits his fatuous theory derived from the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that this is “the best of all possible worlds.”

In Hard Times, Dickens tests and finds wanting the idea of Utilitarianism as developed by Jeremy Bentham and others to meet the challenges of the Industrial Revolution. In the novel, the idea is pushed in a dreary Victorian manufacturing city by the equally dreary “facts, facts, facts” of schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind.

The idea that grand ideas are a pox upon the people is easy enough to sympathize with in a world bedeviled by everything from social-Darwinist economic theories to virulently clashing religious ideologies. Theories might be beautiful, Voltaire and Dickens argue, but unless they hold at least some semblance of connection to reality they’re worse than nothing at all. Even with the best of intentions (see: Russia, 1917) they can have disastrous results.

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