Hard Times

In Hard Times Dickens criticises utilitarian education. In an adaptation, playwright Deborah McAndrew takes aim at the current education system

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When Charles Dickens wrote his novel Hard Times he moved away from his usual London setting, instead basing his tale in a fictional northern mill town. The story follows Thomas Gradgrind, a retired merchant who raises his children Louisa and Tom to adhere to a philosophy of rationalism and fact, never allowing them to engage in imaginative pursuits.

The consequences are devastating. As an adult Tom becomes an emotionally void hedonist, while Louisa faces an ongoing struggle with inner confusion, always feeling as though there is something missing from her life.

Dickens was satirising the notion of utilitarianism – a prevalent school of thought during the period and a lens through which to solve questions of ethics. The philosophy relies on maths and statistics and emphasises the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people?

Dickens was appalled by the prevalence of this philosophy in educational institutions, which he believed created young adults whose imaginations had been neglected due to an overemphasis on facts, as well as promoting mutual contempt between mill owners and workers.

Hard Times may have been written as a reaction to the methods of education in the mid 19th century, but Deborah McAndrew, who has adapted the book for the stage, says there are parallels to be drawn with the education system in the present day.

“There is something about Hard Times, I think because it’s about the education of children and the reductive nature of educating them purely from a utilitarian and factual point of view, that really chimes with the way the education system in our country has gone over the past 15 years,” she says.

“Increasing testing, where children can describe a sentence and how it’s constructed grammatically rather than knowing what it means and how it makes you feel – it’s about how reductive on the human spirit that can be. I think there are plenty of people who feel very anxious about the way the education system teaches children – parents and the wider public at large don’t think testing is very good for children.

“Mr Gradgrind has done exactly that with his children and he damages them beyond repair. Our argument is right there really with what childhood should be about – imagination and stories and what fictional stories, which the Gradgrind children are not allowed to read, do for us in terms of learning how to be in the world and how to cope with the challenges we face and how to make relationships and form friendships and love affairs with other people. Neither of his children are able to do that as adults.”

McAndrew’s adaptation is about to be performed by Northern Broadsides under the direction of Conrad Nelson, who says that although Hard Times deals with serious themes, his main purpose is to entertain.

“I don’t want the adaptation to feel gloomy, because ultimately I don’t think it is a gloomy tale. Although the setting is the industrial north, it does have this hope behind it all the time and this joy and colour. And of course those characters who just ping off the page, they really are so exciting and energetic and not oppressive at all. It does have a great deal of pathos to it as well. As Dickens and many good writers do, they juxtapose the pathos with the comedy so well.”

Hard Times is at the Viaduct, Halifax, 16-24 Feb; Dukes, Lancaster, 27 Feb-3 March; Lowry, Salford, 6-10 March; Liverpool Playhouse, 27-31 March, Steven Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, 17-21 April; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, 2-5 May; and West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 22-26 May

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