Hard Times (for these Times) is an adaptation of Charles Dicken's novel. I saw the show as performed by The Lookingglass Theater Company -- the company presents its work in the 19th century pumping Station on N. Michigan Avenue across from the old Water Tower. It's a complex Victorian space with the theater in a curtained-off alcove beyond a huge complex of mechanical devices, bellows, and pumps set in a deep pit below-grade. The Lookingglass company specializes in a kind of highly athletic theater -- the group is allied with a school that teaches circus arts to students -- and their shows involve much acrobatics, high wire work, magic, and trapeze artistry. Hard Times, Dickens' novel, is almost allegorical, a thorough-going (and unfair) attack on British empiricism and the doctrine of Utilitarianism as espoused by John Stewart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The novel is set in a mythical place called Coke City, a place where there are vast textile factories, Blake's "dark satanic mills", and plumes of poisonous smoke rising incessantly from the industrial sites. Dickens' characters symbolize certain traits in British social and political life and have elaborate names like Mr. Bounderby (a nasty industrialist), Mr. Gradgrind (an acolyte of Utilitarian ethics), and M. Choakumchild, a close-minded school teacher. In the context of Dickens' big encyclopedic novels, the book is relatively tightly written, short by the author's standards, and rather schematic. But it still turns out to be much too complex to adapt to the theater and the play is scattered, disjointed, hard to follow, and, fundamentally, incoherent. Furthermore, the circus interludes, which are showy and very impressive, don't really add much to the play -- in fact, the circus theme distracts from other aspects of the plot and, I think, confuses things seriously.
The plot is very complicated for a 2 and 1/2 hour play and there are many, many roles -- most of them played by actors or actresses who appear in two or, generally, three parts. (This is also a bit confusing). Gradgrind has educated his children, Tom and Louisa, to be strict and logical believers in utilitarianism. Gradgrind, who seems to have a good heart notwithstanding his empiricist dogma, takes into his school a girl named Sissy. She is a waif from a circus -- her father has abandoned her. A worker in the weaving mills owned by the loathsome Mr. Bounderby has a drunk wife. She reappears making his life miserable just as he is about to begin a love affair with the kind and gentle Racheal, another worker in the mills. Bounderby is friends with Gradgrind and asks for Louisa, Gradgrind's daughter, as his spouse. Remarkably, the young and passionate Louisa agrees to marry the horrible, fat Bounderby (she is 20 and he 50). This appalls Bounderby's longtime companion, a woman named Mrs. Pegler. Act One ends with Louisa Gradgrind agreeing to marry Bounderby.
In Act Two, all sorts of things happen. It's too much to assimilate and the play would have done well by slowing things down and, maybe, burning another half-hour -- although, then, the show might be intolerably long. Unhappy in her marriage, Louisa almost has an affair with a member of parliament who shows up for no particular reason. (She avoids the love affair, but this being a Victorian era story -- bad wishes count just as much toward damnation as bad acts). Louisa's brother, Tom, who is a gambler steals money from Bounderby's bank and blames the crime on the worker with the alcoholic wife (and the long-suffering Racheal). (The alcoholic wife has mysteriously vanished from the mise en scene). There is a strike. Bounderby's mother appears, giving the lie to the industrialists claim that he was abandoned by her and raised in the most bitter poverty. Tom joins the circus to escape from Bounderby -- and, in fact, eludes pursuers and crosses the border. Gradgrind is horrified at the mess that he has made of his childrens' lives -- but Louisa forgive him. Bounderby, it seems, will end up bickering forever, but in the clutches of the scheming Mrs. Pegler and Louisa, apparently, joins the circus. None of this makes any organic sense -- stuff just happens. Dickens makes Bounderby thoroughly vicious, but, it seems, more or less agrees with him politically: Bounderby keeps saying of his workers (and later his wife): "They want venison and turtle soup served to them with a golden spoon" -- that is, they think they are entitled to pleasures to which they are not entitled. The mill worker torn between the alcoholic wife and Racheal is implored to join the strikers. But Dickens likes this character and wants to show that he is virtuous and he is not about to suggest that there is any virtue in the strikers, perceived, it seems, as rabble-rousers. So he makes the character into a scab -- and a feckless scab to boot: returning to Racheal one night, he falls in the open shaft of a mine pit, is horribly injured and dies. (This leads to a bathetic but pointless death scene). The play goes off in all directions at once -- the ending is completely unsatisfactory: Louisa remains legally married to the awful Bounderby. Tom, who is a criminal, seems to escape unscathed. Sissy, the school girl and waif runaway from the circus, seems to be the principal character in the show -- she is clearly dominant in the First Act in which she delivers several speeches refuting utilitarianism. But in the second half, she is completely forgotten for more than 45 minutes -- and the story involving her father's vanishing is never resolved. Epitomizing what is wrong with this handsome, but dull-witted show, is a scene near the end of Act One. Gradgrind conveys Bounderby's grotesque marriage proposal to Louisa. Louisa doesn't know anything about love. After all, she's been raised by empiricist Utilitarianists who deny the emotions. She thinks about whether she should marry a man that she doesn't love. Then, her mind wanders to running away and joining the circus. From behind the cage-like scaffold where she is brooding, the trapeze descends and a beautiful young woman and boy perform calisthenically, mimicking sex on the flying trapeze. After imagining this spectacle, a very pretty thing, Louisa inexplicable agrees to marry Bounderby. This is doubly atrocious and unpersuasive -- first, any rational utilitarian analysis of the situation would yield dozens of reasons to reject the 50 year-old man's offer. (Gradgrind must be a terrible teacher and idiot to boot if he didn't teach his kids enough for Louisa to make a reasonable decision here -- obviously, agreeing to marry Bounderby is the worse thing she can do.) When Louisa's imagination "runs away to the circus," she watches the elaborate love scene on the trapeze and, then, seems to wholly ignore it and chose the passionless match with Bounderby. Clearly, the play is not suggesting that "running away to the circus" is a road to ruin -- but this is what the action shows us. If Louisa hadn't spent her precious ten minutes of freedom salaciously imagining sex on the flying trapeze and, in fact, had done a proper utilitarian analysis of the situation, she would have known that her marrying Gradgrind would yield misery for all, not the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
The show is handsomely lit and the large cast is enthusiastic and wonderfully agile. The set consist of two wrought-iron skeletons of scaffolding, something like what an enterprising kid could build with an erector set but towering. The scaffolding contains a second level where actors can climb via ladders and, then, declaim their parts from a narrow gallery about 15 feet above the floor -- I thought the unguarded balcony was a little bit frightening. Behind the two wheeled scaffolds, there was a large mural, something like one of Piranesi's Carcieri, brick smokestacks gushing smoke and foggy factory roofs.