27 Jun Chapter One: The Causes of Poverty
Each chapter in our adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has title that refers to more than one motif within it. They each get a full page decorative heading, which will help to break up the book and give it breathing space. The old penny on this one took me back to childhood games with vintage one armed bandits, and I could almost smell the copper on my fingers!
Much of the first half of the book is set in ‘The Cave’, a large house belonging to Mr Sweater the draper, that Rushton & Co have been hired to renovate. We see work being done all through the house – at one point in cut-away almost like a dolls-house, which hints at the way the house is a model to represent wider society. We are introduced to the kitchen where the workers eat their packed lunches – and are treated to the first of many political debates that will be held there.
There is a writing maxim: show don’t tell. Tressell’s style is to do both, over and over until one feels one has been positively bludgeoned by the point he wants to make. I have tried to retain his method of allowing Owen to ‘tell’ the fault he sees in the system, then ‘show’ that fault in action in the lives of our characters, yet minimise repetition. So, in Chapter One we meet Owen and his colleagues hard at work. Owen tries to explain to his reluctant workmates the systemic causes for their miserable lives. Then we see the results of the precarity of their employment, and the masters’ power to drive wages down.
This is a story with an ‘ensemble cast’ and it was important to establish people’s characters firmly and early on, making sure that they couldn’t be muddled up or misunderstood. We meet Sawkins, a laid back sloppy worker often to be found sleeping on the dresser at mealtimes. Harlow is kind and generous, making jokes to lighten the arguments. Slyme is sanctimonious; Wantley expresses firmly-held beliefs always with his mouth full. Easton tries to suck up to the cruel and over confident foreman Crass.
Before long Owen has begun on one of his ‘lectures’ in which he tries to get his co-workers to consider theoretical economics. His attempt is in vain, and getting over-heated in his argument he has a tuberculosis-induced coughing fit. Old Linden is ready with the first of many “There’s always been rich and poor in the world and there always will be”, and Philpot chimes in with an equally defeatist “Life’s too short to quarrel and we’ll soon be dead”. These are themes and stances that set up the story’s context and political setting. The workers are reluctant to admit the poverty of their situation, despite the reality of their conditions.
We meet Mr Hunter for the first time, the boss who steals around the house trying to catch people out. He easily forces Newman into working ‘under-price’, and in the final scene of this chapter he shocks us by sacking Old Linden on the spot.
As part of our commitment to make a sensitive and faithful adaptation we wouldn’t consider beginning the story with any other scene than in the Cave kitchen. The lunchtime politics ‘lectures’ seem to be what most people think of when they talk about this book, and this early scene is quoted often. Funnily enough, people hardly ever quote passages towards the end of the book – it can’t be that no-one ever reads it all the way to the end… can it? Well, it will be more fun with pictures, we promise.