To Kill A Mockingbird (2009)
By Jane Page
When do we look back on our youth to consider the lessons learned and remember the events we have experienced? For most of us, these times of reflection occur when we are facing great personal challenges or when there is a great cultural or societal upheaval. I believe that at some point we come to understand that today’s challenges and circumstances are informed by our history. Likewise, our country’s story and “life” have a similar path.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the greatest and best-loved American novels, Harper Lee captures the truth, heart and life of a small American town at a specific time in our nation’s history. In the play, Jean Louise Finch, the adult narrator of the story, reflects on her upbringing in the deep South in the 1930s, a time of great racial and economic strife. In her remembrance, the fabric of society was not just being examined; it was being torn apart and resewn.
The story is anchored in the love of a family in the midst of a small town community divided by fear and racism and tells of wonderful childhood friendships and adventures. The story is told from the open-hearted perspective of children who are often the truth-tellers in life. These children almost magically map the cultural context of their community, influencing lives and events without once recognizing that they could be in any sort of danger.
We are living in a time of great change: a time of challenges and of opportunities. Looking at To Kill a Mockingbird from today’s cultural and political perspective, after we have elected our first African-American president, we can say, “Look how far we have come since the times of Tom Robinson.” And then we ask ourselves, “Would we be willing to take on the challenge that Atticus Finch takes up heroically in this story, a challenge that requires tremendous courage because it means standing up to a community and their deeply and self-righteously held prejudices?”
To Kill a Mockingbird not only provides Scout a profound lesson in life, it also extends that lesson to each of us, inviting us to measure how far we have come, and emphasizing how we must continue to be diligent on the road to justice and freedom.
It is the summer of 1935 in Maycomb, Alabama, and Jean Louise (Scout) Finch and her older brother, Jem, have made a discovery: someone is leaving trinkets in a tree’s knothole on the Radley place. With the arrival of a new playmate, Charles Baker Harris (Dill), the children spend their days wondering about the most mysterious of the Radley clan, Boo, who lives shut up in the house next door. They scheme to get him to come out, but are warned by their father, Atticus, an attorney, to leave Boo alone. These warnings go unheeded, for the most part, until Maycomb is turned upside down over the Tom Robinson case.
Atticus is appointed to defend Tom, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. The week before the trial, Maycomb is abuzz with talk and activity, and the children begin to view their father in a different light. Jem spots a rabid dog and the children are astonished as they witness Atticus shoot the dog. Calpurnia, their cook and caretaker, reveals to them that their father’s childhood skill as a marksman earned him a notorious nickname—“Ol’ One-Shot.” In her excitement, Scout runs next door to Mrs. Dubose’s house to brag. Mrs. Dubose accosts Scout, railing against Atticus’ decision to defend a black man, claiming that he’s going “against his raising.” This startling attack on Atticus’ character is the first in a series of events that brings the reality of the trial home for Scout, Jem and Dill.
The day before the trial begins, Tom is moved to the county jail and Atticus disappears after dinner. Scout, Jem and Dill sneak out to see where Atticus has gone. They go downtown and discover him sitting outside the jailhouse. At Jem’s insistence, they decide not to bother him, until a mob shows up, intent on lynching Tom. Scout, unaware of the danger, breaks away from Jem, bursting into the group of men. The mob finally disperses and Atticus, Scout, Jem and Dill walk home together.
On the day of Tom’s trial, the courthouse is packed with spectators. Against Atticus’ wishes, Scout and Jem, with Dill in tow, attend the trial. Unable to get seats downstairs, they watch from the Colored balcony. A parade of witnesses testifies. Atticus casts doubt on the accusations made, showing that it would have been difficult for Tom to commit the crime. Based on the testimony, Atticus suggests that Mayella made unwelcome advances toward Tom, and that her father, the notoriously drunk and rowdy Bob Ewell, caught them. Atticus goes on to suggest that this enraged Ewell so much that he savagely beat Mayella and then accused Tom to cover it up. Though the jury takes a long time coming to a decision, they find Tom guilty, much to the disappointment of Scout, Jem and Dill.
Bob Ewell, angry with Atticus for humiliating him in court, vows revenge. A few weeks later, when news arrives that Tom has been shot trying to climb over the prison fence, Ewell boasts of further retribution. Heck Tate, Maycomb’s sheriff, warns Atticus to take the threats seriously. Atticus does not believe that Ewell can harm him, but he is soon proven wrong: Scout and Jem are attacked walking home on Halloween night after the carnival held in the high school auditorium. Unable to see their attacker in the darkness, the children struggle to escape and are rescued by a stranger. Jem suffers a broken arm, but Scout walks away unscathed, protected by the ham costume she was forced to wear in a pageant about Maycomb. Heck discovers Ewell’s body, fatally stabbed with a kitchen knife. Atticus, initially believing that Jem killed Ewell, soon realizes the truth: the stranger who rescued his children is responsible for Ewell’s death. It dawns on Scout who the stranger standing in her living room is: Boo Radley. Heck insists that Ewell fell on his knife during the struggle, and Atticus agrees that the right thing to do is shield Boo by leaving his involvement out of the statement.
Scout walks Boo home, getting a view of the world for the first time from the Radley porch, and finally truly understanding why it is considered a sin to kill a mockingbird.
By Emily K. Harrison
To Kill A Mockingbird The Novel
When Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960, Lee hoped only for “a swift and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers.” But at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement in America, her story of racial injustice in Depression-era Alabama served as a beacon to those who harbored hope for equality and justice. To Kill a Mockingbird, though rejected by some as an affront to Southern values, was lauded by others as a refreshing coming-of-age tale.
Inspiration for the book was in large part fueled by Lee’s desire to document life in a small Southern town, something she believed to be on the brink of extinction. Though Lee renounces assertions that the book is autobiographical, many of the characters that populate the fictional town of Maycomb were most likely inspired by people living in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Lee concedes that the character of Atticus was based upon her own father, an attorney who served in the Alabama State Legislature. It is believed that Truman Capote, a lifelong friend of Lee’s who, as a child, was sent to Monroeville to reside with relatives, inspired the character of Dill. Most believe that Scout was fashioned after Lee herself, who admits to being a tomboy as a child. The 1955 murder of African-American teenager Emmett Till may have inspired the plot. Till’s brutal killing—by men angered by reports that he had flirted with a white woman—is cited as a key motivator for the Civil Rights Movement, and may have sparked Lee to create the innocent but ultimately doomed Tom Robinson.
To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the most controversial novels in the history of American literature. Many people still advocate its removal from school curriculum and public libraries, denouncing its language as offensive and its presentation of rape inappropriately forthright.
While Lee may have hoped only for “a swift and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers,” she was instead rewarded with critical acclaim so overwhelming that in some respects, it was crippling: she never wrote another book.
For director Jane Page, it is important that To Kill a Mockingbird is a memory play, recounting events from the childhood of the now adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Because memory plays a crucial role in the ways in which we move through the world, it is vital to recognize that the events that shape us, though individually remembered, are collectively felt. Scout’s recollections of the events surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson, of her relationship with her family, friends and neighbors, and of the realization that the “spook” next door is not to be feared, are key elements of Harper Lee’s classic tale because they recount the moments in life in which she first recognized the humanity inherent in those around her.
Often romanticized, memory can also become fuzzy, the remembered elements of people, places and events fading and shifting as time passes. While some portions remain sharp and clear, others fade into the ether, only half-remembered and sometimes forgotten altogether.
These contrasting realities of memory are reflected in the design elements for To Kill a Mockingbird. Kevin Brainerd’s costumes highlight the sharpness of memory. Remembrances of the Depression-era, small-town South are alive in the period costumes, which are well worn but clean and carefully mended. As a contrast, Andrea Bechert’s set, with precise details that fade into air, reflects how memory can fragment and fade. Through these aspects of design, we hope to reflect both the inherent beauty and the unavoidable sorrow of memory.