Review: To Kill a Mocking Bird

A new staging of Harper Lee’s seminal novel reminds us of the importance of standing up for the truth.

Proletarian writers

Subscribe to our channel

Proletarian writers

Subscribe to our channel

In 1960, Harper Lee wrote her first and only novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird. The book was immediately popular with readers and quickly climbed the bestseller list, where it stayed for two and a half years.

The author was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1961, various honorary degrees in the years that followed and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. Her book continues to sell about a million copies a year, is taught to all school children in the US and is now on the curriculum for the GCSE English Literature exam in England, too.

Previous productions

In 1961, the book was made into a film, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. The film won three Academy Awards (Best Actor for Peck, Best Writing Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium and Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Black-and-White) and was nominated for another (Best Actress for Mary Badham, who played Scout). Lee described the film as “a work of art”, and for many years refused all requests to turn it into a musical or stage play, regarding Peck’s performance as Atticus as definitive.

However, in 1990, the novel was adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergal. The play was first produced that same year in the writer’s home town of Monroeville – a town that labels itself the ‘literary capital’ of Alabama.

The play is performed every May in the county courthouse grounds, and townspeople make up the cast. White male audience members are chosen in the interval to make up the jury. During the courtroom scene the production moves into the Monroe County courthouse, where the audience is racially segregated.

Author Albert Murray said of the relationship of the town to the novel (and the annual performance): “It becomes part of the town ritual … With the whole town crowded around the actual courthouse, it’s part of a central, civic education – what Monroeville aspires to be.”

According to a National Geographic article, the novel is so revered in Monroeville that people quote lines from it like Scripture; yet Harper Lee herself has refused to attend any performances, because “she abhors anything that trades on the book’s fame”.

To underscore this sentiment, Lee demanded that a book of recipes named Calpurnia’s Cookbook should not be published and sold out of the Monroe County Heritage Museum. This stance is a refreshing change from the usual rush to market goods based on any familiar or popular book, film, TV or cartoon character.

David Lister in the Independent has stated that Lee’s refusal to speak to reporters makes journalists desire to interview her all the more, and that her silence “makes Bob Dylan look like a media tart”.[sup] [/sup]Despite her discouragement, a rising number of tourists make the journey to Monroeville every year, hoping to see Lee’s inspiration for the book, or Lee herself. Local residents call them “Mockingbird groupies”, and, although Lee is not reclusive, she refuses publicity and interviews with an emphatic “Hell, no!”[sup][/sup]

Open-air revival

This summer, a revival of the play was the first production of the season at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London. The play’s brief run at that theatre has already ended, but, in the event that it transfers to the West End, Proletarian has no hesitation in recommending the production to our readers. And, whether or not that is possible, now would seem to be a good time to read, or to re-read, the book, and to watch the film. It will repay the effort.

For those who have not yet read the book or seen the film, the story is set in the small county town of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. It concerns a widowed lawyer, Atticus Finch. He is a scion of an ‘old’ Maycomb County family, who have a plantation at Finch’s Landing on the nearby Alabama river (which is not quite close enough to the town to provide it with easy access, with the result that time, trade and progress has largely passed the town by).

When the story begins, Atticus has two children: Jem, a boy aged nearly 10, and Jean Louise (known as ‘Scout’), a girl aged nearly 6 (who despises anything ‘girly’ and habitually wears ‘overalls’ (dungarees) because “you can’t do anything interesting in a dress”).

While their father is at work at his law practice in the town, the children are cared for by the family cook, Calpurnia, who lives out in the black section of town and whose family were originally slaves on the Finch plantation, where Calpurnia was born. Calpurnia cooks and cleans for the family and cares for and disciplines the children in their father’s absence.

The power delegated to Calpurnia, the licence given to his children in their activities, and the freedom of expression allowed to the children by their father are all frowned upon by Atticus’s sister and by the older of the family’s neighbouring town ladies, who are very mindful of everyone’s ‘place’ and what is befitting for white, ‘old’ town or plantation families, country folk (small white farmers), white ‘trash’ and ‘negroes’ – in descending order of social status.

Atticus is given the task, by the local judge, of defending a young black farm labourer charged with raping a poor white girl – a capital offence. We follow the progress of the case from first to last through the eyes of Scout, whilst she also starts school and begins to learn what makes her home town tick.

The writer will not reveal anything more of the story, as it is a delight to have it unfold as one watches the play or film or reads the book. Lee’s own family was ‘old’ in the story’s sense and her father was also a lawyer. The story is based on a true incident that occurred in her childhood.

But even if that were not the case, the story has the elements of universal truth while still being firmly anchored in its own time and place – a hallmark of great literature, which this novel undoubtedly is. Lest that sound too forbidding, be assured that the story is told with humour and charm, and it is difficult to watch the current production of the play without being moved to tears at the end.

The play uses Scout’s first-person narrative in the book as its framework. Different actors read sentences in turn at the beginning of scenes, to explain changes of time or location and to provide narrative where it cannot be easily turned into action. Of necessity, the play loses characters and incidents from the book, but nothing of any significance is left out.

Most of the characters’ words in the play are drawn directly from the book. Most importantly, the essential themes and the core message of the book are unaltered in the play or the film. In this, the play and film differ fundamentally from the film adaptation of a more recent best-seller set in the segregated south, The Help.(See review in Proletarian, December 2011)

The staging of the play at the Regent’s Park theatre is very simple. The actors begin by depicting the small area of roads and houses which form the boundaries of the children’s world in chalk on the stage. There is a single tree, initially hung with a tyre as a child’s swing, later with a hangman’s noose, indicating the possibility of a lynching. Chairs, tables and a bed are wheeled onto and off the centre stage as the action requires. Actors don or remove a hat, an apron etc to become a character or to read a part of the narrative.

This simplicity sets the audience’s imaginations free. The actors’ words and actions paint the pictures and vividly portray the changing seasons, evoking the atmosphere of a small and claustrophobic town in the southern States.

It is the depiction of racial prejudice in depression-era USA that has made this story a classic. Nearly 70 years after the emancipation of the slaves, the story shows how segregation of the races still ruled everybody’s life. This does not just mean social separation but a code that decreed that the patently false story of an idle, abusive, drunkard must always be preferred above that of an honest man if the honest man is black and the drunkard is white – even ‘white trash’.

Disrespect and distrust of the ‘negro’ by the white men and women of the town is a given: black people are ‘boy’ to their face and ‘nigger’ when discussed in their absence. Atticus is shown to be a rarity in his approach of treating all as equal. His speech to the jury telling them that one place where all men are equal is the courtroom may be heartfelt, but it is proved false.

More recently, The Help concentrated on the life of black servants – the Calpurnias of that world – in 1962. It showed that, notwithstanding the passage of a further 27 years (nearly a century after emancipation), and the participation and sacrifices of black Americans in WWII, the lot of the black American had not substantially altered.

Racial segregation, lack of equality before the law, powerlessness before the institutions of the state, lack of votes and of economic power left African-Americans vulnerable to joblessness and routine prejudice at best, persecution and lynching at worst. The danger in all such books and plays as those under discussion here is that they may give the reader or the audience a cosy feeling that these events were all a long time ago and that things are different – and better – now.

Outside of these engaging novels, we know that it was only the determined, united resistance of the civil-rights movement, and the preparedness of back and white workers together to risk imprisonment and death, that lead finally to some improvement in the situation of African-Americans.

Now that there is a black president in the USA, bourgeois commentators would have us believe that racial disadvantage is a thing of the past. In reality, however, while a few formal barriers have been removed, or weakened, the lot of the majority of black workers in the US is still consistently worse than that of their white counterparts, although Obama’s election obscures that fact for many, even among black Americans, who are persuaded to buy into the American myth that anything is possible and anyone can ‘make it’ and become prosperous or even wealthy in the ‘land of opportunity’.

Capitalism needs racism

But racism is still at the core of capitalist America. There are a still a disproportionate number of black Americans in jail, and they are more likely to be sent to jail – and sent for longer – than their white counterparts. There are black political prisoners in US jails – the Black Panthers (who were developing a revolutionary programme in the face of the failure of the civil-rights movement to significantly improve the lot of the majority of the working-class black Americans), the Cuban five, and others.

The recent case of Trayvon Martin – an unarmed black teenager shot dead by the white self-appointed ‘protector’ of a gated community in Sanford, Florida, as he walked home from the shops – shows how deeply ingrained is the historic distrust of black man in the southern states of the US. There was no evidence of any threat by Trayvon save the word of the armed vigilante, but that was enough for the jury to acquit the vigilante and, by implication, convict the black teenager of wrongdoing.

The echoes of the Stephen Lawrence case are clear: a young black man in a hooded top must be up to no good. It was just this same assumption which meant that Metropolitan Police officers allowed Stephen to bleed to death on the pavement while they harassed his friend, and later failed to investigate the young white men who had murdered him.

Instead, they not only prosecuted his friend, but even spent considerable time and money on sending an undercover policeman to search for damaging information about the Lawrence family and their supporters in order to discredit their campaign for justice. It was only that campaign and the strength of opinion that supported it which finally forced the government and the police to look again at the case and eventually to successfully prosecute – on a second attempt – two of Stephen’s five attackers.

Racism and racial discrimination, along with sexism and all other forms of inequality, will only end with the end of the system of exploitation of man by man. Capitalist imperialism relies upon all these inequalities in order to survive.

The minority rule of a tiny handful of billionaires has always been facilitated by the policy of ‘divide and rule’, whereby deep divisions are created and perpetuated amongst the masses – men vs women; black vs white; Irish vs British; colonial subjects vs workers at home, and so on. As the economic crisis gets deeper and our rulers rush to save themselves at the expense of workers at home and abroad, we can see racist hysteria and scapegoating climbing higher once again.

Unless and until a proletarian revolution is followed by the state rule of the working class and its allies to guarantee the end of exploitation, all victories by the working class and progressive forces will be partial and insecure. It is not a struggle for the faint hearted or those who want a quick fix. The reality is that it is still necessary, in the words of one of the 1960s Freedom Riders, to “keep on keeping on”. Chairman Mao told us that “Perseverance means victory”, and perseverance is what is needed.

The lesson we can learn from Atticus Finch is to have the courage to stand against received opinion and live out one’s principles in action. Today, our movement faces the condemnation of the legitimate Syrian government not only by British and US imperialists and their extensive propaganda machine, but also by the majority of ‘left’ activists too. Now is a time, once again, to be prepared to stand for what is right, not what is popular.

In 1914, when the Bolsheviks called for the defeat of their own government and put forward their slogan of turning the imperialist war into a civil war to overthrow the tsarist autocracy, they were vilified and laughed at. Three years later, the revolution they had long been preparing for actually took place.

History shows us that only by telling the workers the truth and standing our ground against imperialist propaganda will our movement gain in strength and, ultimately, win victory over imperialism.