By Elaine P. Pearce
Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize wining novel To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant success. Fifty years and nearly fifty million copies later, it is still widely read and greatly loved. Inspired by the novel’s popularity, Charles Sergel wrote his theatrical adaptation in 1970 to meet the demand from schools for an acting version. Since then his play has reached beyond high school audiences, including one production that “toured regional theatres in the United Kingdom for nine months and then played seven months at the Mermaid Theatre in London.” The Manchester Guardian called it a “beautifully crafted adaptation,” and The Times review reported that it held “packed houses in rapt attention” (Charles Sergel, To Kill a Mockingbird [Woodstock, Illinois: The Dramatic Publishing Co., 1998]).
Compressing Harper Lee’s many stories of a small Southern town during the Depression may seem a daunting task. For Sergel, the center of the play is the racial prejudice that allows the arrest and trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a white woman. However, he balances that public issue of social injustice with the private life of the Finch family–Scout, Jem, and Atticus. Scout and Jem, energetic children with a curious fascination for the mysterious Boo Radley, have led relatively carefree lives, but the adult world begins to spill over into theirs when Atticus becomes the defense attorney for Tom. The children have not yet learned the prevailing prejudices that come with age. Following their father’s example, they tend to see the world differently from most of the folks of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1935. Like Atticus, they cannot “pretend to understand . . . why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird [New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006], 100–101).
Scout and Jem also have a strong sense of justice. Scout would willingly beat up Walter Cunningham when he taunts her with, “How come your daddy defends niggers?”(9). Jem destroys Mrs. Dubose’s porch flowers when she says that Atticus is “a nigger lover and no better than the trash he works for” (35). They have great difficulty understanding how a jury of adults can completely ignore the facts and reason to convict “a quiet, respectable Negro man who had the temerity to feel sorry for a white woman” (80). Atticus tells Jem that juries have convicted innocent Black men “before, and they did it today, and they’ll do it again. And when they do it—seems like only children weep” (88).
In William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, Captain Keller says that children keep their parents safe. Children also keep adults honest. Scout keeps the Old Sarum mob honest. Mr. Cunningham cannot hurt Atticus in front of his children, he cannot hurt a man who has helped him with a legal problem, and he cannot hurt the father of one of his son’s classmates. Scout’s conversation with him reminds him that he is still a human being, and that pulls him away from the mob mentality to stand in Atticus’s shoes.
From that situation arises the focus of Charles Sergel’s adaptation, What does it mean to be human? Human beings have certain rights. They have the right to privacy. “What Mr. Radley does is his own business” even if it does seem peculiar to Scout and Jem (21). People are “entitled to full respect for their opinions” (26) and “the right to make whatever decisions they consider best for their children” (57). And every individual, regardless of his skin color, has the right to be judged fairly in a court of law.
Rights are balanced with responsibilities. To be truly human, one must have compassion for his fellow man. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (21). Tom Robinson helps Mayella because he has compassion for her. He appreciates her struggling attempts to add beauty to an ugly existence without any help from her family. Hardworking and honest, Tom is a human being, not just merely alive like Mayella’s father. Stunned by Tom’s death, Scout asks, “How could they shoot Tom?” Atticus must tell her that “To them he was just an escaping prisoner. He wasn’t Tom to them” (94). Killing a Black man is so much easier if he is not considered fully human.
Human beings also have the responsibility to do the right thing. When Scout wonders if Atticus can be right when so many people think that he is wrong, he tells her that a conscience “does not abide by majority rule” (26). A person cannot expect anyone else to respect him unless he does the right thing. Atticus “won’t have [his] children hear [him] say something different from what [he] knows to be true” (100). Atticus defends Tom even though he will be fighting his friends (25), even though Sheriff Tate believes he has everything to lose (43). Despite the futility of his actions, Atticus defends Tom because it is the right thing to do. “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win” (25). The fact that Atticus does try to win, does offer a defense that keeps a jury out so long deliberating Tom’s fate, suggests that Maycomb may be taking “a little step along the way” (91) toward a time when Blacks will receive equal justice in a court of law.
In the meantime, individuals can provide the justice the courts do not. Concentrating on Tom Robinson’s case minimizes the other notable innocent of Harper Lee’s novel Boo Radley, who watches the children play from behind a window curtain, laughs softly when the tire in which Scout is rolling crashes against the Radley house, leaves many gifts for the children in the knot of the old tree, mends Jem’s pants that are stuck to the fence in an escape from the Radley’s yard, and places a blanket around Scout’s shoulders on the cold winter night when the children stand outside the Radley Place watching Miss Maudie’s house burn. To save Jem and Scout, Boo kills Bob Ewell, ultimately providing justice by killing the man who caused Tom Robinson’s death, but to make this information known, to drag Boo “with his shy ways into the limelight—that [would be] a sin” (101).
After Boo saves Jem and Scout, Scout stands on the Radley porch and sees her world as Boo must have seen it, protected from it by the walls of his home. She understands Boo, knows that he saw her and Jem as his children. “He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives” (Lee 320). As she makes her way home, she feels very old and concludes that she and Jem “still have to get grown but there [isn’t] much else left for us to learn” (103). That reminds me of E. E. Cummings’ lines, “children guessed (but only a few/ and down they forgot as up they grew.” Scout and Jem will not forget. And neither will we.