By Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
First written as a serial in 1837-1839 Oliver Twist follows the struggles of a poor orphan boy living on the streets of London. Inspired by his own experiences as a young boy living in poverty, Charles Dickens used his pen to write a scathing critique on the gap between the rich and poor in England. Little did he know (at the age of 25) that his novel would become one of the most beloved pieces of literature in the English language. People in England and America eagerly anticipated the next installment. Over 175 years later, it remains a popular work of art – in books, film and, of course, on stage in Lionel Bart’s stirring musical, Oliver!
Rereading Oliver Twist now, I’m reminded of how Dickens wove together a story of good and evil, rich and poor, satire and sincerity, political and personal desires. And how he captured the people and the streets of London as only a journalist could, with precision and love. But what I find most striking is the act of rebellion at the heart of Oliver Twist – the audacity of an orphan to ask for more.
But this is not solely a story for the Victorian era. It is a story very much for today. Setting Oliver! in modern London brings into stark relief the current gap between rich and poor. The divisions between upper, middle, and working classes were first recorded in Britain in Dickens’ lifetime. Today, as many as seven social classes have been recorded: elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and precariat (precarious proletariat). In London alone, 6,508 people were reported sleeping rough during 2013/14.
Here in D.C., population growth and high rental prices have resulted in an increase in homelessness and poverty. One–fifth of District residents live in poverty and, on any given night, there are over 7,700 individuals who are homeless. And another winter is upon us. In a Brookings Institute ranking earlier this year of U.S. cities with the largest gaps between rich and poor, D.C. ranked fifth — ahead of New York and Los Angeles.
The beauty of Lionel Bart’s musical is that he shows us the despair of poverty inherent in Dickens’ novel but, through the music, he is able to lift our spirits and give us hope. The juxtaposition of these emotions creates a rich tapestry which makes Oliver! a compelling work we want to revisit time and again. Fortunately for Oliver, his story has a happy ending. He finds the answer to “Where is Love” and is able to consider himself at home. Let us take our cue from Oliver and dare to ask for more – for ourselves and for our community.
(Photo: Jake Heston Miller as Oliver and Paul Vogt as Mr. Bumble in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.)