Please Sir, I Want Some More: A Tale of Identity

Posted on January 18th, 2011 by

For our January term, a class made up of twelve students and two professors have traveled to London, England to experience British culture.  We went to a show in the West End called Oliver! for our first group adventure.  Oliver!, a musical based on the well-known novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, represents London culture and identity in many ways.  Dickens narrates and thoroughly describes London culture and identity through his characters and settings.  The main character, Oliver Twist, is an orphan and the story line follows his efforts to escape poverty.  The story leads us through the lives of poverty-stricken people in London and the roles they play in the culture at large.

Once Oliver is tossed out of the orphanage and runs away from the undertaker, he finds himself on the streets of London.  A homeless boy by the name of Dodger invites Oliver to meet his friend, Fagin, who will certainly take care of Oliver.   We find that the bunch of boys steal from others and combine their wealth to survive, being led by Fagin.  When Oliver makes his first attempt to steal a handkerchief, he is caught and taken by the wealthy man who brings Oliver back to his home and treats him like his own.  This is terrible news for Fagin and the other homeless folks for fear of being discovered and arrested.  The villain, Bill Sikes, creates an elaborate plan to get Oliver back, which he carries out by force.  However, Bill’s lover Nancy, who already puts up with abuse, stands up for Oliver and tries to return him to the wealthy man.  When Bill finds her on the bridge, he kills her and then takes the boy.  Eventually, Bill is killed by police and Oliver is returned to the wealthy man who had discovered he is actually the grandfather of Oliver.

The audience was mostly composed of middle- to upper-class people, and mixed gender distribution, evident by the acceptable clothing choice and chatter of education.  It is probable that many people in the audience had either read Dickens’ novel or watched the movie version of the musical, especially apparent through overheard discussions of comparisons between the musical and book or movie.  This allowed the audience to possibly understand more of the details and intricacies of the performance.

The musical displays different aspects of British identity.  The beginning starts by portraying poverty and the life of many individuals in London.  The song “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” describes how stealing is the only way to survive for this particular group of people.  Even in these rough times, they still consider having a fine life, displayed in the song “A Fine Life.”  Fagin and the gang seem to genuinely care for each other and attempt to look out for everyone in their gang.  This contributes to a very specific part of British identity.  Many people are affected by and live a life of poverty.  Their positivity and care for each other as well as their disregard for those not in their social class highly influences British identity on a greater level. This same mentality could be said for upper class.  Although the musical devoted little time to portraying the upper class, it was evident that they also cared for their own with overlooking other peoples.

Specifically, Oliver himself molds to the different communities he finds himself a part of.  At the orphanage, he uniformly conforms to the expected conduct and dress until he asks for more porridge.  Then, with Fagin and the Gang, Oliver follows the lead of Dodger and attempts to pick a pocket or two of his own.  When that doesn’t work out, he graciously accepts the new uniform of the wealthy man.  More than anything, Oliver could be best described as adaptable.  That being said, it is easier to distinguish different identities with characters like Fagin, Nancy, Dodger, and the wealthy man.  Perhaps this is because these characters were cemented more firmly in their community or more aware of themselves as individuals.

Overall this musical opens up the culture of London to outsiders to view how it works on a personal level.  It is easy to see how this musical describes British identity through the plot line and characters.  Most of all, it encourages each audience member to play their own role and be a part of the musical, consequently inviting them to actively interact with British identity.


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