The Hobbit on Stage
by Joan Marie Verba
reused here by permission. Originally appeared in the October, 1990 Mythprint
The Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis presented a stage version of The Hobbit (adapted by Thomas W. Olson) from April 18 to June 10, 1990 (demand for tickets was so great that extra performances were added later). The Children’s Theatre Company has a reputation for excellent productions, and this viewer was not disappointed.
The play begins with the dwarves and Gandalf already in Bilbo’s house, explaining what their objective is and what part they wish Bilbo to play in it. From there, events follow the book from the trolls to Rivendell to the goblins to Gollum to the wargs to the rescue by the eagles. The eagles take them directly to Mirkwood (the visit to Beorn is dropped entirely), where they have a brief encounter with spiders and fall into the hands of the wood-elves. Bilbo rescues the dwarves as in the book, and they float to Lake Town. Here the plot becomes very different from the book. Biibo and company meet Bard right away, and learn that the dragon comes down from the mountain to plunder Lake Town regularly. The dwarves and Bilbo go to the Lonely Mountain and Bilbo talks with Smaug, but directly afterwards, Smaug attacks the dwarves, killing Fili and Kili and mortally wounding Thorin. Bard comes to the mountain with Gandalf and kills the dragon. Bilbo hears Thorin’s dying words, and the play ends.
Although I first read The Hobbit in eighth grade, and have read it repeatedly ever since, it did not come “alive” for me until I saw this play. Despite its departures from the text, I felt that it breathed life into the characters. The proportions struck me as realistic: Bilbo is the shortest character; the dwarves are taller than Bilbo; Gandalf is taller than the dwarves; the men and elves are the tallest of all. There are actually thirteen dwarves on stage in the opening scene, but in successive scenes, there were only nine or eleven on stage at once. Still the play “felt” right to me in most ways.
I went primarily to see the costumes, and they were fantastic. Although Gandalf does not have a pointed hat with a wide brim, he does look very much a wizard in his gray costume, and he does wear a hat, though it curled forward at the top. The dwarves wore layers, which made them appear ancient and well-traveled. They carried packs or baggage with them. Bilbo wore bright colors, setting him apart from the others. Elrond looked regally elvish, and the wood-elves had hats and garments of leafy patterns in autumn colors. The trolls were large and, dumpy. The goblins had reddish tortoise-shell patterned armor on their backs, and looked menacing. The dragon was enormous, well-crafted, and well-animated. Gollum is the “nasty, slimy” creature described in The Hobbit rather than Smeagol the pseudo-hobbit in Lord of the Rings, and his eyes really glow and change color.
The play inserted background from The Lord of the Rings, particularly in Elrond’s conversation with Gandalf over Thorin’s map. The One Ring is mentioned here and there, and it is made clear that Elrond and Gandalf are trying to recover it. Smaug also makes inquiries about a ring. I thought this was a nice touch; if The Hobbit had been written after The Lord of the Rings instead of before it, such items might have been in the manuscript.
There are also some other differences between the original Hobbit and this play. At Rivendell, the female elves look and act more like nymphs than nobility. They fawn over the dwarves while Gandalf, Elrond, and Bilbo are busy elsewhere. In the play, the dwarves appear more eager to leave Bilbo behind, given the opportunity, than they were in the book. Also, Gandalf, when not acting in a scene, appears off to the side of the stage as a narrator, filling in the gaps between scenes, and sometimes explaining what is going on, Balin appears to have a never-ending cold or allergy; Bilbo arrives at Lake Town with clear sinuses.
In general, I think that the Children’s Theatre Company did a good job in following the spirit and form of the original story. Despite some flaws, the play was well-staged and interesting. Music was added to set the mood or tone of a scene, something I thought would particularly appeal to the children in the audience (and tehre were a great many of them). The monsters (trolls, goblins and Smaug) were especially well-crafted, and delighted the audience.
I think that such efforts show that The Hobbit has an enduring, if not legendary, quality to it, and that it will be considered a favorite among children and adults for many years to come.