The Four Stages of Cruelty is based on four prints by Hogarth, an engraver who flourished during the dynamic interplay between social classes in eighteenth century England. Drawing from his observations of London life, Hogarth produced a number of panels that satirised English society and the means people used to climb the social ladder. Moving on from his earlier, lighter works such as Marriage á la mode, Hogarth aimed to use a more visually grotesque approach to educate the lower classes with The Four Stages of Cruelty. Set in the early 1700s we follow the life of Tom Nero, an orphan burning the candle at both ends. With four snapshots of Nero’s existence, Hogarth portrays the progression, or evolution, of what he considers an egotistical approach to life. These snapshots are derived from what was seen in the streets, talked about and read in the papers at the time. Hogarthian critics have pointed out the incorrect reasoning in suggesting that these views of London are a progression from early to late corruption ending in demise. Yet writers such as Stendhal and Balzac who also use examples from human life in extremis to make their point have faced no such criticism. The reason? Not enough words, not enough images. This is the gap that the Arcola theatre has attempted to fill.
The structure provided a great start, offering an excellent sense of integrity between the stage and the audience. Using a simplistic approach in recreating the surroundings, in each scene there was fluid alternation between images. The simplicity of the background added more emphasis to the characters, whose costume design was perhaps too meticulous. A key component of the scenery was the sound that filled the space, especially whenever the stage had to be divided, with different scenarios running concurrently down- and up-stage. A mandolin player added to this experience of noisy London, and on occasion was utilised in lieu of a chorus.
As we grow with Nero, the influences and the storyline follow the sequence in Hogarth’s panels. The quick switch between comedy and tragedy adds to this sense of unforeseen circumstances. This adventure is portrayed in an excellent manner through the conflicts between the characters. The Arcola promises a play that creates a swirl of life, death, love and cruelty. However, although death and cruelty are diligently portrayed, it seems that life and love take a back seat. Nero’s relationship with his chosen one is the one place where the play is lacking. The Hogarthian version of The Four Stages of Cruelty had a story to tell that could have been conveyed in four prints with some verses beneath them. The Arcola’s version demonstrated the same thing on stage beautifully, being able to transfer our senses to 18th century London to hear the same story, yet the depth of meaning is lost.
The Four Stages of Cruelty contains a lot more words and a lot more images than the Hogarth prints; indeed at times the play seems to be successive still-shots. It is an interesting production that seems to be dealing with the thoughts of class, money and personal ambition that drive human action. Another, slightly more tragic, meaning can also be extracted. Beyond the reasons and beyond the character’s complexity, is he not acting a more basic role? Deprived from fatherly powers he sacrifices himself and sacrifices others to achieve an ersatz immortality, to create something of lasting worth. This existential angst, evident throughout the play, is shared by each of the characters, both affluent and poor. Regardless of position and rank everyone in the play is concerned about tomorrow, the future and what he can do to control it.
The Four Stages of Cruelty is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 24th June. For more information and tickets, see the website here.