The Atticus Finch Challenge

Sindhu Mathai on how a powerful theatre performance based on a literary classic provides contexts for difficult, meaningful discussions.


Recently, Arena Theatre Productions dramatized Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bengaluru. 

Growing up, like for several others, this was a favourite book for me, juxtaposing myriad ideas and shades of meaning.

It was a beautiful adaptation for the small stage: each setting and character gradually coming to life, without spectacular entry scenes or applause-begging statements. I was baffled by its ability to evoke suspense, strong emotions, and nostalgia all over again, but with fresh insights.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird first edition cover

    The first edition’s cover of To Kill a Mockingbird 

This post discusses some of these insights through themes such as: practising values, understanding difference and vulnerability, bringing up children through difficult social situations, and the possibility of theatre as a method to pose questions for meaningful conversations.

The narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, has a hands-off but genuine parenting approach which is refreshing, what with current ideas of helicopter parenting’ strangely engulfing parent-child relationships. 

However, Finch was modelling serious commitment towards work, responsiveness to children’s questions, and living his stated values, while not holding up virtue as an unreachable standard weighed by punitive measures.

In not living separate lives within the home and outside, Finch wove in discussions with children on various concerns. 

These included: his life choices, the culture of constant misinterpretation in casual communication; not slipping into cynicism and vengeful retaliation despite harsh circumstances; and maintaining a poised optimism when answers to long-standing social problems are not forthcoming. 

It brought rich treasures in his everyday interactions with clients and other members of the community, leading to questions from the children and thoughtful responses.

The rites of passage that the children go through in trying to understand their similarities with the rest of the community and conflicts arising out of differences in their father’s worldviews are thought-provoking. 

Their meandering thoughts, together with childhood pranks, squabbles and endless games present a delightful freedom, difficult in guarded, distrustful times. 

There are differences between the children too and acceptance of these – in the manner in which Boo Radley stands separate as an introverted child, but with an attentive space of his own in secret observation of other children and the town’s happenings. Dill realises soon enough that Boo is perhaps justified in being confined at home given unfair practices in society that one might happily remain oblivious of. 

The children grow up in the space of the novel itself thoughtfully — arguing, dissenting, and attempting to make sense, while not necessarily reaching consensus. 

The adults in their lives are of varied sorts: sometimes helpful, explaining and comforting, but often conflicted and biased. The children attempt to make sense of their contradictions admirably.

What delighted me, however, was the challenge thrown by Atticus Finch to the audience, who were also expected to be jurors, in this immersive theatre experience. 

Elaborate settings and props transported us into the worlds of the characters. Timely breaks between changes of scene helped travel across different contexts. As social stratifications widen, it behoves us to reflect on our perspectives, beliefs, and ways of living. 

Atticus’s oft-quoted remark to his children is more relevant than ever today (widening the scope of the dominant pronoun used then): 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.” He repeatedly lived this through reflection and action, such as while asking his son to read to an elderly neighbour Mrs. Dubose, despite her deep racial prejudice and criticism of Atticus.

Further, he was empathetic and admiring of her battle with morphine addiction. He could explain to the children why Boo Radley was not to be mocked for societal deviance. He could calmly deal with being angrily spat at by Bob Ewell for defending a Black man in court despite repeated threats. 

He was able to understand why Mr. Cunningham, a poor farmer, was unable to pay his charges as a client except through sacks of vegetables grown with difficulty during The Great Depression of the 1930s.

Through his repeated practice of values both within and outside the home, quiet parenting and patient demeanour, Atticus calls upon us to similarly scrutinize our prejudices and conflicts instead of quickly reacting to insinuating situations and messages wafting around. The play brought these concerns home quite convincingly through breathtaking performances. It underscored that besides the book’s messages being ever so contemporary, the questions it asks of us continue to be timeless. 

Reflecting on this further, an implication for my teaching at the University is apparent. Such stories help reflect upon and discuss shared values and practices during phases of tension, unrest or conflict and renew our commitment for the long haul. Watching a powerful theatre performance together provides meaningful contexts to engage with such discussions.

Image Credits: Arena Theatre Productions

About the Author

Sindhu Mathai is an MA in Education faculty member at Azim Premji University. She teaches courses in science education and curriculum studies. Her recent projects are in the areas of informal science learning, graphical literacy, and space-time relationships in the classroom.