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'A Tale of Two Cities': Musical draws surprising parallels to today's society

Published: Saturday, Feb. 19 2011 3:00 p.m. MST

Maybe the world just needs a little more Charles Dickens.

In January, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile after weeks of protests against his authoritarian regime and corruption involving his family.

Soon thereafter, mass protests erupted in Egypt as hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets, calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down after 30 years of autocratic rule.

And with an impending people's revolution in Iran and unrest in Saudi Arabia, a mood of change has begun to sweep through the Middle East.

Indeed, demands for political and economic reforms have escalated as the educated youth in the Middle East have banded together to challenge autocratic rulers.

So what does this have to do with Dickens?

In 1859, the English writer penned one of the greatest works of English literature, "A Tale of Two Cities," the musical adaptation of which is being performed at Utah's Hale Centre Theatre from Feb. 16 through April 9.

In his story, Dickens depicts the French peasantry in their struggle against the French aristocracy in the years leading up to and during the French Revolution. He also draws parallels to life in London during that same period. (Get it, a tale of two cities?)

Moving centuries ahead, "A Tale of Two Cities" finds application in today's world as the Middle East experiences similar uprisings.

Authoritarian leaders replace the aristocrats of the 18th century and peasants are replaced by educated youths who Tweet their way to revolution. Rulers who were once thought invulnerable are toppled in a wave of popular discontent — this time sans the guillotine, luckily.

It is that lack of violence that Dickens would be so proud of.

"Dickens is hoping for a kind of reform that comes through a change of heart in the people rather than through an actual violent revolution," said Vincent Pecora, Gordon B. Hinckley Professor of British Literature and Culture and chair of the English department at the University of Utah.

Dickens saw of the dangers of social stratification and the problems of an unresponsive upper class which was indifferent to the needs of those below them.

Not only written as a social criticism of the French Revolution, Dickens wrote his novel as a warning to 19th century England.

In Dickens' day, England was in the thick of the Industrial Revolution and as a result was very prosperous. Yet Dickens described a country filled with social class disparities — the poor becoming poorer as the bourgeoisie kept wages low in factories and workhouses.

If social rifts continued to grow, Dickens warned, England could have a revolution just like France. It was not the reforms Dickens feared, however, it was the violence that might ensue.

"Dickens is very much on the side of reform," Pecora said. "What he fears is the disruptive violence. He saw revolution as a kind of monster that swallowed people whole."

From the novel's first historic lines, Dickens noted that the world was in a time of unrest, a cataclysm of change.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair ..."

The contradictory phrases echo throughout the story as the power struggle ebbs and flows, drawing comparisons to today.

It seems as though history has repeated itself, as it always does.

The questions remain: Will we forever remain in the "age of foolishness," or is there a "spring of hope" in today's unrest?

e-mail: smoreton@desnews.com

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