Harold Brighouse’s 1916 play Hobson’s Choice is the story of a cobbler in late 19th Century England whose refusal to allow his three daughters to marry or to pay them for their labors in his boot shop eventually results in his destitution and total dependence upon the oldest of the three, Maggie, for his survival. A play on the common phrase suggesting the absence of an actual choice among preferable options and dating to a 16th-17th Century livery owner named Thomas Hobson, Brighouse’s cobbler, Henry Hobson (hence, the play on words), finds himself in the play’s final scene left with the choice of either accepting the conditions set forth by Maggie or living out his days penniless and homeless – in other words, no real choice at all.
The frequently inebriated Henry, dependent upon his unpaid daughters and the skills of his only paid employee, Willie Mossop, for commercial success, has badly misplayed his hand. His autocratic method of dealing with his grown daughters and the exploitative manner in which he manages Willie, a gifted if somewhat doltish boot maker (when Maggie is attempting to conspire with Willie to undermine Henry, she informs Willie “You're a natural born genius at making boots. It's a pity you're a natural fool at all else.”)provides the play its sense of irony. In Scene I, Henry attempts to lay down the law with his increasingly rebellious daughters:
“Hobson. Then I've a choice for you two. Vickey, you I'm talking to, and Alice. You'll become sane if you're going on living here. You'll control this uppishness that's growing on you. And if you don't, you get out of this, and exercise your gifts on some one else than me. You don't know when you're well off. But you'll learn it when I'm done with you. I'll choose a pair of husbands for you, my girls. That's what I'll do.
Alice. Can't we choose husbands for ourselves?
Hobson. I've been telling you for the last five minutes you're not even fit to choose dresses for yourselves.”
Henry is in the process of making a major strategic error: he is attempting to force the hands of three adult women who are eager to assert their independence from their domineering and boorish father. When Henry’s best customer, the well-to-do Mrs. Hepworth, demands that all of her future orders for new footwear be executed by the talented dimwitted Willie, Maggie sees her opportunity to be liberated from her father’s dictatorial clutches, which sets off a chain of events climaxing in Henry being forced to make his own “Hobson’s choice.”