Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World

Simon Callow is a rarity, highly accomplished both as an actor and as a writer of non-fiction. He created the title role in Amadeus on the stage (and played a smaller role in the Hollywood version) and may best be known to American audiences for his performance in Four Weddings and a Funeral. I’d previously read his biography on Charles Laughton and the first part of his three-volume life of Orson Welles, both of which were tremendous. In the current work, he combines both of his careers. Having played Charles Dickens countless times on the stage and on television, and having read everything ever written by Dickens in preparation for his roles (including private correspondences, magazine articles and transcripts of his speeches), he brings that intimate knowledge to bear in this narrowly focused biography, which looks at Dickens through the prism of his relationship to the theatre.

Now, it’s well-known by most educated people that Dickens throve on the lecture stage giving highly animated readings of his work, playing every character himself to the delight of his audiences. It’s also fairly well known that he enacted proper stage roles in amateur theatricals. One of the main revelations of Callow’s book is a more accurate picture of what that consisted of. When I hear “amateur” or “private” theatricals, I get a picture of someone’s living room, charades, party games, productions involving one’s visiting relatives, and a bonnet tied to the head of the family dog. No doubt there was a copious amount of this sort of activity in Dickens’ life as well. But Callow makes plain that what Dickens was involved in was much more than that. These were full fledged productions, usually organized for charity, employing all the resources of stagecraft then available at the time.  The modern American phemenon of “community theatre” is almost analagous — indeed, some of the community theatre companies that exist in New York are just about the equivalent. Provincial community theatre, while not incapable of being excellent on rare occasion, is apt to be amateurish. The apparatus is there (including, ironically, resources most New York theatre companies would kill for, in terms of lights, stage, wings, storage, etc) but the artistry is often crude and untrained. In New York however (as in the London of Dickens time) with its intense competition and its high concentration of talent, amateur or community theatre can often be as good as that of the professional theatre, the only difference being one of mission. Dickens’ charity productions were reportedly amazing theatrical experiences — and this is coming from the lips of the great thespians and critics who witnessed them. Especially harrowing was said to be Dickens’ performance in his adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ arctic adventure The Frozen Deep.

The theatre, indeed, was Dickens’ first love. His childhood dream was to go on the stage. Why didn’t he? Life happens. His family, though genteel, was often poor. His first decent opportunity was as a court stenographer, which led to journalism, which led to fiction, which led to a little prosperity, which led to marriage, which led to a large family, which led to a need to a support a large family, which led to needing to make money in the surest, quickest, most proven way possible, which happened to be, for him, writing fiction. But the dream was always there, and he always kept a hand in.

As the title implies, Callow’s book speaks not only of Dickens the theatrical raconteur, but of Dickens, the public man, and all the ways he “performed” throughout his life’s amazing journey. Callow paints a picture of a man never at rest, of a man who goes out to take a brisk walk and winds up ten miles away. Editing magazines, turning out serialized novels, writing letters, lecturing, acting in and staging plays, traveling, micromanaging the lives of his children — and getting very little sleep. Seemingly indefatigable, he died at age 58, it seems clear, of exhaustion.

Callow seems cut of that same overachieving cloth. If you come to this book (or any of his previous ones) expecting some dilettante’s hackwork, you’ll be sorely mistaken and mightily impressed. Not only is his book rich in research, much of it original, but it is stylistically elegant and mercifully brief. As someone who has toiled at non-fiction, I can tell you that a major portion of the job lies in pruning the facts back to something that is pleasurable to read. Callow manages to do more than that. His vivid portrait makes you feel like you have gotten very close to Charles Dickens.

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