Wherefore “Lambs”?

February 10 marks the natal day of English essayist, poet, critic, novelist, and playwright Charles Lamb (1775-1834). Even if no theatrical clubs had been named after him, I’d ultimately have given Lamb some attention here…for much the same reason clubs have borne his name. You don’t know the clubs? Shame on you! The Lambs Club was formed in London, and lasted from 1869 through 1879. In 1874, the American version was founded and it is still thriving to this day. I’d long known about the historic Lambs, for many of the vaudeville performers and stage actors we write about were members of the Lambs back in the day. And I have been privileged to have spoken at the latter-day Lambs, and, God willing, will do so again!

Why name a theatrical club after Charles Lamb? Aside from certain of his poems, Lamb is chiefly remembered today for several works of dramatic criticism, the most popular of which is the book for young people Tales from Shakespeare (1808) which he cowrote with his sister Mary. It is a charming introduction to Shakespeare with literary merits of its own, although I have little doubt but that most contemporary American adults would find it prohibitively daunting despite its having been designed for children of the Georgian Era. Other relevant works include Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare (1808), and On the Tragedies of Shakespeare (1811). He also wrote plays himself, although with less success than his other literary endeavors. There was the tragedy John Woodvill (1802), and a farce Mr. H. (1807) that was apparently booed by audiences. Ironically (given the later emergence of the clubs that bore his name) Lamb came to have the radical belief that plays were essentially too good for the theatre — that, like novels, they were better kept in the imaginative head-space of solitary reading. He’s certainly not the only thinker or artist in history to feel that way.

Lamb was friends with Coleridge and Shelley, and apart from his writing on the theatre, the works of his I know best are anthologized poems. Apart from these he is best known for a series he wrote under the pen name “Elia”, many of which were considered controversial because irreligious, or at least irreverent. His fiction included A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret (1798), and The Pawnbroker’s Daughter (1925, co-written with Mary). For children he wrote, The Adventures of Ulysses (1808).

Most intriguing is his 1821 essay Witches and Other Night Fears, both because of its topic (the high seriousness he gives to the dream-life many decades before Freud)…but also because both he and his sister Mary suffered grievously from mental illness. Lamb himself had been committed to a madhouse for several weeks in the 1790s. And most appallingly, Mary, in a fit of darkness, stabbed their mother to death and had to be permanently committed. It was Charles himself who’d gotten the knife away from her…too late. Thenceforward, the tragedies of Shakespeare had nothing on the real life of Charles Lamb .

Advertisements