When we were in London in September, we had the opportunity to see two plays. First was a stage adaptation of the movie Chariots of Fire (complete with running track), timed for the Summer Olympics. The second was a one-man production, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, written by the writer (and Dickens biographer) Peter Ackroyd and starring the actor Simon Callow.
Ackroyd published his biography of Dickens in 1990, and by size alone it’s the be-all and end-all – weighing a hefty 3.6 pounds and more than a thousand pages in length. I read it a few years after it was published, largely because I was a speechwriter for a CEO, I had to read what he read, and he was reading Dickens. The collected works. Unabridged.
When we were in London, Dickens was in the air. This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth. The Bodleian Library in Oxford had an exhibit called “Dickens and His World,” and we got to see that as well. Inexplicably, the Dickens Museum on Doughty Street in London was closed this year for renovation (someone might have managed the timing better).
I’ve been a reader of Dickens since high school. I read three of his novels as part of required course work – Great Expectations in ninth grade, A Tale of Two Cities in tenth grade, and David Copperfield my senior year.
Dickens was known, particularly in his later years, not only for his books but also his public readings. Those readings included A Christmas Carol and his other Christmas stories, as well as selected scenes from his other novels. He did just read; he acted them out. He would essentially play all of the characters in the scene or story, and he could play the female parts as well as he played the male roles.
During the play’s intermission, I told my wife that I was wondering if Callow would do the most famous public reading by Dickens of all of them – the one that likely contributed to his death in 1870 at age 58. This is the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, and it is a scene of excessive violence. Dickens’ “performance” of this reading was so realistic and horrifying that it caused many in his audiences to scream and faint.
After the intermission, I sat and waited to see. And Callow did it – he performed the scene, and he managed to show what was so powerful about Dickens in his public readings – his almost desperate desire to connect with his readers (and audiences).
There is likely no one better qualified than Simon Callow to write about the influence of the theater on Charles Dickens – on his novels, his readings, and indeed his entire life. Tomorrow I’ll be posting a review of Callow’s Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World.