Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Dickens Camp

There's a fascinating article in this week's New Yorker about the Dickens Camp held annually in California. The article is only available in abstract format online - but you can still get the magazine on newsstands.

Dickens camp is "a week of discussing Dickens, sleeping in dormitories, and eating in a cafeteria, bringing together literary scholars, teachers, and students, with readers who love Dickens. Every year the campers read a different book. This year, it was “Great Expectations,” which also happens to have been a recent selection of Oprah’s Book Club."

The article reveals that Dickens was a complete asshole to his wife - and I don't just mean discarding her for a 17-year-old actor. According to the article:
In May of 1858 he more or less kicked her out of the house. "She does not - and she never did - care for the children" he insisted "and the children do not - and they never did - care for her."

Charley, the Dickenses' oldest child, went to live with his mother. At twenty-one he was the only one of the nine children old enough to make his own decision. Dickens all but forebade the rest of the children to see their mother. The youngest... had just turned six.

Also according to the article, his 1867 tour of the United States was not very well received although it was a financial success. It mentions that Henry James thought Dickens' readings "charmless" and Mark Twain said they were "glittering frostwork."

Twain himself had more than a casual interest in Dickens' performances, since 1867 was the year that he began performing his works on stage.

I found the entire piece that Twain wrote about Dickens' performance here.
I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens' reading - I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed. The Herald and Tribune critics must have been carried away by their imaginations when they wrote their extravagant praises of it. Mr. Dickens' reading is rather monotonous, as a general thing; his voice is husky; his pathos is only the beautiful pathos of his language - there is no heart, no feeling in it - it is glittering frostwork; his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads to himself. And what a bright, intelligent audience he had! He ought to have made them laugh, or cry, or shout, at his own good will or pleasure -- but he did not. They were very much tamer than they should have been.

I knew an actor who does a one-man show of Dickens' Christmas Carol, but with a spin to differentiate it from all the other one-man Christmas Carols - the idea is that the actor is Dickens himself, on his 1867 tour, and has lost his copy of the Christmas Carol and so must perform it from memory. And his incarnation of Dickens' couldn't be more different from the way Twain describes him:
Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, "spry," (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage - that is rather too deliberate a word -- he strode. He strode - in the most English way and exhibiting the most English general style and appearance - straight across the broad stage, heedless of everything, unconscious of everybody, turning neither to the right nor the left -- but striding eagerly straight ahead, as if he had seen a girl he knew turn the next corner. He brought up handsomely in the centre and faced the opera glasses. His pictures are hardly handsome, and he, like everybody else, is less handsome than his pictures. That fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him a comical Scotch-terrier look about the face, which is rather heightened than otherwise by his portentous dignity and gravity.
Portentous dignity and gravity is just about the opposite of what this actor does, which is very well since Dickens sounds like a complete drag, whereas there are few things on this earth more enchanting than this actor breathlessly announcing himself offstage and then running onto the playing area - the conceit is that he's almost late for the show due to a luggage mix-up - and explaining the luggage situation with warmth and vivacity and the comfortable familiarity of a dear and favorite uncle.

Would that Charles Dickens was as charming as this actor portrays him - and would that Dickens was as decent a human being as you would expect him to be based on his writing. But that's why we need stories and theatre - to break up the normal monotonous, incessant march of disappointing reality.