The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In 1951 Welsh actor Emlyn Williams began impersonating Charles Dickens reading from his own novels. The idea for this one-man show came from Dickens himself, who in middle age rejuvenated a flagging career by performing excerpts from his work, readings noted for their theatricality. Capitalizing on this, Williams emulated the longhaired, bearded Dickens, wearing a grand tailcoat with a flower in the buttonhole and standing behind a lectern piled with books–though for Williams, as for Dickens, the lectern and books were mere props since every word had been memorized. Williams performed this show off and on all over the world (including here at the Goodman and Northlight theaters) until shortly before his death in 1987 (I served as his dresser and personal assistant on a 1982 tour of England and Ireland).

Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens inspired a slew of one-person shows about literary lions: Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, George Peppard as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Morse as Truman Capote, Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde. Now, 50 years after Williams popularized the genre, another British actor has returned to “Mount Dickens.” Simon Callow in The Mystery of Charles Dickens, ingeniously directed by Patrick Garland and scripted by Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd, blends virtuosic theatrical technique with impressive psychological insight.

First presented in the UK last year, the show celebrates Dickens’s writing with excerpts from Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Bleak House, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and (yes, Virginia) A Christmas Carol. These extracts remind us of the author’s talent for rich description and larger-than-life characters. But Ackroyd also includes other texts–the observations of Dickens’s friends (including Thomas Carlyle and Wilkie Collins), fragments from Dickens’s autobiographical writings, and Ackroyd’s own wonderfully literate narration–that chart the relationship between the novels and Dickens’s fragile personal life. The result is a combination of lecture and story theater, sweeping away the dust of presumed familiarity that rests on this writer’s reputation like the cobwebs on Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. Instead of Dickens the distant Victorian icon we get Dickens the dysfunctional genius, at once recognizably contemporary and fascinatingly elusive, as enigmatic as his unfinished last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Combining fastidious scholarship with probing speculation, and always clearly distinguishing between the two, The Mystery of Charles Dickens focuses on a man whose work offered an escape from dreary, dispiriting reality. The show touches on the writer’s unstable childhood–at age 12, when his father was sent to debtors’ prison, Dickens went to work in a rat-infested factory making boot blacking–and how it inflected such novels as Oliver Twist (“I am a very little boy, sir; and it is…so lonely, sir! So very lonely”) and David Copperfield (Mr. Micawber is an affectionate reimagining of Dickens’s own feckless father). We also discover that Dickens’s talent for mimicry, used to entertain his friends, was key to his art–he impersonated his own characters in front of a mirror–and that his mastery of Pitman shorthand (then a novelty) allowed him to give his sharp-eyed portraits of life in 19th-century London their amazing detail. (A short-lived career as a court stenographer informed his scathing critique of the judicial system in Bleak House, and Callow gets a good laugh when he quotes Dickens’s comment that “the one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself.”)

Much attention is given to Dickens’s “odd” relationships with women and his often unorthodox domestic arrangements. After marrying “a plump, pretty little Pekingese of a woman,” Dickens apparently fell in love with her teenage sister. The three lived together until the girl’s death from heart failure at age 17–and Dickens was devastated by the loss for the rest of his life. After 22 years of marriage and ten children, he unceremoniously dumped his dutiful wife–in part because she’d lost her figure (“I find that the skeleton in my closet is becoming a very large one,” he wrote nastily). And the man who penned English literature’s most idyllic depiction of a close, loving family–the Cratchits–was a distant, domineering father: “Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home,” his daughter later said. Ackroyd illustrates Dickens’s acute sense of the ravages time wreaks on romance by quoting his account of the embittered Miss Havisham: “Everything within my view which ought to be white had been white long ago and had lost its lustre….The bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress.”

Together Callow and Ackroyd present a Dickens who’s paranoid, anxiety ridden, manic-depressive, and unable to face himself, who escapes into his characters and into a workaholic’s relentless activity. He was a novelist, editor, playwright, director, social crusader–and, finally, public entertainer desperate for adulation, driving himself through tour after tour despite increasingly ill health. (“Ride on!” Dickens writes in David Copperfield, quoted here. “Rough-shod if need be, smooth-shod if that will do, but ride on! Ride on over all obstacles, and win the race!”) The last portion of The Mystery of Charles Dickens focuses on Dickens’s insistence on ending his performances with an exhausting rendition of Bill Sikes beating his lover Nancy to death. Was this terrifying passage–an unforgettable portrait of guilt-driven violence and the murder of innocence–a cathartic working out of Dickens’s own turbulent feelings about the women in his life or an act of self-punishment for those feelings? Ackroyd and Callow never come to a firm conclusion on this matter among others; the mystery of Charles Dickens remains a mystery.

Callow is a first-rate classical actor with an affinity for complex, larger-than-life theatrical figures (he’s played Oscar Wilde and has written critical biographies of Orson Welles and Charles Laughton). Though he looks a bit like Dickens with his shaggy hair and goatee, he dresses in modern clothes, relying entirely on vocal inflection and physical posture to bring to life such fictional favorites as heartbroken Havisham and ‘umble Heep, mean-spirited Scrooge and impecunious Micawber, wretched schoolmaster Squeers and flamboyant impresario Crummles, Byronic Steerforth and brutal Sikes. By modern standards his characterizations are a bit florid, but they’re wholly appropriate to Dickens’s era, and he delivers Ackroyd’s exquisitely phrased narration with deceptive casualness, as if sharing insights that have just occurred to him. Christopher Woods’s production design is simple–a leather-upholstered chair, a small table covered with fringed gold cloth, an oversize gilt picture frame for a backdrop–while Nick Richings’s beautiful, complex lighting creates myriad images to guide us through time, space, and Dickens’s expansive imagination.

The less attractive a person Callow and Ackroyd reveal Dickens to be, the greater and more accessible an artist he seems. This superb evening of theater doesn’t undermine the appeal of his work; rather it makes us appreciate its depth of feeling. The novels’ most famous quality–what Dickens called their “streaky bacon,” the juxtaposition of emotional extremes–is part and parcel of the writer’s possibly bipolar personality (putting lines like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” in a whole new light). If anyone should see this show, it’s those who suffered through the forced march of high school reading assignments–through seemingly interminable passages from A Tale of Two Cities–and have never looked back. Charles Dickens was a man of his time, but Callow and Ackroyd make us see that he is also a man of our time, and of all time.