Gillian Piggott, ‘Dickens in Performance’

Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, by Simon Callow, London: Harper Press, 2012, xiii + 370pp, £16.99 (Hardback), ISBN 978 0 00 744530 1

Dickens’ Women, by Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser, London, Hesperus Press Limited, 2011, 96 pp, £8.99 (Paperback) ISBN 978 1 84391 351 1

Reviewed by Gillian Piggott.

Gillian Piggott is visiting lecturer at Middlesex University and Associate Lecturer in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Her book, Dickens and Benjamin: Moments of Revelation, Fragments of Modernity, was published by Ashgate in 2012.

Two of our top actors have dovetailed the publication of their thoughts on Dickens with the Bicentenary festivities, providing an actor’s perspective on the great man, which, in theory, should prove a useful addition to the literature on Dickens and theatre over the years.

Callow’s book focuses on the centrality of theatre to Dickens’s life.  He is uniquely positioned to write about Dickens, the passionate performer and spectator, having played Dickens a number of times, and adapted and performed some quality versions of material from the public readings, including ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Dr Marigold and Mr Chops’. As an actor, Callow is a perfect interpreter of Dickens. He stands in a tradition of real stage craft, when actors had powerful, honed instruments as voices and could switch effortlessly between Shakespeare and farce. His front footedness, his virtuosic skills in voice and body, his wide smile and infectious laughter, his largeness and energy puts one in mind of Dickens himself, and Dickens’s treatment of character. Since Dickens’s Falstaffian worldview is crowded by a multitude of colourful voices, melodramatic emotion and plots and grotesque comic characters, Callow, as practitioner, is the man.

If the expectation, though, is that one will receive a unique insight into the novels from the theatre practitioner who knows how it “feels” to “be” Dickens – one is to be disappointed. Instead, Callow has written a biography. And it’s a good one. He structures the work along chronological lines, interpolating his observations:

I have focused on the theatre in Dickens’s life…the histrionic imperative so deeply rooted in Dickens…[and]… beyond…Dickens on the stage of life, as he would certainly have thought of it. I have always been concerned with the peculiar quality of his personality, described with remarkable consistency by his contemporaries as theatrical. (xi)

Callow selects and interprets material well, and his lively and perceptive biography easily makes the case for the essential theatricality of Dickens’s life, sensibility and art.   From reciting texts and songs in a Chatham pub, to the ad hoc staging of Misnar, Sultan of India (his literary debut), Dickens’s childhood was steeped in the theatrical and ‘the making of theatre became a passion for the 8 year old, a passion that would endure’ (p. 8).

And Callow’s detailed knowledge of theatre history makes him an effective commentator on the affect popular theatre had upon Dickens. He sees how Dickens not only involved himself with theatre activities – the youthful Dickens saw Grimaldi, watched Lamert’s rehearsals, participated passionately in school plays, and in amateur theatricals and ‘theatre karaoke’ – but how the author’s very identity became determined by performance and theatricality. Dickens impersonated everyone: ‘dressing up and disguising himself was as natural to him as breathing’ (p. 54).   When the Dickens family moved to Norfolk Street, equidistant from the variety theatre and the workhouse, Callow rightly claims: ‘[They] were the alpha and omega of the young Charles Dickens’s life, heaven and hell in the same street’ (p. 5). The precariousness, the essential melodrama of Dickens’s young life, points to an affinity with the popular theatre genre, which Callow could have expanded upon and developed. This does not happen.

Callow recognises a fellow actor in Dickens. Dickens absorbed the life, smells, sounds, language, gestures of the city around him. That was his nature and it was also his working method. Dickens would often be found gesticulating in mirrors, laughing and crying, voicing his characters’ dialogue during the writing process.  Writing involved a form of acting or stage managing:

As an actor, Nicholas Nickleby responds vividly, as Dickens does, to the heroic act of performance, to rising above your situation, getting on stage and giving it your all, which is essentially Dickens’s own approach to life (p.82).

Callow is totally right, too, to emphasise the centrality of the great actor Charles Matthews’s monopolylogues to Dickens’s psyche.  Matthews’s performances, farces in which he played all the characters, sat ‘somewhere between Sheridan and the Goon Show’ (p. 36). Dickens fanatically attended these shows, studied them, and reproduced them. And this hectic, loquacious explosion of language, gesture, energy, voice and comedy feeds into Dickens’s treatment of character and narrative. Further discussion of this would have been manna from heaven.

Callow is also a good literary critic. He suggests Dickens’s early writing is ‘playful, fiery, fantastical, witty, suddenly grave – verbal Hogarth, with more than a touch of Rowlandson’ (p. 51). He calls Nickleby Dickens’s ‘love letter to the profession’ (p. 81), claiming Dickens saw theatre as ‘a complete world in itself…life was lived as a series of plays within plays’ (p. 81). He echoes the critical line that Dickens’s dramatic works are failures: ‘The most uninspired of dramatists, though the most theatrically-obsessed of men’ (p. 67).

There are a couple of negatives: Callow chooses not to reference his quotations properly, which makes the book appear less scholarly than it actually is. And the chapter illustrations are an unnecessary distraction and in places, badly composed. Callow has produced an entertaining and really rather good biography focusing upon the theatrum mundi quality of the author’s life and art. But, one cannot help feeling that an opportunity has gone begging. An actor of Callow’s stature and experience is limited by merely biographical discussion when it comes to Dickens.

What I hoped Callow would do more of was look at Dickens as an actor does: discuss the pliability and playability of Dickensian characters from the actor’s point of view; speculate more upon how Dickens’s amateur and semi-professional dramatics might have fed into the fiction, particularly in relation to character, psychology and plot; undertake a technical discussion of what is known of Dickens’s reading tour performances, his prompt books, improvisation and adaptation; and assess how this information influenced Callow’s own representations of them.  I wanted more discussion of the melodramatic contours of Dickens’s novels and his relationship to popular theatre history. Callow possesses precious material of what it is like to play Dickens, and Dickens’s characters – as well as playing Dickens reading and voicing his characters – and should open this up in relation to the novels.

But Callow instead plumps for biography; and without the titanic scholarship and space of a Slater or a Tomalin, the biography Callow can provide has far less scope and depth than one would find elsewhere.[i] That said, this is a stimulating and at times insightful book aimed at the general reader, who will love it – as I did.

Dickens’ Women is the script of Miriam Margolyes’s Bafta-award-winning one-woman show which portrays female characters from Dickens’s novels and journalism. Margolyes and Fraser, her co-author, began researching the show back in 1969 and the project has grown in stature. The show consists of excerpts – both dialogue and narrative  – interspersed with music and commentary. It is a finely woven tapestry of vignettes dramatising Dickens’s female characters and Margolyes’s thoughts upon the author’s life, loves and relations to women.

In a new introduction, Margolyes writes convincingly of her troublesome, ambivalent relationship to Dickens. She claims immediately that Dickens ‘never was … able to draw a complete, believable, fully realized female’ (p. 16).  Yet, as an actor, she was still attracted to depicting Dickens’s women on the stage. This would seem paradoxical, only, as she puts it, the characters ‘are described so exactly that I saw them quite clearly and reacted to them emotionally’. She wonders at how easily Dickens includes both evil and comedy together in one character: ‘ – as with Squeers, Quilp and Heep. That facility is extremely useful in the theatre!’ (pp. 7/8).

Something rich, textured and creative has come from Margolyes’s antagonism to what she sees as Dickens’s complex, problematic delineation of female characters. While Margolyes laments the fact that Dickens ‘never portrayed a woman whom we would recognise as a mature sexual and emotional partner for his heroes’ (p. 12), she is taken with his depiction of Miss Wade: ‘You see, he is such an extraordinary writer: he can create a woman like that with such power and truth and understanding’. (p. 59).

At some level, and perhaps without knowing it, Margolyes is entering the debate about Dickens’s characters. George Henry Lewes in his ‘Dickens in Relation to Criticism’ (1872) claimed that Dickens’s ‘psychologically unrealistic’ characters were ‘frogs whose brains have been taken out for physiological purposes’, a state of affairs where Dickens was accused of producing ‘flat’ characters.[ii] This has since been challenged, not least by a series of papers delivered at the Dickens Society Symposium, University of Kent, in September, 2012, when a formidable body of theory and medical analysis found Dickens’s characters to be highly complex.[iii] What Dickens does do, it can probably be agreed, is present character from the outside, as the urban dweller might experience character – or as an audience might experience it watching an actor on the stage. Margolyes, like the early critics, claims Dickens sketches outlines, and even stereotypes. But Dickens’s large, eccentric depictions of the female character are what make his works theatrical. As she puts it: ‘There is a psychological truth in [Dickens’s] character[s], which convinces, despite the melodramatic language. It has its own reality’ (p. 18).

She was compelled to take the characters onto the stage, then, because she was physically, emotionally, viscerally moved by descriptions of them. And perhaps this is Dickens’s ‘realism’ – since this is how we experience people. Margolyes’s project to play Dickens’s women got underway, then, with a description of Mrs Gamp:

It was that description which started my thinking of myself as a possible exponent. I have very little neck myself….[I could] use some of my unfortunate physical qualities…to bring her to the theatre (p. 9).

And so Margolyes breathed life into characters ranging from Mrs Jarley and Little Nell, to Estella and Miss Flite. Sticking closely to the categories of women identified by Michael Slater in Dickens and Women,[iv] Margolyes divides her women up into ‘[t]he pre-pubescent child; the unattainable sexual object; the grotesque, sometimes evil, sometimes comic; the bad, incompetent mother; the Spinster longing for a man’. (p.11).

Dickens’s chauvinistic depictions of women, like Mrs Skewton,  would make Margolyes ‘angry’ were it not for the comedy. And in the show, she claims she ‘cannot forgive’ Dickens for his treatment of his wife. At other times, however, Dickens has an incredible compassion – ‘compassion with the accuracy of the reporter’s eye’ (she says of his Miss Flite, p.11).

There is something of the Charles Matthews’s monopolylogue going on in this show’s conception. Margolyes is not only the narrator who connects the excerpts, but sometimes plays a narrator within the excerpt itself, plus two characters (Mrs Corney, Mr Bumble). Margolyes knits together her excerpts with a biographical narrative, including linking Dickens’s creation of characters like the ‘pre-pubescent child’ to Mary Hogarth. This would be sacrilege, were it not for the fact that this is the way actors work. As if Dickens were a character to be understood for a depiction on stage, Margolyes applies biographical research and intentions to Dickens’s actions (his characters) – feeds that research into her actor’s brain, and then forgets it – bringing that character to life on the moment the curtain rises each evening.


[i] Michael Slater, Charles Dickens (London and New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009) – reviewed in this journal, April 2011, 16,1. Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens, A Life (London: Viking, 2011).

[ii] George Henry Lewes, ‘Dickens in Relation to Criticism,’ Fortnightly Review, 62 (1 February 1872), 141-154 (p.148).

[iii] The relevant papers were : Kris Siefken ‘“Character made plastic by the discipline” ’ ; Jessica Groper, ‘Villainous Epilepsy in Charles Dickens’; Madeleine Wood, ‘Dying and Getting High’; Theresa M Kenny & Cheryl Kenney, ‘The Heroic Cicatrix and Bleak House’.

[iv] Michael Slater, Dickens and Women (London: Dent, 1983)

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