Dickens's theatricals

Alfred Ainger (1837-1904) went to school with Dickens’s sons and as a teenager took part in the amateur dramatics that Dickens put on in his house. Dickens thought he had real acting talent. Inevitably this reminiscence, written just after Dickens’s death, is more hagiography than history and the few mentions of Wilkie have to be mined from a lot of spoil. But Ainger does give accounts of Wilkie’s two plays The Lighthouse and The Frozen Deep so it is not without interest. It was published in January 1871 by which time Ainger was a Church of England vicar, as he is shown in this caricature by E M Ward.


IT is now some eighteen years since the present writer—then in his schooldays—took part in the earliest of those winter-evening festivities at the house of the late Charles Dickens which continued annually for several years, terminating with the performance of Mr. Wilkie Collins’s drama of "The Frozen Deep." And when he remembers the number of notable men who either shared in or assisted (in the French sense) at those dramatic revels, who have passed away in the interval, he is filled with a desire to preserve some recollections of evenings so memorable. Private theatricals in one sense they were; but the size and the character of the audiences which they brought together placed them in a different category from the entertainments which commonly bear that name; and to preserve one’s recollections of those days is scarcely to intrude upon the domain of private life. The greatest of that band has lately passed away, and before him many others of ‘° these, our actors; " and though some remain to this day, the events of those years have, even to those who shared in them, passed into the region of history.

The production next year, on the same stage, of the drama of "The Light-house," marked a great step in the rank of our performances. The play was a touching and tragic story, founded (if we are not mistaken) upon a tale by the same author, Mr. Wilkie Collins, which appeared in an early number of his friends weekly journal, Household Words. The principal characters were sustained by Mr. Dickens, Mr. Mark Lemon, Mr. Wilkie Collins: and the ladies of Mr. Dickens’s family, The scenery was painted by Clarkson Stanfield, and comprised a drop-scene representing the exterior of Eddystone Light-house, and a room in the interior in which the whole action of the drama was carried on. The prologue was written (we believe; by Mr. Dickens, and we can recall as if it were yesterday the impressive elocution of Mr. John Forster, as he spoke behind the scenes the lines which follow:

"A story of those rocks where doomed ships come
To cast their wrecks upon the steps of home;
Where solitary men, the long year through,
The wind their music, and the brine their view,
Teach mariners to shun the fatal light,
A story of those rocks is here to-night
Eddystone Light-house—"

(Here the green curtain rose and discovered Stanfield’s drop-scene, the Light-house, its lantern illuminated by a transparency)

"—in its ancient form,
Ere he who built it died in the great storm
Which shivered it to nothing—once again
Behold out-gleaming on the angry main.
Within it are three men,—to these repair
In our swift bark of fancy, light as air;
They are but shadows, we shall have you back
Too soon to the old dusty, beaten track."

We quote from memory, and here our memory fails. We are not aware that the prologue was ever published, or indeed the play for which it was written; though "The Light-house" was performed two or three years later at the Olympic, with Mr. Robson in the character originally played by Mr. Dickens. The little drama was well worthy of publication, though by conception and treatment alike it was fitted rather for amateurs, and a drawing-room, than for the public stage. The main incident of the plot—the confession of a murder by the old sailor, Aaron Gurnock, under pressure of impending death from starvation (no provisions being able to reach the lighthouse, owing to a continuance of bad weather), and his subsequent retractation of the confession when supplies unexpectedly arrive,—afforded Mr. Dickens scope for a piece of acting of great power. To say that his acting was amateurish is to depreciate it in the view of a professional actor, but it is not necessarily to disparage it. No one who heard, the public readings from his own books which Mr. Dickens subsequently gave with so much success, needs to be told what rare natural qualifications for the task he possessed.

The success of "The Light-house," performed at Tavistock House in the January of 1856, and subsequently repeated at Campden House, Kensington, for the benefit of the Consumption Hospital at Bournemouth, induced Mr. Wilkie Collins to try his dramatic fortune once more, and the result was the drama of "The Frozen Deep," with an excellent part for Mr. Dickens and opportunity for charming scenic effects by Mr. Stanfield and Mr. Telbin. The plot was of the slightest. A young naval officer, Richard Wardour, is in love, and is aware that he has a rival in the lady’s affections, though he does not know that rival’s name. His ship is ordered to take part in an expedition to the polar regions, and, as we remember, the moody and unhappy young officer. while chopping down for firewood some part of what had composed the sleeping, compartment of a wooden hut, discovers from a name carved upon the timbers that his hated rival is with him taking part in the expedition. His resolve to compass the other’s death gradually gives place to a better spirit, and the drama ends with his saving his rival from starvation at the cost of his own life, himself living just long enough to bestow his dying blessing on the lovers; the ladies whose brothers and lovers were on the expedition having joined them in Newfoundland. The character of Richard Wardour afforded the actor opportunity for a fine display of mental struggle and a gradual transition from moodiness to vindictiveness, and finally, under the pressure of suffering, to penitence and resignation, and was represented by Mr. Dickens with consummate skill. The charm of the piece as a whole, however, did not depend so much upon the acting of the principal character, fine as it was, as on the perfect refinement and natural pathos with which the family and domestic interest of the story was sustained. The ladies to whose acting so much of this charm was due are happily still living, and must not be mentioned by name or made the subjects of criticism in this place; but the circumstance is worth noticing as suggesting one reason why such a drama, effective and touching in the drawing-room, would be even unpleasing on the stage. Such a drama depends for its success on a refinement of mind and feeling in the performers which in the present state of the theatrical art must of necessity be rarely possessed, or if possessed must speedily succumb to the unwholesome influences of that class of dramatic literature which alone, if we are to credit the managers, is found to please at the present day. The fact further suggests that if the drama as one of the arts which give high and noble pleasure is to endure, it must be (for a while, at least) under such circumstances as the private theatricals which Mr. Dickens’s talent and enterprise have made famous. While the true drama is under persecution in public, it must find shelter in the drawing-rooms of private houses and the willing co-operation of the talent and refinement of private life. No theatrical performance can satisfy an educated taste in which the characters of ladies and gentlemen are sustained by representatives who cannot walk, speak, and act as ladies and gentlemen. Such performances as "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "Not so Bad as we Seem," and "The Frozen Deep," in which Mr. Dickens with his friends and literary brethren took part, are worthy of being cherished in memory, as showing that the drama is not superseded by prose fiction, as some persons believe, but is still capable of affording high and intense intellectual pleasure of its own.

The production of "The Frozen Deep" has a literary interest for the reader of Dickens, as marking the date of a distinct advance in his career as an artist. It was during the performance of this play with his children and friends, he tells us in the preface of his 1° Tale of Two Cities," that the plot of that story took shape in his imagination`. He does not confide to us what was the precise connection between the two events. But the critical reader will have noticed that then, and from that time onwards, the novelist discovered a manifest solicitude and art in the construction of his plots which he had not evinced up to that time. In his earlier works there is little or no constructive ability. "Pickwick" was merely a series of scenes from London and, country life more or less loosely strung together. "Nicholas Nickleby" was in this respect little different. In "Copperfield" there is more attention to this specially dramatic faculty, but even in that novel the special skill of the constructor is exhibited rather in episodes of the story than in the narrative as a whole. But from and after the "Tale of Two Cities," Mr. Dickens manifests a diligent pursuit of that art of framing and developing a plot which there can be little doubt is traceable to the influence of his intimate and valued friend Mr. Wilkie Collins. In this special art Mr. Collins has long held high rank among living novelists. He is indeed, we think, open to the charge of sacrificing too much to the composition of riddles, which, like riddles of another kind, lose much of their interest when once they have been solved. And it is interesting to note that while Mr. Dickens was aiming at one special excellence of Mr. Collins, the latter was assimilating his style, in some other respects, to that of his brother-novelist. Each, of late years, seemed to be desirous of the special dramatic faculty which the other possessed. Mr. Dickens’s plots, Mr. Collins’s characters and dialogues; bore more and more clearly masked the traces of the model on which they were respectively based. It is, possible, however, that another consideration was influencing the direction of Mr. Dickens’s genius. He may have half suspected that the peculiar freshness of his earlier style was no longer at his command, and he may have been desirous of breaking fresh ground and cultivating a faculty too long neglected. As we have said, we believe that his genius was largely-dramatic, and that it was the overpowering fertility of his humour as a descriptive writer which led him at the outset of his literary career to prose fiction as the freest outcome of his genius. However that may be, he loved the drama and things dramatic; and notwithstanding what might be inferred from the lecture which Nicholas administers to the literary gentleman in "Nicholas Nickleby," he evidently loved to see his own stories in a dramatic shape, when the adaptation was made in accordance with the spirit and design of the originator. Most of his earlier works were dramatized, and enjoyed a success attributable not less to the admirable acting which they called forth than to the fame of the characters in their original setting. His Christmas Stories proved most successful in their dramatic shape, and it is difficult to believe that he had not in view those admirable comedians, Mr. and Mrs. Keeley, when he drew the charming characters of Britain and Clemency Newcome. His "Tale of Two Cities" (which, by the way, Mr. Wilkie Collins has somewhere publicly referred to as the finest of his friend’s fictions in point of construction) was arranged under his own supervision for the stage, and he seems to have had a growing pleasure in seeing his works reproduced in this shape, for "Little Em’ly," the latest arrangement of "David Copperfield," was produced with at least his sanction and approval; and at the present date a version of the "Old Curiosity Shop," under the title of " Nell," is announced for immediate production, as having been similarly approved by himself shortly before his lamented death. In the present state of the stage we may well be thankful for pieces so wholesome in interest, so pure in moral, so abounding in unforced humour, as his best stories are adapted to provide.

Not, perhaps, till the next great master of humour shall have arisen, and in his turn fixed the humorous form for the generation or two that succeed him, will Dickens’s countrymen be able to form a proximate idea of the rank he is finally to take in the roll of English authors. The shoals of imitators who have enjoyed a transient popularity, by imitating all that can be imitated of. a great writer—his most superficial and perishable attractions —will have, been forgotten, and it must then be seen whether the better portion of Mr. Dickens’s genius is of that stuff which will stand the test of changing fashion and habits’ of thought. We have little doubt that, to use the words with which Lord Macaulay concluded his review of Byron, "after the closest scrutiny, there will still remain much that can only perish with the English language."

From ‘Mr Dickens’s Amateur Theatricals’ by Alfred Ainger, Macmillan’s Magazine London, vol.XXIII January 1871 pp72-82.

go back to biographies list

go back to Wilkie Collins front page

visit the Paul Lewis front page

All material on these pages is © Paul Lewis 1997-2006