Dibdin, Kelly, and the Spectacle of Self

By Levin, Susan M. | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Dibdin, Kelly, and the Spectacle of Self


Levin, Susan M., Nineteenth-Century Prose


The realities of running a theatre and putting up productions achieve imaginative form in Michael Kelly's Reminiscences (1826) and in Thomas Diblin's Reminiscences (1827). These personal histories detail the history and spectacle of Georgian and Regency London Theatre. The authors also show themselves in situations such as traveling and performing in Europe, witnessing events of the French Revolution, entering the business of music publishing, going through bankruptcy and disgrace, and engaging the foibles of George III and his family. Of interest as exercises in the purpose and art of memoir writing, these texts illustrate the construction, presentation, and valuation of art, the making of theatrical culture in the early nineteenth century.

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The abandoned son seeking the name of the father, bankruptcy and betrayal, regicide and revolution: reminiscing, Thomas Dibdin and Michael Kelly shape this stuff of spectacle into the drama of their lives. Members of the theatrical and musical communities in Georgian and Regency England involved themselves not only in the creation of plays, operas, and concerts but also in the production of written accounts of their lives that detail the process of making theatre and music. In his Reminiscences, which appeared in 1826, Michael Kelly, who lived from 1762 to 1826 describes his life as tenor, composer, theatre manager, music publisher. "Between the years 1797 and 1821, I produced, at different theatres, sixty-two pieces, by far the greatest number produced by any one English composer, Bishop excepted" (II.323). In his Reminiscences, which appeared in 1827, Thomas Dibdin, who lived from 1771 to 1841, describes his life as "painter, prompter, poet, performer" (II. 169).

Given the careers of these two men, it is not surprising that their prose accounts of their lives include devices characteristic of fictive or imaginative work. Dibdin at times wrote a play a week and tells of completing a two-act burlesque in two days and a one-act play overnight on Nelson's victory in Egypt. Kelly was helped in writing the story of his life--probably more than a little--by Theodore Hook, who also wrote plays, novels, poems, and essays and who shapes what he calls "rough, illiterate materials" into the Reminiscences (I.vi). Of interest as personal histories and as exercises in the purpose and art of memoir writing, these works may also be considered for what they tell us about how art is constructed and presented in the early nineteenth century, about what is valued and why, about how the culture of theatre is made.

I

Thomas Dibdin writes, he asserts, not an "apology" for his life, however necessary that may be, but his "life itself' (II.285). While the truth of his life might be a "plodding progressive history," the "scene" and "personages" involved can be depended upon to be of interest (I.446). In an age that debated and finally privileged the validity of taking the self as a literary subject, Dibdin begins by worrying about the pronoun "I," possibly in its seductive egotism, a writer's "greatest enemy," an "eye-sore (no pun, upon my honour!) to the reader," "a tiresome recurrence." Rejecting the alternative of emulating Caesar and writing in the third person, he establishes the work as a literate discussion of theatre in Britain (I.3).

His method is to present his own life as intertwined with the life of London theatre. The way he orders the account of his lineage emphasizes this connection. First comes the father, "the celebrated and undervalued" Charles Dibdin. A composer of over 100 operettas and 1400 songs and an actor who did one-man shows, Charles Dibdin also worked as a theatre manager of such venues as Sadler's Wells and the Royal Circus--renamed the Surrey. In the Reminiscences, Dibdin describes his own eventual control of the Surrey in terms of this family connection. The owner insists, "I was the only man to whom he should like to let the theatre, because his father had built it that my father should manage it; that I should have it on liberal terms" (II. …

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