Trends &Amp; Events. (Front and Center).(Best of Times: The Theatre of Charles Dickens)(Natural Selections: Stage Designs by Sandra Woodall)

American Theatre, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Trends &Amp; Events. (Front and Center).(Best of Times: The Theatre of Charles Dickens)(Natural Selections: Stage Designs by Sandra Woodall)


DICKENS THE SHOW-OFF New York City: Publicity is a heat-seeking missile, but Charles Dickens, whose serialized novels generated a great deal of excitement, did more than attract a growing readership and an amazing amount of literary hoopla in the mid-l9th century. He seized the moment, courted attention, cultivated his fame and exploited his celebrity--and then he transformed it into theatre.

The stagestruck author of David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities delighted in public performance and role-playing. In the last decade of his life Dickens wrote, directed, produced and acted in elaborate amateur theatricals--revised, stageworthy portions of his novels--regaling thousand-plus audiences with his largescale character portrayals, without the aid of amplification.

But before you can slap the label of "solo performer" on his list of accomplishments, consider that Dickens was apparently obsessed with largecast companies as well. He portrayed Bobadill in Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, which he also directed. In the winter of 1856-57, Dickens collaborated with his friend, the novelist Wilkie Collins, on a melodrama called The Frozen Deep, in which Dickens himself tackled the part of an explorer who perpetually sought after, but never found, affection.

"What people are aware of are the dramatic, film and radio productions based on Dickens's novels, but what I think a lot of people don't know about was that Dickens himself was an actor and a playwright," says Bob Taylor, the curator of "Best of Times: The Theatre of Charles Dickens," which is on view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through Feb. 15, 2003. "In fact, we almost lost Dickens as a novelist because he had every intention of becoming an actor.

A genius product of the Industrial Age, when the notion of publicity was invented, Dickens the artist was his own best entrepreneur--and the most energetic promoter. He created his own publishing opportunities and took control of their marketing. So it seems fitting that among the more than 200 historical and contemporary items that are on display at the New York Public Library are programs, posters, photographs, bills, advertising paraphernalia and other assorted hype artifacts. …

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