A stage for our mutual friend
Simon Callow not only finds a unique angle on Dickens, he makes the reader want to engage with his works anew.
CHARLES DICKENS AND THE GREAT THEATRE OF THE WORLD
By Simon Callow
Harper Press, $35
THE superfluity of Charles Dickens' life, Simon Callow observes, lends itself to infinite biographical segmentation. Dickens the social activist. Dickens the inveterate traveller. Dickens the tireless correspondent. Dickens the public speaker. Before he turned 30 he had written five novels and dozens of short stories, been a star reporter, edited a monthly magazine and started a 10-child family.
In the days before social media there was more time to do things. Dickens did them all: learnt French, studied hypnotism, mastered close-up magic, walked across the Alps and, the focus of this readable book, was violently attracted to the theatre, for which he wrote, acted and directed. ''What a face to meet in a room,'' Leigh Hunt remarked, ''it has the life and soul of 50 human beings in it.''
For those, including me, who find the consumption of biography akin to eating bran flakes, books such as Simon Callow's are a refreshing change. What's on offer is not a dust heap of scholarly facts but a personal reflection - how Dickens' life appears to an established actor who has thought, read and impersonated him for 40 years.
His argument, for which he provides a tsunami of evidence, is that Dickens' talent was as much for theatre as it was for prose: ''Literature was his wife, the theatre his mistress, and to the end he was tempted to leave the one for the other.'' Only a head cold prevented Dickens from successfully auditioning for the actor and theatre owner Charles Kemble.
Thereafter, despite the impact of modern-style celebrity and a treadmill of publication deadlines, Dickens never stopped trying to wrangle a stage career by other means. He staged plays, built a theatre in his house, cast his relatives and colleagues and gave royal command performances of the results, ostensibly with charitable intent. He did this again and again, the force of his personality and humour - he was a great laugher - carrying all faint hearts before him.
For such parvenu displays Dickens was slighted by literary London (Dickens the gaudy waistcoat-wearer). He didn't lose sleep over it. When he so desired he could cut through its accreted prejudices.
It helped that he was hugely popular. The merit society was making a blazing first appearance and the middle classes were rising. Dickens rose with them and when they looked like slowing, pulled them along at his own cracking pace - exhorting, encouraging, condemning, contributing, never backing off once his journalist's nose picked up the scent of injustice.
Logging Dickens' theatre activities is a wonderful contribution to understanding the writer's ''latent multiphrenia''. Callow goes further, however, suggesting the theatre provided a practical model for his polyglot imagination to follow on the page. He notes that Dickens acted out his characters while writing them, that he loved costumes and disguises, and that reading his works in public became the acme of his career.
''The moment of performance, the coming together of the elements, the power of impersonation, are all practical mysteries that heighten experience and charge life with an electrical current of excitement. To enter a theatre is to be inducted into a magical space, to be ushered into the sacred arena of the imagination.''
This is a view of Victorian theatre out of a Dickens novel itself, a cross between gothic spectacle and all-in wrestling, titanic actor-managers astride huge auditoriums firing dialogue like cannon from a frigate.
Callow is surprised Dickens' plays are so poor, the farces and melodramas he loved virtually unreadable now. Here his argument reaches its limits. His fascination with Dickens' fascination with theatrical thaumaturgy prevents him exploring the deeper connections between the novelist and the stage. For it is surely the dramatic qualities of Dickens' books that lend them memorable vivacity.
Drama is the temporal art par excellence, exploiting a synecdochic connection with off-stage reality to jump-start the imagination and spin a world into existence from the small part shown of it. It is this Dickens borrowed from theatre, not illusionist flummery. The episodic novel of which he was a master is the progenitor of the best episodic drama we see on TV today.
The book rollicks along at a gusty pace, helped by choice orotundities only Callow could unblushingly deploy. It is not social history (weirdly, the Battle of Trafalgar is given as 1807) but a latticework of intimate sketches: Dickens' friendship with John Forster, his first biographer; with the writers Thackeray, Bulwer-Lytton and Wilkie Collins; his compulsive night walks through execrated London.
His failed marriage and atrocious behaviour towards his wife is handled with acuity. The energy that drove him full bore in his own life wreaked havoc when, with unbending will, he applied it to those around him.
It is a tribute to Callow's sincerity as well as his skill that I closed his book wishing I could meet Dickens right now. Fame compromised Dickens, but did not ruin him. He was true of soul, democratic of mind, intelligent, resourceful, practical, the epitome of a Friend Indeed.
Now that the middle classes have stopped not only rising but moving altogether, it is timely to be reminded of an era of genuine change. In the bicentenary of his birth we should celebrate not only Dickens' works but the reforming passion behind them.
■Julian Meyrick is a theatre director and honorary fellow at La Trobe University.