How would Charles Dickens have felt about the Lockdown?

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“Dickens differentiates between the acts of writing and acting, defining both as pleasurable works of invention.”


With all theatres, concert halls and other performance spaces closed for the foreseeable future, actors, dancers and musicians are finding it tough to adapt to a life bereft of either live audiences or colleagues. Despite engaging with online technologies to create new works which, unsurprisingly, reflect the isolation and singular dynamics of ‘Lockdown’, actors are finding them a poor replacement for the kinaesthetic and empathetic nuances of live performance.

As a theatre historian researching Charles Dickens’s dramatic performances, I have discovered a new significance to a letter I had previously overlooked as it now resonates with my own feelings as a performer and writer during Lockdown. In the following extract from a letter of 7 June, 1855, written during the rehearsal period for his forthcoming production of Wilkie Collins’s play, The Lighthouse, Dickens describes the pleasure he derives from staging amateur theatricals:

The real Theatre is so bad, that I have always a delight in setting up a sham one—besides deriving a pleasure from feigning to be somebody else which is akin to the pleasure of inventing—with the addition of the odd novelty that this sort of invention is executed in company.1

Dickens differentiates between the acts of writing and acting, defining both as pleasurable works of invention. But the key to his enjoyment of acting is that it is an invention executed in company as opposed to the solitary process of writing.

The components of live performance that Dickens found most rewarding were the kinaesthetic relationships between himself and his fellow actors and between the actor and the audience. Hundreds of his letters attest to the importance of the actor/audience dynamic. Dickens judged the effectiveness of his acting by gauging the changing levels of empathy within his audiences, carefully noting their responses to his performance. While for one performance he found the audience for The Lighthouse ‘flat’ - despite the fact that they appeared to be ‘crying vigorously’,2 on the following night the performance was made ‘perfectly wonderful’ by ‘such an audience’, making for ‘a brilliant success from first to last!’3

We know from his daughter, Mary, that while writing his novels Dickens acted out the gestures, facial expressions and speeches of his characters in front of a mirror in his study.4 This process of acting, or ‘feigning to be somebody else’ contributed to the invention of written characters who became both ‘real’ and ‘picturesque’. This solitary act of performance was then extended to friends and family. Reading aloud in an atmosphere of friendship enabled him to sense the affective impact of his written words and was a practice he would later establish to ‘test-run’ his dramatic readings, in effect, gathering a small, physically intimate audience around him.

Prompted by Dickens’s short reference to the artistic inspiration he found in company led me to ask how productive might Dickens have been through Lockdown? Would he be racing to put his latest work up online, offering ‘live’ subscription readings on Zoom, or might the lack of a palpable audience with whom he could interact have troubled, and perhaps hindered, his own understanding and shaping of his works?

Charles Dickens, letter to the Rev. Whitwell Elwin, 7, June, 1855.
Ibid., to Miss Burdett Coutts, 19 June, 1855.
Ibid., to Clarkson Stanfield, 20 June, 1855.
Mamie Dickens, My Father as I Recall Him, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014, Chapter III, p.48.

An extended version of this post has been published on the CLiC blog.