- Victorian Writers and the Stage: The Plays of Dickens, Browning, Collins and Tennyson by Richard Pearson
Richard Pearson’s book aims to show the development in the nineteenth century of playwrights being recognized as reputable authors. In doing so he wishes to counter the longstanding view of nineteenth century theatre as rather flat and temporary, awaiting the arrival of Henrik Ibsen and naturalism to inject serious art once more into the medium. Instead, Pearson argues that the presence of prominent authors such as Dickens, Browning, Collins and Tennyson helped pave the way for Ibsen and others by raising the profile of the playwright, quite literally in the case of playbills, and bringing attention back to the author as much as the actor. The resulting book is an intriguing collection of chapters looking at these authors and their involvement with the theatre; and while it does not quite cohere as a continued argument, the topics covered and plays discussed are executed with sufficient insight and clarity to make this book of interest both to those researching nineteenth-century drama and to students of the four named authors.
For readers of Dickens Quarterly, parts of the book will be of particular interest. Three of its six chapters treat Dickens’s involvement with theatre as a playwright and as a novelist writing both on the theatre and in the mode of the theatre. This review, therefore, will restrict its focus to those sections of the book. The intention is not to slight the remaining chapters, which trace Browning’s attempts to have his plays taken seriously as literature, Collins’s interest in theatrical adaptations of his own novels, or Tennyson’s concern with his plays. In each, Pearson not only presents the argument successfully but also offers intriguing insights into the production and reception of several dramas. But to return to Dickens, the three chapters specifically focusing on the Inimitable are chapter one, “Farce, Family and the minor theatres: Dickens as a legitimate playwright,” which covers his early playwriting career in the 1830s; chapter three, “The novelist at the stage door: Dickens and Thackeray’s dialogue with the theatre,” which looks at elements of contemporary theatre in Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and Vanity Fair; and chapter four, “Dramatic Collaborations : Dickens and Collins’ melodramas,” which focuses on The Frozen Deep and No Thoroughfare.
Chapter one provides many details and was of immediate personal interest having recently witnessed the reconstruction of Is She His Wife? (1837) at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, the prospect of which had already prompted me to read Dickens’s other plays of this era – The Strange [End Page 151] Gentleman (1836), The Village Coquettes (1836) and the unperformed The Lamplighter (1838). Pearson explores all three as works by an author in embryo, a writer trying to forge his identity, who chooses rural settings “to create a distance between his theatre work and his street-journalism” (23). At the same time, he also detects theatrical influences, perhaps assimilated during visits to Tottenham Theatre, which, drawing on Ruth Richardson’s work on Dickens’s early residences in London, he believes “likely” (31).
Pearson’s discussion of the plays themselves is lively and explorative of themes which reappear in Dickens’s life and fiction. He suggests that the trio in The Strange Gentleman of two lovers – Tom and Mary, and Mary’s sister Fanny – “sounds familiar in Dickens’s circle at the time” (36) and brings to mind Dickens, Catherine and Mary Hogarth. He also conjectures that the simple staging requirements of The Strange Gentleman reveal how Dickens’s first professional drama began life as a private theatrical, whereas, in contrast, The Village Coquettes is seen as a far more elaborate production. To it Dickens attached his own name rather than “Boz” and clearly imagined the play as “a more substantial endeavour” (40). Is She His Wife? shows comparable sophistication and requires “a very alert audience” to follow the many...