- Lewis Carroll and the Victorian Stage: Theatricals in a Quiet Life
Lewis Carroll first attended a professional theater on June 22, 1855, to see a production of Henry VIII. Between that date and his seeing J. M. Barrie's The Little Minister on November 20, 1897, he attended the theater 479 times, seeing 686 productions (138). It is during this period that Carroll's well-documented personal, political, and professional involvement in theater took place, yet most historians of Victorian theater have more or less ignored his experience. While Carroll's prominence as a literary celebrity and, later, a figure of controversy, argues for the significance of his experience, there also may be some good reasons for the critics' omission. Richard Foulkes, in his recent study, navigates through this sometimes perilous course of Carroll's theatrical history.
The roughly chronological chapter headings imply that this book is, reflective of the title, a study focused on Lewis Carroll's "quiet life," yet it does not take us long into the first chapter to realize that the agenda is somewhat different. The first few chapters, ostensibly covering his childhood through his time as a student, are only tangentially related to Carroll's life [End Page 392] or his connection to theater. Foulkes gives an account, for instance, of a difference of opinion between Samuel Wilberforce, the Dean of Westminster, and the future Dean of Christ Church, H. G. Liddell, over the propriety of theatrical productions at Westminster. While this debate sheds light on the shifting religious climate as it pertains to theater reception, its connection to Carroll is tenuous at best. In the third chapter, Foulkes brings up the revival of theater at Oxford and the beginning of the Oxford University Dramatic Society (1884). He argues that, while Carroll "appears to have played no part in these developments" (42), because it came partly from his college, he is somehow a "spirit" behind it. Again, the connection is strained; Carroll peeks out from the margins, conspicuous in his absence rather than his presence in the theatrical goings on. But perhaps at this point we give up looking for connections to Carroll and rather explore Foulkes's wealth of detailed knowledge about Victorian theater.
Such knowledge comes to the fore, for instance, in his chapter on home entertainments. While the Dodgson family members were enthusiastic practitioners, they are only motes in Foulkes's sweep of information. He includes a good background to the concept of Victorian "leisure" through the opposing views of Bentham and Bulwer Lytton, while interestingly placing Carroll outside of both: that is, Carroll saw theater as providing a "higher" form of pleasure than the game of "push-pin," but he also thought that intellectuals could indeed "indulge generally in frivolous entertainments" (qtd. from Lytton, 70). Foulkes takes us on a merry-go-round of Victorians at play: their sports, parlor games, domestic dramas, toy theaters, magic lantern shows, and play-readings. He includes discussion of Carroll's prologues for amateur productions and compares his involvement to George MacDonald's home entertainments, all of which help to fill out the picture of amateur "theater."
Foulkes sets two goals in this study, the first of which is to show Carroll to be a "rich resource of information . . . not limited to the professional theatre" (2). This "resource," however, turns out to be more Foulkes's long, distinguished experience as a historian of Victorian theater and religion. Foulkes does indeed illuminate the world of "home" and professional theater with meticulous research, although the rich backdrop at times dwarfs his central figure. Carroll provides a focal point, but it often need not have been Carroll per se, who, as Foulkes admits, made quite an average theatergoer. This, of course, is his point—that Carroll was not a theater critic but one of the crowd; he is significant mainly in that he is a representation of a "sizeable proportion of the playgoing public" (149). While Foulkes argues well for this assertion, he could have given more space to the significant writing Carroll did do in...