Sunday, February 12, 2012

On his 200th birthday, let's celebrate Dickens, the biggest writer-performer

The most remarkable thing about Dickens was that performance preceded his writing too. He performed in his room, then wrote, then performed again, this time on the stage. In a celebrated passage his daughter observes her father at his desk, "He suddenly jumped up from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung nearby, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making.

He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror.... the facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice... . he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen."

Once on the stage, he would transform himself into his characters. An eyewitness account of one such performance, which appeared in a magazine of the time, gives us a sense of his skill, his commitment to acting out characters and situations, "Gradually warming with excitement he flung aside his book and acted the scene of the murder, shrieked the terrified pleadings of the girl, growled the brutal savagery of the murderer, brought looks, tones, gestures simultaneously into play to illustrate his meaning, and there was not one of those who had known him best or who believed in him most, but was astonished at the power and versatility of his genius..."

Is it any wonder then that at his final performance in 1870, 6,000 people were turned away at the door. When Dickens finished, he was crying.

On his 200th birthday, let's celebrate Dickens, the biggest writer-performer of them all, someone who showed that the two are closely entwined, not mutually exclusive, no matter what Amitav Ghosh says. Modern publishing and silly lit fests might have cast this relationship in a new mould, but the close link between writing and performing is as old as the history of storytelling itself.

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