Driving Mr. Dickens

Gerald Dickens, great-great grandson of Charles Dickens performs

by Debbi Collar

The stylus on the needle of the brand new pink, suitcase shaped phonograph
bounced along the grooves on the vinyl record. Lionel Barrymore was the
voice that introduced me to the character "Scrooge," in that literary classic,
A Christmas Carol. Although the tale was frightening for a 7 year
old, it was one that lent itself to the discovery of using my imagination to
picture the ghosts of the past, present and future. It was also the first
introduction to the many literary works penned and performed by Charles

                             The Record

The record remains with me today despite the scratches and the masking
tape on it's worn, ripped, jacket. Barely a scratch exists on the other side of
the record, "Beloved Christmas Hymns and Carols, sung by "The
Canterbury Choir.
A printed note from Lionel Barrymore himself is
written on the back of the album jacket. A portion of the letter reads, "As
you know, I have played many roles during my career, but if there's one role
that I really hope I'll be remembered for, it's that of Ebenezer Scrooge."

"Yes, Scrooge was miserable, miserly and mean a character as ever lived.
He was completely without faith, friends or love, nor did he want them. And
yet I have always loved the old humbug not for what he was, but for what he

I was hooked on Charles Dickens book, A Christmas Carol, first in
listening to it and later reading it each Christmas. At times, I would pick it up  
even though the holiday season had not begun. Although author Charles
Dickens'name brings about thoughts of reading High School classics such as
David Copperfield,Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities and The Old
Curiosity Shop.
There are numerous other works of the author that still
remain unread by many. Their existence is generally unknown. One such tale
is that of Dr. Marigold. It is a story that is performed by one
person each year as he travels from Old England to New England and  
following in the footsteps of his great-great grandfather. Another little
known Dickens story is The Signalman. That actor who portrays
the characters within a variety of the author's works is Gerald Dickens.  He is
the the great-great grandson  of the author.

Who would have thought that a half century after my first introduction to the
works of Charles Dickens, that  the opportunity would arise to receive the
honor of driving Mr. Gerald Dickens to one of his performances at the
Peabody Institute Library of Danvers?

During an interview, Gerald Dickens recalls that while growing up in England,
with a well known ancestor on his family tree,  "The image was always
around at home." In the household it was Gerald's father who "was a keen
scholar of Dickens." Gerald continues, "Our house was filled with  papers and
biographies," of Charles Dickens."

As to his own education, Gerald claims, that when it came time to study
about the author who just happened to be on his family tree,"I hated it! It
seemed long and dull." Underlying his then distaste for Charles Dickens, the
great-great grandson of the author also says "I always felt a tug of family
guilt over it."

Gerald Dickens performs at Peabody Institute Library of Danvers

Over the past twenty (20) years though,it appears that Gerald has had a
change of heart. Today, the work of the great author now comes alive
through the performances of Gerald Dickens. The idea of performing the
works of his great-great grandfather, he says, was not his own. Although he
loved theater and acting, it was a friend who suggested that he recreate the
roles from his ancestral past.  

Gerald Dickens attending a luncheon at Salem Athenaeum

History now appears to be repeating itself as it was Charles, who also read
and performed in both England and America. Gerald emphasized that in
performing the works of his great-great grandfather and writing scripts that
tie the performances and books together, he "approached the idea as an
actor." Charles Dickens would give the audience his all. In putting together
scripts for Charles Dickens works to be staged before an audience, Gerald
Dickens also works on giving his (Charles Dickens) characters voices while
trying not make the script,"too wordy."

Considering a question concerning the length of time it takes to prepare and
put on a production such as his one man stage show presentations as
"slightly tricky," to answer, Gerald Dickens related that generally,"to put it
together, write, edit, prepare, learn the lines for various performances as
well as develop characters voices and facial expressions" could take "about 2

Gerald also says he knows when he is well prepared for upcoming
performances as he is a pacer and claims that as he walks around the edges
of the garden at his Abingdon, England home learning his lines. The ruts he
creates turn into trenches and he is almost ready to perform before the
audience. it is only when those trenches begin to take on an appearances
similar to what he calls the Grand Canyon. At that time, he says, he is ready
to put the one man show on the stage.  

His favorite work to perform is of a little known Charles Dickens writing, "Dr.
Marigold." Gerald describes the short story as "a beautiful piece, one that
Charles Dickens wrote for a magazine in 1865. It is simply a single character
talking to his audience.The character, at first,is a fast paced 'cheap jack'
(peddler) but as he talks, he really is telling you about life's hard knocks and
tragedies he has experienced.  He is very straight and likeable, you just want
to listen to him."

The performance of Dr. Marigold also carries with it a tinge of regret as
Gerald's father passed away before getting to see his son perform it on
stage. It was Gerald's father who originally suggested the idea many years
ago,saying that it would suit his son's acting style. Gerald remarks, "at the
time, I did as any dutiful son would, completely ignored his advice." Then,
there came a time when Gerald was trying to think of new material to act out
and it was then that he thought about "Dr. Marigold." That short story has
now become one of his favorites to perform in front of an audience.  

Asked to reflect on what he thinks his family tree's "ghost of the past," may
say if he were seated in the audience, the younger Dickens laughs, "I think I
would be out of a job.  He (Charles) would never sit in an audience while
someone else performed his work-he'd be furious!"

The Dickens Fellowship, North of Boston Branch and Salem State University
partnered together with the Salem Atnenaeum to bring Dickens scholars
from around the world to Salem,Ma, with excursions to the Peabody Institute
library of Danvers and Boston's Omni Parker House. The three day marathon
Dickens event was entitled "Pickwickian Endeavors," with Gerald Dickens as
the guest of honor.All events were organized by Director Deb Benvie  and
various members of the Dickens Fellowship North of Boston Branch.

Salem is a City in which Gerald Dickens feels quite at home. Leaving his
hotel, he often walked to performances that were close by.  Dressed in his
Victorian costume, complete with cane, he says, " I fit  right in." As he
strolled through the city's streets, he would hear comments directed at him,
such as "Now, there's a fine Victorian gent!."  He might turn to see who was
speaking  and often would be looking into the eyes of a fully costumed
pirate or other  costumed docent also on the way to work at one of Salem's
many museums.

Often, throughout the weekend, the actor would also stay to support Salem
State Drama Students, who also performed vignettes as part of the

Salem Athenaeum                        

Salem State University drama students at work

Throughout the conference, Dickens took the stage, performing a variety of
his great great grandfather's works such as,Nancy and Sikes (Oliver
Twist), Mr. Dickens Is Coming! Dr. Marigold and Nicholas Nickleby.
also presented a challenge to scholars in one of his more recent scripts in
which he puts in all of his great-great grandfather's publications and weaves
them together as "The Complete Works of Charles Dickens" with
what he calls "joiners." The "joiners" are sentences that connect one story to
the next.  As members of the audience listen to the performance, they may
think they are seeing an excerpt from "Oliver Twist" and within a
line, the story moves to another of Charles Dickens stories,such as
Nicholas Nickleby.

The Complete Works of Dickens,as scripted by Gerald Dickens, " is
both exhausting and fun. " He further explains the intent of the show, "There
are passages from every novel.  Each passage morphs into the next without
you (the audience) seeing it."

Gerald Dickens portrays Oliver Twist waking up as Nicholas Nickleby

Although Gerald writes the scripts for bringing him into re-creating roles
from his great-great grandfather's published works, he says he is not
considering writing his own books.  

"I could be the greatest novelist and still could not come close" to the works
of his great-great grandfather.  He says, "I could not ever compare!"

Writers and Readers searching for more information on Gerald Dickens
or events that took place during the "Pickwickian Endeavors" conference can
use the links below:


December 5, 2014

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