Charles Dickens remains a perennial source of fascination for scholars and layman alike. He is one of the few great authors of the English canon, alongside Jane Austen and second only to Shakespeare, whose oeuvre is widely revisited and enjoyed outside of the context of higher education (my apologies to Messrs. Milton and Chaucer). He also remains one of the few members of said canon whose work retains its value in terms of cultural currency. Many people are familiar with, at least, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol, which is more than one can say, regardless of any qualitative judgment, for the works of Thackeray or George Elliot.
Dickens was a uniquely significant figure in his own time, a masterful writer whose sphere of influence extended into the broad worlds of politics and theater, as well as the then-nascent field of progressivism. Peter Ackroyd’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens, here recorded from a 2000 performance at the Albery Theater in London, touches on all these elements of Dickens’ life and art, from his public triumphs (worldwide success and acclaim) to his very private tragedies (a loveless marriage and various infidelities).
Veteran actor Simon Callow gives life to Ackroyd’s demanding script, which weaves historical and personal anecdotes in and out of extended dramatizations from Dickens’ oeuvre. Ultimately, the production’s title is misleading: the combination of Ackroyd’s show and Callow’s emotive solo performance effectively presents Dickens in as close to a full-blooded representation as is possible for someone almost 150 years dead. The “mystery” of Dickens—the ineffable, irreducible fabric of his character—is brought into vivid clarity.
It’s a truism that great writers write from experience, and this is especially true for Charles Dickens. The show begins with a look at the author’s early life—his father’s imprisonment for penury, along with his subsequent grim labor and hardscrabble youth—and makes plain the connections an older Dickens would eventually draw between his experiences on the cusp of ruin and creations such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Dickens was a singularly pointed observer, and the show takes pains to illustrate how his variety of experiences, from the slightest prosaic observation to the most profound tragedy, informed his work from the beginning. (This is no exaggeration: his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was culled almost wholly from his work as a law clerk, just as the Oliver Twist was extensively crafted from his early memories of childhood anguish.)
If Callow’s highly charged expressiveness, especially with regard to said childhood anguish, may strike modern viewers as theatrical, it remains true to the spirit of Dickens’ own times. Dickens felt a great affinity for the stage, and his work was rife not only with melodrama but also recurring theatrical metaphors. Callow, assuming for a time the spirit of Dickens, presents the spirit of a man who quite literally killed himself for the theater: Dickens’ premature death was brought on by an unforgiving schedule of enervating recitals of his own work. Dickens performed the great scenes from his own books just as Callow does here, not with the stoic detachment of a writer speaking his own prose but with an actor’s passion for the character’s living reality.
In the spirit of Dickens’ own theatrical spirit, The Mystery of Charles Dickens is a wonderful performance. It’s something of a missed opportunity that the DVD presents nothing in the way of extras, considering the possibilities for educational supplements (the disc doesn’t even come with Closed Captioning, which might significantly limit its efficacy as a classroom tool). Regardless of this bare-bones presentation, the disc presents a faithful reproduction of a gratifying theatrical event.