The Chariot VII Public Readings

Roman à Clef:

Charles Dickens

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         As a small boy, Dickens would accompany his father John to public houses around Rochester. One evening, possibly at the Falstaff Inn across from Gad's Hill, John Dickens – who was something of a Falstaff himself - set his son on a table and encouraged the boy to entertain the fellow patrons. Not much encouragement was needed, for Charles Dickens was a born actor.

 

 For the 3 years he was a clerk, working up his Boz sketches before becoming a fully-fledged writer, Dickens attended the theatres of London as often as he could. This meant he went nearly every night. While not exactly discriminating, Dickens' favourite performer was Charles Matthews the elder, who gave solo performances he called At Homes. Opening with a comic lecture, he interspersed comic songs between varied monologues delivered in different personae and ended the performance with a short one-act play in which he played all the parts. These he called monopolylogues, and Dickens adored them. Intent on joining the stage himself, Dickens wrote and rehearsed tirelessly his own monopolylogue, but when the day came for his audition, he was too sick to perform. If Dickens hadn't fallen ill, or Pickwick hadn't experienced the overnight success it did soon after the aborted rehearsal, rather than a literary career, Charles Dickens would've surely had a career in the theatre.

 

 As the social thinker and art critic John Ruskin said of Dickens, he chose to write “in a circle of stage fire.” But while Dickens began writing plays as a boy and continued to do so as an adult, his talents were poorly suited to it. The theatre makes the imagined tangible, thereby casting the emphasis on nuance and complexity of tone; Dickens made the inanimate words on a page come alive in the mind's eye by exaggeration, ridiculousness, and emphasizing emphasis itself. He was also a master of agency, and his great skill in the theatre was not just as vivacious performer, but as director. The acting troupe Dickens started, The Amateurs, was the most respected and professional of the amateur theatrical companies of the day, and Dickens was involved in its every detail – business, script, casting, carpentry, costumes, programs, lighting, music, publicity, and the setting up and taking down of the chairs. He played Captain Bobadil in Jonson's Every Man In His Humour to great acclaim – later retaining the curled beard and moustache he grew for the part. To raise money for the playwright Sheridan Knowles and the purchase of Shakespeare's house in Stratford, The Amateurs performed The Merry Wives of Windsor with Dickens a memorable Master Shallow. And it was in the play he co-wrote with Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep, that Dickens met the love of his later life, Ellen Ternan.

 

 Although born into the theatre world and so assumed to be a young woman of loose scruples, the 17-year-old Nelly rebuffed the amorous advances of the 45-year-old married Dickens – at least at first. In some ways to sublimate this frustrated passion, and to salve the assaults he faced from newspapers attacking his conduct with his wife Kate, Dickens agreed to give public readings in Birmingham on behalf of the newly established Working Men's Institute. These readings were a huge success, and led to others - the fears and privations he felt privately soothed and rejuvenated by his adoring public. Never really regarding himself as a wealthy man, Dickens began to wonder if public readings couldn't also supply him with remuneration. His friend Forster was dismayed at the suggestion, but Dickens quickly arranged a national tour and by August of 1858, he had earned 3000 guineas clear profit.

 

 At his readings, Dickens laughed and wept with his audience. Tickets to his readings became highly sought after. Every performance ended with cheers and a standing ovation. In Scotland he was overwhelmed by his popular reception at the very time when the students of Glasgow University voted him a humiliating 3rd place in the election for their rector, on the grounds he was “a vulgar cockney, with the heart and manners of a Snob,” a “cowardly calumniator, the cuckoo of his own merits.” Despite this, Dickens continued to win plaudits across the nation from the people. The performances themselves were carefully selected passages from his works, edited to form a complete narrative. Standing alone at a podium in evening dress, literally in a circle of stage fire, Dickens utilized all his acting talents – his fingers drummed on the desk when he described dancers at a ball; his face contorted into the pinched sneer of Ebenezer Scrooge; his voice wheezed as Mrs. Gamp and rose in a convincing falsetto as little Paul Dombey. In short, he employed the mode he so admired himself as a young man, the monopolylogue.

 

 In Newcastle, Dickens demonstrated his authority in a crisis. While re-enacting the death of Smike, a batten of gaslights suddenly gave way and crashed onto the stage. A woman screamed and ran from her seat. Dickens, sensing the dangers of a panicked crowd, laughed lightly and gently asked the lady to return to her seat. His stage crew, meantime, terrified of a fire starting, trembled so much as they put things right that the platform under Dickens shook terribly. Afterwards, one of the lighting men said, “The more you want of the master, the more you'll find in him.”

 

 So lucrative were these readings, and so emotionally invested was Dickens with his public, that despite the gout in his leg and the neuralgia affecting him after performances, he undertook a reading tour of America in 1868. He had alienated many readers after his last visit, but that was a generation ago – within 11 hours of the box office opening, all tickets were sold out. Tickets were $2 each – scalpers re-sold them for upwards of $26. In Washington, President Andrew Johnson brought his entourage to hear Dickens read every day for a week. But America, in a sense, had its revenge – the tour nearly killed Dickens. Strain ravished his health; his voice wore out; he developed a cough so persistent he feared his lungs were permanently injured; standing for hours aggravated his gout and weakened his heart; his diet became entirely liquid – a tumbler of cream and 2 tablespoons of rum, a sherry cobbler and a pint of champagne, an egg beaten up with a glass of brandy. The great personal and financial success of the tour, however, drove Dickens on to dismiss medical advice and undertake a further series of readings upon his triumphant return to England.

 

 For this final tour, Dickens honed and perfected his pièce de résistance – the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes. When Dickens' son Charley overheard his father rehearsing it in the next room, he jumped up, convinced his wife was being brutally beaten by a tramp. When asked, Charley admitted it was “the finest thing I have ever heard” but implored his father not to perform the piece. And despite similar admonitions from everyone in his circle, Dickens could not let go of so sensational a piece of theatrics, the allure of an audience in the palm of his hand being too great. After each reading, he limped from the stage and collapsed on a sofa in his dressing room, unable to speak. His pulse soared to an alarming rate. His lame foot was treated with poultices of poppy-heads and a special boot. His balance became unsteady and his left hand hardly seemed under his control. Finally, his speech slurred, and he couldn't for the life of him properly pronounce the name Pickwick.

 

 It is no exaggeration to say the deep psychological relationship Dickens felt with his living public precipitated the author's death. Nor is it an exaggeration to suggest this relationship was as imperative and integral to Dickens' psyche as any relationship he had in his life – his parents, his siblings, his wife Catherine, her sister Georgina, his many children, or even his devoted affections for his lover Ellen Ternan. The man who as a boy had been placed on pub tables by his father to perform, and toiled in a blacking factory before a display window where passersby gathered outside to watch, revealed on his deathbed that he – the most famous of authors, adored the world over - had but one regret in life: he wished he had been an actor.

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Notes for General Circulation : 

 

  • The 7th Major Arcanum represents man as he might be, what he is in the theatre of his own soul; it is a kind of monologue. As a person's inner persona, it is a counterpart and commentary on the previous card, The Lovers.

  • A theatrical production in which the central role has been tailor-made for the lead actor is commonly called a vehicle.

  • Here, on The Chariot card, the rapt audience replaces the emotional pull of the horses on traditional Chariot cards. Dickens the public reader, as charioteer, maintains control over his audience's emotional energies with a deft hand. Balancing comedy with tragedy, he transports the audience. 

  • The Chariot is the outward discipline of the Ego, it represents ideal agency, the perfected development of faculties, a sense of purpose and direction, the authoritative mastery of Super-ego and Id. 

  • This is the image of the idealized Everyman; what The Magician on paper is in practice. The charioteer has corralled all his solar energies and, as all things to all people, enacts them to great effect in the world. With a focus so intense, however, he runs the risk of forgetting to replenish his lunar energies. Acting in this way - in the heady and headlong gallop of willpower - may end with the charioteer crashing to the ground like Phaethon. 

  • The Chariot is affiliated with the star sign Sagittarius, the half-human half-horse. As signified by Chiron, Sagittarians are natural teachers. Enjoying the sound of their own voice, they may become half-hoarse. As with other Fire signs, they are easily bored and move quickly from one idea to another. They may be promiscuous. As archers, they can accurately zero-in on a target from a sometimes disturbing distance.

  • For the purposes of acting out his novels, Dickens often reduced incidents in his books to the dialogue alone, thereby eliminating himself from the work, as it were. When Dickens, performing his monopolylogues, carried his audiences away, where did he go?

  • May suggest a concord  of inner and outer desires. In a formal pattern, a female querent may find herself sidelined by a male in her life's career, while a male querent may be trapped in a role or addicted to something which brings solace but is ultimately detrimental to his health. Similarly, a third party may be almost miraculously moved, but at the cost of the loss of their transportation.