22 JULY 1882, Page 9


MR. RICHARD HERNE SHEPHERD has brought out two largely padded-out volumes which he entitles, "The Plays and Poems of Charles Dickens," *—plays and poems which could certainly have been got into a single unpre- tentious volume without any difficulty at all, and which would not add an iota to Dickens's great reputation in either shape, though in their present ostentatious form they might. injure it,—if it were by this time susceptible of injury from any conceivable cause,—by the severe disappointment which the contents are certain to inflict on every one who allows his expectation to rise as he opens them, The truth is that the plays are vulgar and the poems are altogether com- mon-place and flimsy, and that neither the one nor the other are at all worthy of the great humourist. There are only a few touches in these volumes to betray the man of genius even to those who know how great his genius was, and absolutely nothing to prove his genius to any doubter or disbeliever. Those plays for which Dickens alone is responsible have an air of underbred jocoseness which is thoroughly distressing. And the poems: are common-place sentiments thrown into common-place rhymes. No one who reads the farce called " The Lamp- lighter" will feel the least surprise that even so dear a friend. of Charles Dickens as Macready found it impossible to accept it, while he will find it very difficult to understand how so great a humourist as Dickens ever came to write either that, or the disagreeable rubbish which he called " Is She his Wife ? or Something Singular." The only surprise of these volumes will be the discovery that the plays in which Dickens was assisted by men of much less genius than himself, i.e., Mark Lemon and Wilkie Collins, are unquestionably superior to those of which he alone was the author.

All this may be a puzzle to those who remember, first, how much of dialogue, absolutely unrivalled in its way, Dickens has embodied in his greatest books ; and next, how very great he himself was as an actor, and,—what was the next thing to his ability as an actor,—as a reader of

his own most brilliant scenes. How is it that the man who was preferred as an actor to Charles Matthews by many excellent judges, and whose most brilliant achievements, even in his novels, consisted in comic monologues or dialogues,

* W. EL Anon and Co,

could have produced dramatic pieces so feeble and vulgar as three of these plays, and so emptily conventional as the fourth P We can only suggest a very partial solution of the difficulty, but a partial solution there is. Any one who will compare the very miserable and vulgar farce called "The Lamplighter" in these volames, with the contribution to "The Pic Nic Papers " called " The Lamplighter's Story," which is republished here, will, in part at least, divine it. The latter, though it is one of Dickens's poorest efforts,—probably because it was a recast of the rejected farce,—is yet much superior to the farce, and in the opening portion of it is not quite unworthy of the humourist. You see at once how much better adapted than the dramatic form was the easy narrative form to the vigilant, ob- servant humour of Dickens. The moment he gets his Lamplighter Chairman and his Lamplighter Vice-Chairman hobnobbing together at the Lamplighters' House of Call, he falls into his natural manner, and you begin to smile at his touches, just because he does not feel bound to make every separate speech a separate effect. " Gentlemen,' said the Lamp-

lighter in the chair, I drink your healths.' And per- haps, Sir,' said the Vice, holding up his glass, and rising a little way off his seat, and sitting down again, in token that he recognised and returned the compliment, per- haps you will add to that condescension by telling us who 'Torn Grig was, and how he came to be connected in your mind with Francis Moore, physician.' " That is not a sample of Dickens's humour, but it is a sample of that easy, keen obser- vation which makes so admirable a background for his humour; and it is certain that half the intolerable vulgarity of the farce is removed by the framework in which it is set in the paper, where it becomes a legendary narrative, told by their Chairman to the assembled Lamplighters in a tavern. It may be remem- bered how utterly another great bumourist, Charles Lamb, . failed, when he exchanged the easy, slipshod style of the essay, for the commedietta and the farce. The fact is, no doubt, that the dramatic form is as highly artificial a form of art as it is possible to conceive,—as artificial as sculpture itself which separates outline, and curve, and figure from all the other accessories of the human body, and attempts to recall by a single set of characteristics what most men are accus- tomed to associate with different combinations of these in union with a great variety of quite other characteristics. Drama, in the same way, is an attempt to make character and adventure visible by conversation alone, and very few have the gift requisite to succeed in this. Sir Walter Scott, for instance, failed in the attempt, and to some extent, no doubt, for the same reason for which Dickens failed in it,—that, admirable as his dialogues often were, they depended for half their effect on previous descriptions, or on touches of interposed comment, so that even the dialogues themselves would not seem half as ad- mirable, if they were not so often interpreted or illustrated by the author himself, speaking in his own person. Take, for example, the scene between the Antiquary and Ede Ochiltree, in which the old bedesman confounds his adversary by saying, " Prae- torian here, praetorian there, I ken the bigging o't !" and see how difficult it would be to get the humour of that passage of arms into a dramatic scene without narrative accessories. And so it is with Dickens's very best dialogues. The im- mortal quarrel between Mrs. Gamp and Mrs. Prig would be utterly spoiled without large extracts from Dickens's easy descriptive sketches of the two ruffianly old nurses, explana- tory of the motives with which they met, and the animosities which, under the inflammatory influence of drink, broke out into mutual hatred. These wide, miscellaneous, roundabout observers, who catch so many of the side-points of every scene which most men miss, seem to be struck with a sort of paralysis, when they are deprived of the right to present us with those innumerable side-lights and unexpected glimpses by which so many of their most telling effects are produced. Even Mrs. Gamp's conversation would be robbed of half its flavour, if you had not had the fullest possible description of her bed-room, of her demeanour in waiting upon other people, of her servility to the undertaker and his wife, of her brutality to Mr. Chuffey. With Dickens, description suggests the dialogue, and the dia- logue results in more description. Without the one, the other is sure to be starved; and no one who knows his greatest books can doubt that the descriptive power is much the more original and originating, much the more fertile in humour of the two. Wonderful as the dialogue often is, the mar- vellous humour of it may generally be detected in its germ in the previous descriptions. Thus, one of the few good touches in "The Lamplighter" is a. touch obviously born of humorous observation, and not in the least due to dramatic instinct,—the lament ascribed to the old oil-lamplighter over the discovery of gas. "' I foresee in this,' says Tom's uncle, faintly, and taking to his bed as he spoke, I fore- see in this,' he says, 'the breaking-up of our profession. There's no more going the rounds to trim by daylight, no more dribbling-down of the oil on the hats and bonnets of ladies and gentlemen, when one feels in spirits. Any low fellar can light a gas-lamp.'" That, no doubt, is put into the form of a speech, but it is a speech which has not the slightest bearing on the action of the piece, and which obviously owed its origin to Dickens's keen observation and humorous insight into the mischievous motive of the lamplighters, when they were "in spirits." Dickens's dialogue is always best when it grows most obviously out of his descriptions. Indeed, his greatest char- acters are impersonations of the external circumstances most appropriate to them,—Mrs, Gamp, of the surroundings of the bad old monthly nurse ; Mr. Pecksniff, of those of the ideal hypocrite; Bumble, of those of pure Bumbledom ; and so forth, Where Mr. Pecksniff, for instance, begins to walk on tiptoe about a mile and a half from home, in order, as he says, to take his dear girls by surprise, you see at once how perfectly Dickens's best touches are conceptions improved by the imagina- tion from hints caught in actual observation.

But yet it will be said that since Dickens was so great a comic actor, and as so many of his most popular stories,—his Christmas Stories especially,—gravitate towards melodrama, there must have been a certain amount of dramatic bent and talent in him. Of the bent and talent for rendering dramatic effects, we have no manner of doubt. What we do entirely deny is that ho had any genius at all for concentrating naturally in dialogue the drift of any sort of story, tragic or comic. All Dickens's finest dialogues are dialogues of pure humour, in which the story hardly progresses at all. Think of the innumerable clever dialogues in "Oliver Twist" between the Beadle and the Matron, between Noah Claypole and Charlotte, between the Dodger and Charley Bates, between flash Toby Crackit and Sikes, and you will find that the merit of almost all of them lies in their humour and the vivid descriptive effects, and not in the least in their development of the story. And just the same is true of " Pickwick," "Nicholas Nickleby," " Martin Chuzzlewit," and all the rest. The beat dialogues are altogether non-essential to the story, and are enjoyed on their own account, not in the least because they promote the action of the piece. Directly Dickens sat down to write comedy or farce, he failed, because he felt the fetters of the drama. He had to make a story tell itself in dialogue, and to this his genius was really not suited. The nearest things he produced to effects of this kind were melodramatic effects, such as the final " explanations " in " the Battle of Life," and others of the Christmas Tales, And we do not hesitate to say that all these melodramatic effects, even though in a sense highly wrought, are utterly untrue to nature, and extremely disagreeable in their artistic effect. Dickens, as we think, was quite at his best when he was freely inventing humorous varia- tions and caricatures of the effects which his quick and laughing eye had seized, variations and caricatures which were not in the least dramatic, but rather imaginative extensions of his wide and quaint experience. Directly he tried to tie himself down to telling a story in dialogue, he became either poor, feeble, and conventional, or disagreeably excited and melodramatic. It is said that as an actor he was marvellously "earnest," which means, of course, that he threw his whole mind into the attitude of the moment. And that we can well believe. But then he so often threw his whole mind into a thoroughly unreal and affected attitude, that this is no evidence at all of dramatic capacity as an author. When, for instance, he makes Florence Dombey throughout a whole conversation insist on personally addressing the old mathematical-instrument maker as " W alter's Uncle," the reader is positively outraged by the intolerable sentimentality of this melodramatic " earnest- ness ;" and, no doubt, if Dickens could have acted a girl's part, he would have insisted on this odious conceit with supreme "earnestness." Dickens was doubtless a very effective actor, for he could take up in this way a totally false attitude of mind with as much zeal and " earnestness " as a true attitude. But he was no dramatist. He describes the effects of character far better than he impersonates action in speech. His dramas are

as poor as his poetry, and much more vulgar ; and though he could write melodrama, that only means that he could spoil very good. conceptions by stimulating his imaginary characters into attitudes of passion, and conflict, and self-vindication, in which every sentiment became artificial, and every note was uttered in a falsetto key. The genuine admirer of Dickens should speak of these vulgar plays and conventional verses only in the sub- dued language of apology and extenuation.