Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Strange Gentleman

I just finished taping an episode of Pickwick Monthly for the Rosenbach Museum and Library, where Ed Pettit and I discussed (among other things) The Strange Gentleman, the first play author Charles Dickens had professionally produced.

The two-act play--technically a "comic burletta"--debuted on September 29th, 1836 at the St. James Theatre run by John Braham. I was disappointed in the play when I first read it, but when I re-read it last night in preparation for the show, it wasn't quite as bad as I remembered.

Dickens himself came to dislike the piece, claiming he wouldn't want it performed again for a thousand pounds. (Originally, he received only 30 pounds for the copyright.) Still, the first production was successful, and the play was later performed in both New York and Philadelphia.

The story comes from Dickens's own sketch "The Great Winglebury Duel" which was included in Sketches by Boz. The play was published as being authored by "Boz" as well, as Dickens was still using that pen name. Since the St. James's Theatre did not hold a royal patent, the play had to be performed with songs to receive the "burletta" designation.

While the script calls for occasional pieces of music, they seem detached from the action. The plot, such as it is, follows several young people planning to run off to Gretna in Scotland where they can legally marry without the consent of their parents. The most interesting character is not one of the young lovers, but the "boots" Tom Sparks who works in the inn where they are staying.

Dickens scholar Michael Slater called Tom Sparks "a sort of prototype for Sam Weller without the 'Wellerisms'" since he is a comical servant like Weller in Pickwick Papers but doesn't have the witty comments that Sam has. Ultimately, everything ends well for the lovers, and Tom hopefully receives a generous tip.

If you're interested in reading the play yourself, you can find it on the Internet Archive.