Two years before his death, in 1868, Charles Dickens famously toured the United States, giving public readings of his work. Mark Twain was in the audience in New York and admitted to being “a great deal disappointed” at Dickens’s performance. He records, “what a bright, intelligent audience he had! He ought to have made them laugh, or cry, or shout, at his own good will or pleasure — but he did not. They were very much tamer than they should have been.” I’m not sure where Dickens went wrong that night, but when veteran British actor Simon Callow performed two of Dickens’s readings Sunday evening at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, the audience certainly laughed and cried.

Callow performed two plays, Mr Chops and Dr Marigold; both are works that Dickens’s initially wrote as short stories, but which he later revised for public readings. They are intriguing choices for a contemporary audience as both stories reveal Dickens’s engagement with disabilities. Mr Chops tells the tale of a dwarf exhibited in a fake house at a sideshow who has ambitions of “going into society.” After winning the lottery, Mr Chops attempts to do so, but he is taken advantage of by his servants and retreats back to the sideshow manager, Magsman. As he explains to Magsman, he attempted to go into society, but, instead, society got into him. Mr Chops would rather stay a freak, where he receives money so that people may see him, than stay in society, where he must pay for people to see him. Mr Chops is a sympathetic, if caricatured, character.

Dr Marigold offers, I think, a more complex depiction of Victorian disabilities and masculine models. In this story, Callow performed as Dr Marigold, a sympathetic cheap-jack whose wife beats his beautiful daughter. After his wife and daughter die, Marigold finds happiness with an adopted daughter, who happens to be “deaf and dumb.” He immediately renames her Sophy, the name of his deceased daughter; this seems a highly problematic act, but it is, at least in part, glossed over by the fact that he is a wonderful father to her. He teaches Sophy sign language, reading, and writing, and enrolls her in a school for the deaf. After two painful years apart, they reunite, but he discovers that she is in love with a deaf man whom she met at the school. Marigold encourages their marriage, even though it means that they will depart shortly for China, and he later learns, via letter, that Sophy gives birth to a daughter. Sophy does not tell him whether her young daughter is deaf, and he does not want to pain her by asking. Some time later, he is awoken on Christmas day to see his daughter, her husband, and his granddaughter return to see him, and, to his delight, his granddaughter cries, “Hello grandfather!”. Marigold cries tears of happiness and pity – pity, perhaps, because his daughter will never hear her child speak.

Despite the complexities of this story, many in the audience left wiping their eyes. Though Callow began the performance in a light-hearted tone, his eyes more than once filled with tears as his character recounted his first daughter’s death and his second daughter’s success in learning his sign language. (Callow signed to the audience in the scene where Marigold tells Sophy that she must marry the man she loves. His signs were basic and he didn’t sign for every single word. For a question, he simply made a large question mark with his hand, for instance.)

These two plays offer radically different messages for characters with disabilities: where Mr Chops feels more at home at his fake house in the freak show, Sophy seems to suggest that persons with disabilities can be successful and happy in the outside world. I was happily surprised to see that two characters with disabilities realized the traditional marriage plot, something very unique in Victorian literature. But Dickens perhaps tempers this unusual story by showing that the disability is not transferred to the second generation. I would love to hear what others think about this story, and whether there are other comparable stories in the Victorian period.

In addition, Dr Marigold offers a unique depiction of a father taking on a very motherly role: despite his renaming of Sophy and his inability to save his first daughter from her mother’s beatings, he is a tender, emotional, affectionate father figure. I wonder why Dickens picked these two stories in particular to perform himself? And what makes them relevant (or not) to contemporary audiences?

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