Give 'Em the Dickens: A Harsh Message for Republicans

Delving inside a Simon Callow book

Dickens's creativity, merging with his trauma-powered drive for success, gave his art unexampled reach: he went everywhere and noted everything he saw. His prose must be relished in bulk. (Eric Bentley, praising Emlyn Williams's solo evening of Dickens in the 1950s, said wonderfully, "You wouldn't offer a friend a thimbleful of beer.") Casting his net so widely over his own time, he ensnared his successors: Without Dickens, you wouldn't have Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Kafka, all of whom cherished him. (Madame Verdurin was Proust's attempt to conceive a French equivalent of Our Mutual Friend's Mrs. Veneering.)

His innate theatricality drove his novels onto the stage; some were pirated even before he'd finished writing them. Shaw openly acknowledged copying him; Bulgakov not only adapted Pickwick Papers but acted in it with the Moscow Art Theatre. American 1930s playwriting, with its class awareness and love of raffish atmosphere, clearly bears his mark: Kaufman and Ferber's Dinner at Eight, Rice's Counsellor-at-Law, Odets's Golden Boy. I expect to hear echoes of him Off-Off this fall, when Metropolitan Playhouse revives Maxwell Anderson's Both Your Houses and ReGroup Theatre stages Claire and Paul Sifton's 1931.

Think of the homeless and jobless, starving and sick, and Dickens is there, as he is when you think of the unregulated financial schemers whose collapse brings disaster on millions. The dark past he paints displays, forcefully, the future the Republicans' plan for us: the hypocrisy of Uriah Heep and Pecksniff regulating our morals, the terrifying charity of Mrs. Pardiggle replacing social programs, and Bill Sikes's treatment of Nancy as our model for gender relations. You know how I'm voting, and how Dickens would vote if he were here.

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