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Circle of Fire

Circle of Fire: Dickens' Vision and Style and the Popular Victorian Theater

Copyright Date: 1966
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Circle of Fire
    Book Description:

    This study explores the theater actually known and frequented by Dickens in order to show in terms of concrete structural analysis of his novels the nature of the predominantly "dramatic" or "theatrical" quality of his genius. Author William F. Axton finds that the three principal dramatic modes or "voices" that were characteristically Victorian were burlesquerie, grotesquerie, and the melodramatic, and that the novelist's vision of the world around him was drawn from ways of seeing transformed from those elements in the popular playhouse of his day -- as revealed in the structure and theme ofSketches by Boz,Pickwick Papers,Oliver Twist, and other novels.

    The last half of the study analyzes representative passages from the novels to illustrate the way in which the principal modes of nineteenth-century theatrical style are transmuted into the three important "voices" of the novelist's prose style. The first two voices -- the burlesque and the grotesque -- are identified by their exploitation of the stylistic features of farce, extravaganza, and harlequinade, of incongruous likeness and deliberate confusion between realms. The melodramatic voice, on the other hand, seeks to exploit in prose the musically rhythmic and poetic resources of the theater for the purpose of atmosphere, moral commentary, and structural unity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6188-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. BOOK ONE Dickens and the Theater

    • Chapter One THE WRITER AS ACTOR
      (pp. 3-15)

      From the time when John Ruskin deplored Charles Dickens’ habit of speaking as it were “in a circle of stage fire,”¹ until today, when Edmund Wilson can claim that Dickens was “the greatest dramatic writer the English had since Shakespeare,”² the manifest theatricality of Dickens’ genius has been a critical cliché, and a sizable literature dealing with the relations between the novelist and the theater has grown up over the years.³ But no one, as far as I know, has attempted any extended study of the influence of the theater actually known to Dickens—particularly the popular Victorian theater—on...

      (pp. 16-34)

      If it is difficult for us now to realize the extraordinary hold the theater and the actor had on the Victorian literary imagination, it is no less difficult to reconstruct the forms, styles, and conditions of the stage known to Dickens and his age. By and large scholars and critics have ignored or condemned the hundred years of British theatrical history that lay between David Garrick and Tom Robertson; and only recently has a revival of serious interest in the nineteenth-century theater brought with it some effort to discover just what it was really like.¹ The task is complicated, first,...

  5. BOOK TWO Dickens’ Theatrical Vision

      (pp. 37-59)

      During the transitional years 1834-1838, when Dickens grew from a journalist-cum-actor into a novelist, the grotesqueries of the theater he had frequented as a would-be thespian and a spectator apparently came to hold great relevance for him as means of depicting an emergent bourgeois England in terms of atheatrum mundi. His first published works, at any rate—the short journalistic pieces later collected in the two volumes ofSketches by Bozand the brilliant but ambivalent first novel,Pickwick Papers—are controlled by this vision of society and take their inspiration from the techniques of the early Victorian popular...

      (pp. 60-83)

      As admirable as it is,Sketches by Bozremains a collection of occasional pieces, many of which were added later to fill out a volume, whose inspiration was found as much in editorial necessity as in the immediate experience of their young author. But theSketches’ successors,Pickwick PapersandOliver Twist, use the vision of thetheatrum mundiimplicit there as a point of departure for a more fully reasoned critique of society, in which the manic incongruities of burlesque, pantomime, and farce depict the chronic histrionism of middle-class culture.

      InPickwick Papers, the world through which the club...

      (pp. 84-109)

      Oliver Twist (Bentley’s Miscellany, February, 1837–April, 1839), which overran the last nine serial numbers ofPickwick Papers, may seem to bear little connection to the theatrical burlesque and grotesquerie of Dickens’ first novel, aside from a shared strain of melodrama, had not its original version a far more grotesque tone than the novel with which modern readers are familiar. The explanation of this curious fact lies in Dickens’ decision, when he published the novel entire, to omit certain materials which had appeared in the pages ofBentley’s Miscellanyconcurrently with the serial publication ofOliver Twist—chiefly, the series...

      (pp. 110-136)

      It might be expected that a talented and ambitious young man deeply imbued with the cheap theatrical life of the “Surrey side” would carry much of that world with him when, as Dickens did, he turned first to occasional journalism and then to serious fiction. Nor would it be surprising to find that many of his fundamental perspectives toward his society and times were influenced by the idea of atheatrum mundi, nor, indeed, that he borrowed from the playhouse many of the grotesque techniques of burlesque, pantomime, and farce to body forth his vision. This much we have already...

  6. BOOK THREE Dickens’ Theatrical Style

    • Chapter Seven INTRODUCTORY
      (pp. 139-162)

      A brief stock-taking may be in order at this point, if only because the argument advanced in these pages has at times taken us far afield from the playhouse, and a moment is called for in which to check bearings and fix location. Confident of the substantial truth to life of the mingled fantasy and realism of the popular theater of his time, Dickens sought to translate the frivolous idioms of the playhouse into imaginative prose fiction with a serious social purpose. His ultimate artistic intention lay in altering his readers’ vision of commonplace life from conventional literalism to imaginative...

    • Chapter Eight GROTESQUE SCENE
      (pp. 163-188)

      Dickens’ grotesque voice, primarily a mode of scenic description derived from the transformations of early Victorian pantomime, shares with its theatrical prototype a world-distorting vision that suddenly, incongruously, yet convincingly transmutes commonplace objects and settings into quite dissimilar things, that juxtaposes realms, contexts, functions, scales, and shapes while yet indicating some arresting and unforeseen likeness, and that intermixes anachronistic materials without committing itself to wholehearted acceptance of either side of the equation. In particular the grotesque voice, like pantomime, deliberately confuses the human and material realms, the animate and the inanimate, the realistic and the fantastic; and it achieves this...

    • Chapter Nine BURLESQUE PEOPLE
      (pp. 189-218)

      Dickens’ burlesque voice seeks to do for character and action what his grotesque mode does for the object-world: that is, by renderillg conventional human categories alien or incoherent to make them appear full of surprising interest and unsuspected new meaning. The kinship between Dickens’ grotesque and burlesque modes has already been suggested by the presence in scenic description of a peculiar kind of rootless burlesque, a vaguely parodic use of inflated diction and mannered syntax disproportionate to subject matter. In addition, scene is commonly handled as a projection of some associated human life and motive. The general contention has been...

      (pp. 219-262)

      Certainly one of the most striking features of the early Victorian theater was the introduction into drama, as a result of the licensing acts, of music, verse, dance, song, and various rhythmic devices. Burlesque, extravaganza, burletta, revue, the several varieties of opera and operetta, and even pantomime, all employed music, song, or verse to a greater or lesser extent. Melodrama, of course, utilized musical background to establish and augment mood, and incidental songs and dances to relieve suspense and to provide a lighter counterpart to the pathetic or terrible concerns of the main plot. Melodramatic style was no less characterized...

  7. APPENDIX A An Evening at a Victorian Playhouse
    (pp. 263-267)
  8. APPENDIX B The News of Nemo’s Death Reaches Cook’s Court
    (pp. 268-276)
  9. NOTES
    (pp. 277-290)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 291-295)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 296-298)