From childhood to the end of his life, Charles Dickens remained fascinated by Victorian toy theatre. The six-year Dickens, then living on Ordnance Terrace in the naval dockyard town of Chatham, Kent, was entertained by his nurse's gruesome stories about Captain Murderer, more literary tales from the Arabian Nights, and the productions of the nearby Theatre Royal. Some three years after acquiring his first toy theatre, the nine-year-old playwright based his Byronic tragedy Misnar, The Sultan of India on James Ridley's "The Enchantress," a pseudo-oriental story in Tales of the Genii (1764). Although a small, sickly child, Charles Dickens was encouraged to perform "The Cat's-Meat Man" and to emulate the stage manners of such eminent theatrical personalities as the tragedian Edmund Kean, the comedian Charles Matthews, and the Prince of Pantomime, the great slapstick performer Joey Grimaldi. Into the Dickens family living room young Charles brought friends to witness and participate in impromptu productions of charades, pantomimes, comedies, melodramas, and magic-lantern shows. But best of all was the toy theatre, through which young Dickens could function as actor, director, producer, and even (as his composition of Misnar, The Sultan of India indicates) script-writer. Remarks biographer Fred Kaplan, in league with friends and siblings the boy "could conceive of and control the entire world of performance, the clever child glowing with the satisfaction of being center stage" (28). Through the toy theatre, young Charles Dickens totally immersed himself in the makebelive world his imagination and a few propeties created. He constructed and worked the toy theatre as a necessary escape from the intruding miseries of Camden Town, London, after his father's being transferred back to the metropolis:
complete with the sheets of characters (penny plain and twopence coloured) to be cut out, pasted onto cardboard and glued to wires or sticks. These then would be pushed onto the small stage, with its backdrops, props and scenes; in full costume, and in suitable postures, the tiny cardboard creatures would then act out the play. Here it was that Dickens performed The Miller and His Men and Elizabeth, The Exile of Siberia; his brothers moved the little players, which sometimes had the unfortunate habit of creasing up or becoming unglued . . . . [Ackroyd, 38]
Years later, a world-famous author, Dickens bought his own son a toy theatre for the playroom at Gad's Hill Place, Kent, setting to work to assemble the prefabricated stage and cast in a great burst of creative enthusiasm to produce The Elephant of Siam. Even though a novelist, Dickens was never far from the stage, his performative characters and melodramatic plots owing much to the miniature theatre that nourished his imagination in childhood.
- Penny Plain, Twopence Coloured — Victorian Toy Theatre (outside VW)
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874. Vol. One: 1812-47.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.
Rowell, George. The Victorian Theatre 1792-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 1978.
Schlicke, Paul, ed. Oxford Readers' Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999.
Sundstrom, Robin M. "Toys and Games." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. London: Garland, 1988.
Last modified 10 July 2005