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The Amusements of the People [i]

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Cross-genre i
Prose: Report i
Prose: Short Fiction i
Subjects Family Life; Families; Domestic Relations; Sibling Relations; Kinship; Home;
Great Britain—Social Life and Customs
Popular Culture; Amusements
Social classes; Class distinctions; Aristocracy (Social Class); Aristocracy (Social Class)—Fiction; Middle Class; Working Class; Servants;
Theatre; Performing Arts; Performing; Dance; Playwriting; Circus
Other Details
Printed : 30/3/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume I
Magazine : No. 1
Office Book Notes
Views : 8702

Dickens wrote or co-wrote three pieces for the first number of his new journal. For the co-authored piece, 'Valentine's Day at the Post-Office' [Vol. I, 30 March 1850], written with his sub-editor W. H. Wills, and another articles, 'A Bundle of Emigrants' Letters' [Vol. I, 30 March 1850], in which Dickens presented some letters home from emigrants to Australia (see Stone [, Uncollected Writings of Charles Dickens]). 'The Amusements of the People' is the first instalment of a two-part polemical report on the kind of entertainment available to working-class audiences at two well-known popular theatres. It relates directly to one aspect of the editorial project announced in Dickens's 'Preliminary Word' in that it is concerned with the cultivation of the imagination, cherishing 'that light of Fancy which is inherent in the human breast.' For Dickens, one of the supreme sites for imaginative experience was the theatre and here he directs his middle-class readers' attention to the kind of dramatic entertainment provided at his neighbourhood theatre for the generically named Joe Whelks (whelks, like oysters, were a favourite delicacy of the Victorian poor).

The theatre visited in this piece is the one now called the Old Vic, which is located south of the river in Lambeth, near Waterloo Station (the New Cut, now simply the Cut, connects Waterloo and Blackfriars Roads; it was cut across Lambeth Marsh around 1812). Opened as the Royal Coburg in 1818 and renamed the Royal Victoria in 1833 in compliment to the young Princess, the theatre held over 3,000 people and drew on a mainly local audience. From 1841 it had been under the management of David Osbaldiston, an actor celebrated in 'heavy' melodramatic roles, and his leading lady Eliza Vincent, who was also his mistress. The Theatre Reform Act of 1843 extended the Lord Chamberlain's licensing powers, previously restricted to the patent theatres and Westminster, to all London theatres and the play Dickens saw had been licensed under the title May Morning; or the Mendicant Heir. It was first produced on 26 January 1850 and, George Rowell notes (The Old Vic Theatre: A History [1993], p. 37), 'was withdrawn after a respectable run' at the end of February. The 'cheerful sailor, with very loose legs, had been an immensely popular stage figure since the great success of Jerrold's Black-eyed Susan [which Dickens reviewed in the Examiner, 12 May 1849] (see article 34) [in vol. 2 of The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism]) and invariably danced a hornpipe at some point in whatever play he appeared in. See Rowell, op. cit., for a good account of the Royal Victoria at this time (when it was described by Henry Mayhew and â€“ very hostilely â€“ by Charles Kingsley, as well as by Dickens). Red Riven was a stock melodrama first produced at the Coburg in 1825. 

Literary allusions

  • The Maid and the Magpie and The Dog of Montargis; or the Forest of Bondy were stock items in the repertoire of the early nineteenth-century popular theatre; 
  • 'Those who would live to please...': Johnson's 'Prologue at the Opening of Drury Lane' [1747] – 'The drama's laws the drama's patrons give, / For we that live to please, must please to live'; 
  • 'hold the Mirror up to Nature': Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Sc. 2; 
  • 'like the dyer's hand': Shakespeare, Sonnet No. 111. 

 MS. Corrected proof in Forster Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum. 

Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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