The Lighthouse

May 11, 2014 | Reviews

Over the years the Wilkie Collins Society has performed a valuable service for Collins enthusiasts and scholars by reprinting work that has either never been published, or that has remained unpublished since the nineteenth century. This, the first publication of The Lighthouse in English, is, however, the most ambitious production to date. The play tells the story of a murder thought to have been committed in the past, and the consequences for the other characters when, in the extreme circumstances of near-starvation, the old lighthouse keeper confesses to his part in the murder. Since this was Collins’s first original play (his first play ever was an adaptation from the French, A Court Duel, 1850), and moreover one that was written for the extraordinarily vital dramatic life of Tavistock House, the drama marks an important point in Collins’s career and in his association with Dickens.

Significantly, it was his enthusiasm for the stage, an enthusiasm that lasted all his life, that led to Collins being drawn (Augustus Egg acting as go-between) into Dickens’s circle – initially as an actor, then, with The Lighthouse, as playwright. The play was first performed at Tavistock House in June 1855 with Dickens, naturally, playing a large part in the whole venture: recruiting a production team, contributing a Prologue and a song (“The Song of the Wreck”, for his daughter Mamie in the part of Phoebe), organising and directing rehearsals, and, of course, playing a leading role. Together with Mark Stone he also wrote the accompanying farce, Mr Nightingale’s Diary, which was performed by the same players. Apart from Dickens and Mamie, the other players were Collins himself, Georgina Hogarth, Augustus Egg, and Mark Lemon, with smaller parts being taken by younger members of the Dickens family and their friends.

The actors may have been amateurs, but Dickens made sure that the production was as professional as possible, enlisting the help of costumiers and a wig-maker from professional West End theatres, recruiting the composer Francesco Berger, and persuading Clarkson Stanfield, a scene-painter renowned for his seascapes, to paint a drop-scene, which Dickens so admired he had it displayed afterwards at Tavistock House and later at Gad’s Hill. One of the many illustrations in this edition is of Stanfield’s depiction of the lighthouse rising up from a raging sea. This is the scene that would have confronted the audience, the lantern of the lighthouse back-lit, as John Forster, offstage, spoke the Prologue with a soft musical underlay.

Music would have been an important component of the production, but this is one of the most difficult aspects of nineteenth-century play productions to recreate. No musical cues are given in the text of The Lighthouse (the instruction for a musical underlay for the Prologue is given in F.G.Killon’s 1903 edition, The Poems and Verses of Charles Dickens), for it was standard practice to have music accompanying particularly emotional moments, and there would of course have been an overture. However, we can get some idea of the style of the music, because a CD of the overture to The Frozen Deep, the next play on which Collins and Dickens collaborated, has been published by the Wilkie Collins Society, and this music too was written by Francesco Berger. In the recording the music is played by Vyvian Bronk on the piano; but Berger records that for the performances of The Lighthouse at Tavistock House he conducted “a small but efficient Orchestra”, while presiding at the piano (p.14). ((All page references are to the volume under review.))

In their introduction to this edition of The Lighthouse, Andrew Gasson and Caroline Radcliffe give a detailed account of the circumstances of Dickens’s production, drawing on the letters of Collins and Dickens, and on reminiscences by other people involved in the production or present as members of the audience. They tell us that there were three performances at Tavistock House, but in his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd says that four performances were given. However, since the first of these, he says, was in front of servants and tradespeople, I think this must have been the dress rehearsal. As always, audience-response was in the front of Dickens’s mind, and he would have been aware of the need to play to a ‘rehearsal’ audience before facing the invited audience. A delicious extract from the ‘Reminiscences of My Father’ written by Dickens’s eldest son, Charley, gives a good idea of the intense activity and excitement of the performances – and of the exacting standards of his father:

at the cue, ‘Eddystone Lighthouse’ the green curtain was raised, and displayed, to the unbounded astonishment of the audience, Stanfield’s picture; and the words ‘billows rise’ were my signal – I was in charge of the storm – to let loose the elements. We had all the correct theatrical weather out in the hall…Charley recalled he could tell by his father’s shoulders at rehearsals, that he was ready for the smallest mistake (pp.16-17).

It would, however, have been helpful to have had some explanation as to why the writer refers to himself – or so it would seem – in both the first person and third person. Dickens’s concern with audience reaction can be seen in a letter to Miss Burdett Coutts, I which he comments that although the audience was “crying vigorously”, they were not so “demonstrative” as they had been on the Saturday, and the actors had thought them “flat” (p.17). One can imagine the sort of post-performance discussion that is as much part of amateur theatricals today as it was then.

Described on the original handbill as a “domestic melo-drama”, the two-act play is a psychological drama, and relies on convincing performances, and on creating atmosphere rather than spectacle. As a play-text it is a slight affair, running to fewer than thirty pages in this edition. There are minimal stage directions and, as Gasson and Radcliffe point out in their introduction, Collins relies on punctuation, dashes in particular, to guide the actors in their interpretation of the speeches. However, what is especially valuable about this publication is the inclusion of material that is not only interesting in its own right, but which helps to give some idea of what the piece would have been like in performance. For instance, there are four lengthy reviews of the charity performance that was given by Dickens’s team at the miniature theatre attached to Colonel Waugh’s mansion, Campden House, which comment on the perfomances of the actors and on the production as well as giving reactions to the play itself. It is clear that Collins’s enthusiasm for the stage was not matched by his acting talent; it is, as always, Dickens himself who steals the scene. The reviewer for the Daily News wrote that Dickens gave “a display of passion carried to the utmost intensity, but without overstepping for a moment the modesty of nature” (p.76). But the reviews were altogether very favourable, praising the play, the acting, and the production.

Two years later (1857) the play was staged professionally at the Royal Olympic, the theatre with which Collins had a long association, where his adaptation of The Woman in White was finally staged in 1871, and where his greatest theatrical success, The New Magdalen, was mounted in 1873. The three reviews of The Lighthouse that are included in the volume show that without Dickens in the role of Aaron, the old tormented lighthouse keeper, and in the much larger space of the Olympic, the play was not received quite so rapturously. Nevertheless, Collins counted it a success and it ran for three months. The following year it was staged professionally in Laura Keene’s Theatre in New York, and was less well received. Two reviews of this production are included in the volume and it is clear from them that without Dickens’s magnetic performance, the play dragged. The views expressed about the play are, I confess, closer to my own than those of the British reviewers: “the whole story has to be told, and not acted”, complains the reviewer for the New York Tribune (p.89). Nevertheless, The Lighthouse is a significant piece; neither domestic nor sensation melodrama, it is the work of a playwright who is concerned to explore the way in which psychological complexities are generated within an extreme situation. The reviewer of the New York Times recognised the experimental nature of Collins’s play: “It is a novelty which boldly defies traditional art, and asks for independent consideration on its own merits. Clearly it is entitled to it, for in spite of the most unpromising dramatic conditions the ‘Lighthouse’ is a curiously impressive and interesting piece” (pp.86-87).

Furthermore, The Lighthouse is unusual in Collins’s oeuvre in that not only was it written as a play (as opposed to being the dramatisation of a novel or short story), but it stayed as a play, unlike, say, The Frozen Deep, which was published as one of a collection of short stories in 1874. Always concerned about copyright, Collins was protective of this early work, only giving permission for publication of a version in French, so we must be grateful to the Wilkie Collins Society for funding this attractive volume, which not only publishes the play in English for the first time, but includes a lot of supplementary material. In addition to the reviews I have already mentioned, there are cast lists for various nineteenth-century productions and a translation of Collins’s introduction to the French edition. There are also a number of interesting illustrations: playbills, portraits of Collins, Dickens and Georgina Howarth in her role of Lady Grace, and illustrations of scenes from the play and of the drop-scene I have already referred to. The introduction discusses Collins’s sources of inspiration for the play, as well as the circumstances of its original production and offers a textual commentary on the various extant versions of the script. This volume will provide a valuable resource for anyone who is interested in the work of Collins, Dickens, and the relationship between them. Whether it will tempt anyone to mount a production of the play for a modern audience is another question.