Gerald Dickens had known from his earliest days that his great-great-grandfather was quite something. His dad was “a keen scholar” of Charles Dickens’ work, so their house was full of research books and novels.
But it was not until June 9, 1970, the centenary of the great writer’s death, that 6-year-old Gerald Dickens fully understood the eminence of his place in history.
“There was a memorial service in London and we as a family went,” Gerald said. “As a 6-year-old, I was bored stiff, shuffling about in the pew. Then I looked around and I was sat in the same pew as the Queen Mother. I’d seen her on TV and I realized this means something. I realized what Dickens was.”
Gerald has since grown into an actor, touring one-man shows based on his famous ancestor’s work. On Friday, he opens a world premiere in Minneapolis. He will portray great-great-granddad in “To Begin With,” written and directed by Jeffrey Hatcher, at the Music Box Theatre.
The play portrays Charles Dickens ruminating on how best to write a small volume on his convictions about Christian faith — a testament he could give to his children as instructions on the worthy life. Dickens worked on the book, “The Life of Our Lord,” between 1846 and 1849 and it is essentially the Gospel according to Charles Dickens.
“All he was saying was that the New Testament is the best set of rules you will ever find,” said Gerald Dickens. “Follow the life of the central character and you will have the best example. That’s it.”
Producer Dennis Babcock (“Triple Espresso”) has for 20 years felt that there was a play in “The Life of Our Lord.” He’s known the Dickens family since 1993, when he met them all at the 150th anniversary party for the publication of “A Christmas Carol.”
“They made me a member of the London Dickens Pickwick Club,” Babcock said. “So I go over there every year with all these Dickens nuts.”
In 2006, he was invited to address the group and told them of his desire to adapt “The Life of Our Lord” for the stage. A few years later, he handed the book to Hatcher, the best-known playwright working in the Twin Cities, and asked him to have a look. But what was the story, and how would it come to life on stage?
“I said we have to do three things,” Babcock said. “We have to be true to the Gospels, we have to be true to Dickens, and we have to entertain.”
Inspiration on Isle of Wight
Babcock took Hatcher to the Isle of Wight, the large resort island in the English Channel, a few years ago. They knocked around Bonchurch, where the Dickens family summered in a rambling house near the shore.
“You always pick up some inspiration when you see the place where he wrote,” Hatcher said. “You know, ‘This is the room where he would work, and where he would look out at the sea.’ It gave me a starting point.”
Hatcher decided that he would get into the action by playing with the idea of Dickens searching for that entry point to the writing — that first line and all the false starts that precede it. Hence the title, “To Begin With.” The character also ponders the society in which his children will grow up, his anxieties for them and his own self-doubt.
“It’s important to get this across,” said Gerald Dickens. “It’s not a preacher on stage, not a biography of Dickens. It’s a mix of things in which we learn about Dickens, his relationship with his children, his process of working as an author, and his faith. It presents a Dickens that people have not seen before.”
Charles Dickens’ convictions are evident in even a cursory reading of his work. “A Christmas Carol” is one of the greatest redemption stories in English literature. Sydney Carton peers deep inside himself and decides, “ ’Tis a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done” when he sacrifices himself in “A Tale of Two Cities.” Dickens’ sympathies with Pip, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield reveal a champion of the underclass.
“Tolstoy called him ‘that Christian writer Dickens,’ ” Hatcher said. “But you don’t really think of Dickens as a Christian writer. You think of C.S. Lewis, but not Dickens.”
Indeed, Dickens regarded organized religion and ministers with a gimlet eye. “But the rules that governed the church, he absolutely believed,” said Gerald Dickens.
A story for children
In “The Life of Our Lord,” Dickens weaves together incidences, miracles, parables and sayings of Jesus — in a wholly uncritical “harmony” of the gospels. He seems not to regard Jesus as divine but does refer to him frequently as “Our Savior.” He includes accounts of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
At key points, he interjects commentaries that parallel his literary themes. Noting that Jesus chose his disciples from among the downtrodden, Dickens admonishes his children:
Never be proud or unkind, my dears, to any poor man, woman or child. If they are bad, think that they would have been better if they had had kind friends, and good homes, and had been better taught. So, always try to make them better by kind persuading words and always try to teach them and relieve them if you can. And when people speak ill of the poor and miserable, think how Jesus Christ went among them, and taught them and thought them worthy of His care.
Dickens gave strict orders that the book was intended privately for his children. When his last surviving child, Gerald’s great-grandfather Henry Fielding Dickens, was near death in 1933, he lifted the ban. His widow and children published “The Life of Our Lord” the following year.
“That’s quite an English thing to do,” Gerald Dickens said of the desire to keep the book private. “That’s why it’s so sweet. There’s no showiness, just a father saying to his children, ‘You should know these things.’ ”
For him, this play is another chance to look up and be reminded that he is the scion of a man who cared deeply about humanity — a man who still matters to the world.