This weekend, a friend and I went to a one-man play starring Charles Dickens’s great-great grandson. Seeing him was the main draw, I admit. I went knowing little about the play itself, except that one of my writer friends (Michelle Griep) had loved it. Two other friends had also seen it, but warned me their husbands had nodded off during the show. So, I went with no “great expectations,” but rather moderate hopes to enjoy the performance and meet a descendant of a writer I have long admired.
You are no doubt familiar with Charles Dickens and his many famous tales, like A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, or Great Expectations. (The length of many of his books is daunting, I know. If you haven’t already, you really should at least watch some of the miniseries based on them, like David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, Nicholas Nickleby, and the sublime Bleak House.)
But have you heard of one called, The Life of Our Lord? I had not. It was the last Dickens book to be published and not until 1934, more than 60 years after Dickens’s death. It is a “children’s New Testament,” written for his own children (he fathered 10) and never intended for publication, only to be read aloud every Christmas for his family.
The slim volume is the inspiration behind and the subject of the play called “To Begin With,” and its run here in Minneapolis was its world premier. The idea for the play was proposed by its producer, a lifelong Dickens fan who found himself wondering and imagining why Dickens had written it. In his words, “If he thought it was important that his children know about the life of Christ, why not give them a Bible and say, ‘Here, read this!’” The play, written with Jeffrey Hatcher, is their attempt to answer the question of why Dickens wrote the book and in what circumstances. The result is a well-written, wonderfully acted, faith-affirming, and funny play. I had not expected a gospel-centered performance or one so reverent. The play exceeded my expectations on every level. And neither of us nodded off once. 🙂
The fact that it starred a great-great grandson of Charles Dickens, who graciously met audience members after the show? A close encounter of the coolest kind. Not only is Gerald Dickens a talented and charming actor, but he even agreed to sign a few of his great-great grandfather’s books for me.
Charles Dickens had many faults. (Who doesn’t?) Because of some things I had heard about him, I was surprised and pleased to learn about this book, and the man’s enduring faith despite his successes and failures. This little book could well have more lasting (or at least eternal) impact than Dickens’s other, lauded works.
In the preface, another descendant says that Charles Dickens wrote the book for his children to share his “…belief in the Good News of God, and tell again the Gospel story in a pleasantly simple yet direct and accurate way.” A worthwhile goal. Here is the opening line of Charles Dickens’s The Life of Our Lord, which was repeated in the play itself:
“My dear children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived, who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in anyway ill or miserable, as he was. And as he is now in Heaven, where we hope to go, and all to meet each other after we are dead, and there be happy always together, you never can think what a good place Heaven is, without knowing who he was and what he did.”
Ah, Heaven… A “Great Expectation,” indeed!
Do you have a favorite Dickens novel? Did you know about his last book, The Life of Our Lord?