Stories on Silk by Miriam Phelan

 

Charles Dickens loved the theatre and throughout his life he wrote and directed plays and even starred in them occasionally. The Charles Dickens Museum has a wealth of playbills that tell of the many different performances and plays which Dickens was involved in. Playbills were mainly typographic advertisements with no images, and according to Christopher Balme, playbills ‘regulated communication between theatres as institutions and their publics’.[1] The playbill gave information about the play or opera, such as times, dates, cast, ticket prices and other information about the plotline or setting. Playbills, as a form of advertising, were first seen in Britain in the late 1600s and were popular until the practice began to die out during the First World War. In general playbills were printed on paper, however, occasionally for particularly important productions, they were printed on silk. The increased mechanisation of silk production throughout the industrial revolution in Britain and silk coming in from Europe and India meant that high quality silk was more affordable and therefore was being used for dress making and interiors and was also made available to produce objects like silk playbills.[2] The Museum has three silk playbills in the collection and each act as a special souvenir or memento for a play or production which had some significance for Dickens. 

A Silk playbill for Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collin’s ‘No Thoroughfare’, DH565 (1868),
© Charles Dickens Museum.

This playbill (DH565) is from an 1868 production of ‘No Thoroughfare’ by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. The play was performed at the Theatre Royal Adelphi in London and the playbill includes a timeline for the story, information on the setting and context for each scene, names of the cast and characters and even the musical score. This particular playbill is printed as a booklet with two pages facing each other on a cream coloured silk, with black ink text and a silk fringe around the edge. The playbill alludes to Dickens’s many professional and personal relationships as the play was written in collaboration with his friend Wilkie Collins and it was directed by Mrs Alfred Mellon (née Sarah Woolgar) who appeared in a stage adaptation of Dickens’s ‘The Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit’ in 1844 by Edward Stirling.[3] Although there is no makers mark or signature on the playbill printers like Bloomsbury Steam Printing Works or Francis & Sons Steam Printers in London produced silk playbills, like this one, in the 19th century.

 

A silk playbill for an amateur performance of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, DH563 (1850),
© Charles Dickens Museum.

Another silk playbill (DH563) in the collection alludes to Dickens’s many charitable pursuits. This playbill was produced as a souvenir for an amateur performance of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, performed at the Theatre Royal, Manchester in 1850. The play was produced in support of the ‘Juvenile Refuge & Night Asylum’, to which Charles Dickens was a patron. A silk playbill, such as this, would have been gifted to patrons as a memento of the performance and an acknowledgement of their continued patronage. Other patrons listed include, George Cruickshank, Dickens’s friend and illustrator, and the poet Leigh Hunt in whom Dickens saw the character of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. The playbill is made of a beautiful pale blue silk with a cord trim down either side, and the text is printed in a rust-gold coloured ink.

A silk playbill for a performance of ‘Fortunio’ by the Dickens family, DH564 (1855),
© Charles Dickens Museum.

The final silk playbill (DH564) in the collection reveals Dickens’s love of the theatre and of his enthusiasm for bringing the family together to put on plays for family and friends. The playbill is a record of a production of ‘Fortunio’ that was staged at their home in Tavistock House in 1855. Almost the entire Dickens family took part, even their youngest son Edward, aged just 3 at the time was cast as ‘Lightfoot’ under the nickname ‘Plornishmaroontigoonter’. The playbill states that the production marks, ‘The return of Mr. Charles Dickens, Junior, from his German Engagements!’ and the ‘Engagement of Miss Kate, who declined the munificent offers of the management of last season!’. Dickens planned the production for his children and asked Samuel Phelps, a well-known actor and theatre manager, for his copy of the script and music for Fortunio:

"I want you to do my children a kindness for their little Christmas Play. Will you ask your Prompter to lend me your Prompt book of 'Fortunio', and a Piano-copy of its Music, if you have such a thing?"[4]

Rather than a simple children’s play, the production became a huge spectacle as Dickens described to his friend Miss Burdett Coutts; ‘I wish you could see the five and twenty children under training and the gravity and business of the proceedings.’[5] Catherine, in a letter inviting her friend to the play, observed that the production had become more than a children’s play; ‘our young people's party, although we have ceased to call it a juvenile one.’[6] Even the playbill is quite an extravagant memento of the play, printed on a cream coloured silk with black, red, blue and gold text, this would have been an expensive object to make. The playbill is, however, a lovely example of the how the Dickens family came together to celebrate important events in their family life.

 


Miriam Phelan is a PhD candidate in the School of Arts and Humanities at the Royal College of Art and the V&A. Miriam has worked on collecting, conserving and exhibiting men’s dress and fashion during her time at the Jewish Museum before being awarded a TECHNE AHRC doctoral award to commence her PhD in 2017. Miriam’s doctoral research focuses on commemoration and men’s dress in Ireland and she has most recently been working with the Charles Dickens Museum researching the Museum's dress and textile collection. 

[1] Christopher B. Balme, The Theatrical Public Sphere (Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 49.
[2] Brenda M. King, Silk and Empire (Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 13-19.
[3] Morley, Malcolm, 'Martin Chuzzlewit in the Theatre', The Dickensian; London Vol. 47, (Jan 1, 1951), p. 98.
[4] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 7: 1853–1855: 1853–1855 (Oxford University Press), 11th December 1854, to Samuel Phelps, p. 480.
[5] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 7, 26th December 1854, to Miss Burdett Coutts, p. 490.
[6] Letter from Catherine to her friend, Charles Dickens Museum.

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