By Rebekah Sanderlin
Just as in years past, visitors to downtown Fayetteville on the day after Thanksgiving will be transported back in time to the days of Charles Dickens during The Arts Council’s annual A Dickens Christmas festival. As always, carolers in Victorian dress will entertain the crowds, who will be also charmed by hot cider and the stunning candlelight processional. But this year, for the first time ever, Charles Dickens‘ great-great grandson will also be on hand to perform “A Christmas Carol”. Gerald Charles Dickens, an actor, will bring his talents to Fayetteville — and bring his celebrated ancestor’s work to life for they lucky audience. CityView interviewed Gerald Dickens to talk about his career and his pending visit to our city.
Q: What made you decide to become an actor and, specifically, to become known for reading your great, great grandfather’s works? A: Acting has been a great passion of mine, ever since I was cast at the age of 9 in a school nativity play. I had been a very shy, insecure child and suddenly I found an outlet where I could have fun and felt very much at home. After that I tried to become involved in any form of theatre I could find, whether school, community theatre or semi professional.
As far as deciding to perform the works of my great great grandfather, that came much later. In fact I had purposefully decided not to be connected with Dickens in any way. In 1993 (the 150th anniversary of “A Christmas Carol”) a friend who was also a fundraiser for a local charity, approached me and asked me to recreate one of the theatrical readings of “A Christmas Carol” that Charles had done. As a favor to her, I agreed. As soon as I started to work on the piece I realized how brilliantly theatrical Dickens’s characters are — so great for an actor to perform. The show was well-received and I had loved doing it, so I began to research Dickens’ theatrical aspect a little further. So my love of performing Charles’ stories does not only stem from being a member of the Dickens family but also from a professional point of view: could an actor wish for a better scriptwriter!
Q: You have said previously that Charles Dickens’ stories, and “A Christmas Carol” in particular, seem to resonate with Americans even more than with Brits. Why do you think this is? A: I never cease to be amazed at the passion for “A Christmas Carol” in America. You are correct, I have said before that it resonates with Americans more than with the Brits, and that is not to say that it isn’t popular in England: it is incredibly popular in the old country. However, in America it is on a different level altogether. Of course, “A Christmas Carol” is set in an era when America was growing and developing, it is an era that people like to look back on fondly. As a country, America was like a young person ready to burst forth! We all like to be reminded of the best days of our childhood and in a way the scene and setting of the story does that. Also, however, in a modern world with so many confusing and difficult situations to be faced, “A Christmas Carol” is a very simple story of redemption — anybody can change and we all need a reminder of that sometimes.
Q: Is it a burden or a blessing to have the name “Gerald Charles Dickens”? Do you think people have greater expectations of you because of your accomplished ancestor? A: Certainly it has never been a burden to carry Charles Dickens’ name, it has been nothing but a privilege. I suppose that there are expectations when an audience comes to a show but that is a huge tribute to what he achieved. He has certainly set the bar very high. When I perform it is very important to me that I view the show from a professional actor’s point of view, rather than a family member. My greatest motivation is for any given audience to enjoy the show as a piece of theatre. I am well aware that large numbers will attend because of my surname, so up to the moment of the lights going up, Charles Dickens has done the work. When the lights go back down at the end of the show, it is important that I have then done my work and people leave the theatre having loved the show itself, irrespective of my name.
Q: If you could be one of Charles Dickens’ characters or live in one of his stories, which character or story would you choose and why? A: There are so many to chose from. I think I would like to be a minor character in Edwin Drood, his final, unfinished novel, so that I could find out how the plot developed and what really happened in the end.
Q: It seems that there have been several generations of men in your family with “Charles Dickens” in their names. Have you passed the name on to any of your children? A: It is a family tradition that all of the male descendants of Charles Dickens have Charles as a middle name and, yes, my son, Cameron, has Charles, too.
Q: What should Fayetteville residents expect to see, hear and experience when you perform? A: The most important thing about the show is that it is a piece of theatre to be enjoyed! There will be laughter, tears, fear and elation — everything that you would expect from “A Christmas Carol”. It is certainly not a serious, academic evening: no, this is going to be fun!