On the first day of rehearsal, as the full team assembled for the first time after a year of pandemic delay, director David Catlin addressed the cast and company of Mr. Dickens’ Hat. Now we share his words with you:
“There are dark shadows on the earth,
But its lights are stronger in the contrast.”
– Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
From our play’s opening lyrics we hear—
“Over and over the days go by,
Swifter than birds, the hours fly.
Days that are lost can never be found;
The hands on the clock go round and round
These words resound as we continue through the long night of this Pandemic.
The song continues with—
“Weeks that are lost can never be found
Months that are lost can never be found
Years that are lost can never be found”
We have lost more than time.
We have lost many, many dear ones from this earth.
We have suffered in this loss.
And separately, too,
With appropriate social distance.
Shut away in our cells
Like Kit’s dear father.
The shadows on our earth have felt grimmer than ever.
“But its lights are truly stronger in the contrast.”
To stand in a room full of people who bring light into the world—
To stand in a room full of people
Whose very vocation, whose very calling
Is to illuminate stories, to create communal experiences
That enlighten and enliven and enrich.
At the heart of many Dickens’ stories are vivid beautiful souls that warm us & make us laugh—
They are here, too, in Michael’s luminescent play—
A crooning clownish cop,
An extravagant collector of other peoples’ hats,
A buffoonish ne’er-do-well henchman,
And a delicious scene-chewing villain.
There’s a well-meaning, but tightly-wound accomplished milliner for whom ‘the maternal arts are not native,’
And an oft-befuddled, oft-sentimental, and ever-absent-minded inventor & maker of men’s hats.
There’s also a ravenous parrot named for the Queen of England who feeds on fingers and the deception of our antagonists.
Souls who celebrate nonsense and the sillier side of the human condition.
Souls who feel isolated and lonely,
Imprisoned, entrapped by their circumstances & conditions.
Souls who suffer and toil and yearn and ache
Souls who have lost husbands
Souls who have lost their mothers
Souls who have lost their way
Or are in need of connection, courage, and redemption…
Who seek warmth against the exacting cold of winter.
Souls who are in peril on the tracks of an icy train trestle,
High above the sludge and muckish mire of the tar-black river,
With their immutable, irrevocable fate
Bearing down fast and hard upon them.
But there are also souls who dream of
‘Something meaty, sizzling in a pot,’
Who dream of tearing down the walls that separate them,
Who dream of equality and partnerships
Who dream of verdant worlds,
Of feathers and birds and flying and long-lost mothers
Mothers who wrap them up in the warmth of their angel wings…
Souls who are steadfast in their resolve to save one another.
Who come in concert to sing of calm,
To bring a warming blanket,
To share, to redeem, and to raise a glass
These souls are in Michael’s play.
Emanating brightly like the shining souls gathered in this room
Perhaps foremost of these souls is Kit,
Kit, only 12 years old…
Who, in deed & action, does turn out to be the hero of her own life, Refusing to let that station be held by anybody else –
Michael’s pages do hereby show.
Whose inventive thinking saves the day
And proves his mind is not so ‘porous as cheesecloth.’
Our play takes place in the evening of December 21st,
Winter’s first waking
Treacherous and ice-covered
The longest night of the year.
Will our hero make it till morning—
When the sun finally takes its place in the sky?
Even in shrouding night, the full moon shines down
Her impossible celestial magic
Like a long-lost mother’s loving embrace
This is 19th Century London, a booming city
Forever inventing and reinventing itself—
Reaching beyond itself
Just as our play reaches for Halligan Bars, First Aid Kits,
And the Movies
(which won’t be invented for another thirty years!)
This is a city making and remaking itself
Tearing itself down
And rebuilding itself back up
On the bad backs and bad legs of its citizenry—
The collateral human damage of this great progession
The Kits and Neds,
The Fleeces and Gnats of the world.
The bottom of the Thames is littered with sunken steamships
‘The Bottom is Nothing but Broken Dreams’
‘Poor men’s bones.’
The Victorian context is an unjust socio-economic & class-based system
Tied to the track of the industrial revolution –
Its wheels grinding and unswerving.
Like Kit’s father, Dickens’ dad was sent to debtors’ prison.
Young Charlie, also age 12, was sent to work in a boot-blacking factory.
While Dickens was a champion of social justice among the classes,
It must be acknowledged that he did not champion issues of race,
Was often supportive of colonialism and remained critical of ‘primitive’ cultures throughout his life.
Beneath our hats,
Deep inside our poor distracted globes
Live our imaginations
Where we can turn a plank of rough-hewn wood
Into an elegant marble countertop.
Where we can see past Pandemics
And imagine systems that are just,
Worlds that are communal.
Beneath our hats
Live our big-beating hearts
That we can open in song
To carol-bless the harrowing cold,
To radiate light into the daunting dimming night
Beneath our hats
Live our arms and legs and bodies
To lift each other up
To wrap a blanket round
The rigor and chill and loneliness;
To keep stepping forward,
To take arms against a river of troubles
To share and do the work we need to do.
Michael’s play leaves us— illuminates us—
With these words of transformation
“Lest you be preoccupied
With daily affairs…
…throw open your door
Be freehanded like the holly
There’s plenty for everyone
When everyone shares
There’s plenty for everyone
When everyone shares.”
As someone else brilliantly noted—these last twenty months have been the longest decade ever. I feel like it has taken a decade to get to this first rehearsal. Let’s go!