Passion for theater shaped Charles Dickens

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“Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World” by Simon Callow; Vintage ($16)

In 1831, the 19-year-old Charles Dickens — having long dreamed of a career on stage — secured an audition at Covent Garden.

But he came down with a cold on the appointed day, forcing him to request a postponement until the following season.

By then, Dickens was a cub reporter, taking his first steps toward becoming the greatest English novelist.

As actor Simon Callow points out in his splendid “Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World,” that doesn’t mean Dickens ever truly let go of his youthful dreams.

“Literature was his wife, the theatre his mistress,” Callow writes, “and to the very end he was tempted to leave the one for the other.”

That story has been told before, from the early “The Life of Charles Dickens” by John Forster (1872-’74) through recent landmark biographies by Peter Ackroyd (1990), Michael Slater (2009) and Claire Tomalin (2011).

As Callow points out in his introduction, there also have been a number of books that directly analyze how theater influenced Dickens’ work.

But Callow’s perspective as a working actor — one who has performed as Dickens on stage and television — allows him to bring something new to the discussion, just as Jane Smiley’s insights as a writer enhanced her own biography of Dickens (2002) .

Together, these two studies are not only among the shortest Dickens biographies, but also the two best introductions to what drove Dickens — and, in turn, what gives his incomparable prose such ferocious energy.

Callow gets there by moving quickly through the day-to-day details of Dickens’ life, including his difficult childhood, his idealized relations with younger women, his increasingly troubled marriage, his crusading reformism and his “furious activity” — “the antidote, though not the remedy,” Callow tells us, for Dickens’ perennial restlessness.

Callow also described Dickens’ intense involvement with theater, and the exhausting series of public readings that would eventually kill him.

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