A tale of three playbills: The Lighthouse, The Frozen Deep, and The Merry Wives of Windsor

Quick, what’s London’s smallest theater?

In the nineteenth century, it was Tavistock House – or at least, so its playbills proclaimed!

Tavistock House, a rowhouse in London, was the site of the first performance of Victorian novelist and playwright Wilkie Collins‘ play The Lighthouse. This playbill from the Folger collection is an advertisement for that performance, which took place on this day, June 16, in 1855. 

It features a number of performers who were active in the mid-century London arts scene. Augustus Egg was a painter who attempted to use his works to shine a light on moral and social issues of the era. Kate Dickens and Charles Dickens Junior were both children of novelist Charles Dickens; Kate later married Wilkie Collins’ brother. Francesco Berger was a young composer who later gained fame as the director of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Mark Lemon was the founding editor of the satirical magazine Punch.

Their performance on June 16, 1855, was the first of several, including three at Tavistock House in June and a charity benefit for a hospital in July. 

But who brought all these performers together?

When I was examining this playbill with my colleague Rachel Dankert, we noticed one name that stood out among the rest. “Mr. Crummles… that name sounds almost Dickensian, doesn’t it?” Rachel quickly confirmed that sure enough, “Mr. Crummles” is a character in Dickens’ 1839 novel Nicholas Nickleby.

Mr. Crummles... or Charles Dickens?

You may have guessed where this is going: “Mr. Crummles” is a pseudonym for none other than Charles Dickens himself! (Another clue, if you’re familiar with Dickens, may have been that Tavistock House was his home between 1851 and 1860.) Credited as Mr. Crummles, he appears throughout the playbill: in the role of Aaron Gurnock, the head lighthouse-keeper; writer of the ballad “Song of the Wreck”; and co-author of the farce following the main play, as well as an actor in it. 

Charles Dickens was known for hosting theatrical entertainments at his home, often with repeat performances from his circle of friends. This play was not the amateur actors’ first collaboration, nor was it their last. In 1857, Dickens hosted several performances of another Wilkie Collins play, The Frozen Deep, also at Tavistock House. The Frozen Deep featured several performers who had taken part in The Lighthouse, such as Mark Lemon, Augustus Egg, Kate Dickens, and Francesco Berger. Charles Dickens also appears in several places on the playbill, having apparently left the pseudonym “Mr. Crummles” behind.

And the decade before, several of the performers from Tavistock House had appeared on a much larger stage: the Theatre Royal, Birmingham, where they staged a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1848. Mark Lemon, Augustus Egg, and Charles Dickens all played roles in this comedy, which was produced to raise money to fund a curator for Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon (one of several efforts to preserve Shakespeare’s legacy in the nineteenth century). Here’s the playbill for that performance, also from the Folger collection.

Charles Dickens in The Merry Wives of Windsor
Playbill, 1848, Theatre Royal, Birmingham. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Which of these plays would you have most wanted to be in the audience for?

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