The work of Charles Dickens is nearly omnipresent this time of the season, but what about the writer himself; what about Dickens the man? As it happens, the Englishman was a close friend and correspondent of Portland’s own illustrious writer, the nationally beloved poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And two Portland thespians bring that friendship to life, in a theatrical conversation between the two literary greats, An Evening with Longfellow and Dickens. The two-man show runs for one evening only at the Maine Historical Society, created and performed by, respectively, Daniel Noel and Andrew Harris.
What will we hear, when taken into the two writers’ confidence? Talk of their history, each other’s work, and even current events, says Harris. “For this performance we allow ourselves to return almost 'Marley-like' to former haunts,” he says. “Our audience, invited guests, are allowed to listen in on our perspective of the world today and for each of us to share what we enjoy of each other’s work.”
The “conversation,” which Noel and Harris first created and performed last winter, at the behest of MHS, is part scripted, using excerpts from the author’s work and letters, and part improvised, based on modern news that they believe might draw the men’s commentary. “You can imagine that in their respective afterlives they have each had a considerable interest over the past year in the ‘happenings’ in England and the U.S.,” remarks Harris, “so you can perhaps imagine what two Victorian gentlemen may have to say!”
Both Harris and Noel have already spent many an hour inhabiting their respective roles, in one-man shows and other theater works they’ve been performing for years, and both artists bring knowledge, intimacy and affection to the authors’ conversation. Harris has presented the character of Dickens around the state, in In the Company of Dickens. For his part, Noel researched, wrote, and acted in the 2007 play Longfellow: A Life in Words, created with an NEA grant to celebrate the bicentennial of the poet’s birth. To develop the work, Noel spent time in libraries and private collections, reading through Longfellow’s memoirs and correspondence.
The Maine Historical Society presents An Evening with Longfellow and Dickens as part of wider seasonal programming that also focuses on the men’s friendship; between December 16 and 23, Longfellow House will feature tours that are billed as exploring “the friendship between the man who is said to have ‘invented America’ and the man who is said to have ‘invented Christmas.’”
In An Evening with Longfellow and Dickens, audiences can look forward to a conversation that includes both the expected seasonal works — Dickens’ ultra-beloved A Christmas Carol; Longfellow’s poem Bells on Christmas Day, which became the well-known carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day — and some lesser known works. “I, as Dickens, have chosen a couple of poems from my friend's early work, which he himself was said to have thought he had neglected,” says Harris, naming Woods in Winter and Sunrise on The Hills as works that Dickens will praise.
Some points of conversation will not be on the table between the late greats, Harris jokes. “If you come to the event wanting a perspective on the afterlife from each of us, forget it, we are not letting you in on that; think more about making the most of your current existence and this life,” he advises. “I am sure my dear friend Longfellow would agree with me on that!”
Instead, expect the wit, nostalgia, and empathy for which both authors are loved, especially in this holiday season.
An Evening with Longfellow and Dickens, created and performed by Andrew Harris and Daniel Noel. Presented at the Maine Historical Society, Thursday, December 15, 5:30 pm. Visit www.mainehistory.org/programs_events.shtml.