A Private passion
 

Synopsis

Act One (64')

1.1) 4’30” Royal Command Performance.
CD & his children come offstage having just appeared before Queen Victoria in an amateur melodrama ( The Frozen Deep written by CD & Wilkie Collins). A minor scandal is caused when he refuses to allow his dauters to be presented to the Queen because it would injure their reputations to greet her as actresses. A promoter proposes a professional tour of the play. Afterwards, CD leaves the children to his wife Catherine’s care, and goes out to dine with WC.

1.2) 8’30” Nightwalk.
Later that evening, CD & WC emerge from a restaurant. In response to WC’s request for literary advice, CD leads him to the slums to learn compassion for how the urban poor survive. Meeting a Homeless Mother & Child, they find them lodgings. As dawn rises WC slinks off to bed but CD is still going strong.

1.3) 8’15” In the Office of Household Words,
the magazine CD edits, he is writing, still in evening dress, when his clerk Wills arrives late. Without ever interrupting his writing CD ticks Wills off, and then conducts a business conversation with his manager John Forster. Reaching the end of a chapter, CD stops and reads it to them …
1.3a) Christmas Carol . As CD reads, the Characters all appear and sing their eponymous parts. At the end, the scene dissolves back to the office with Wills & Forster open-mouthed in admiration.

1.4) 11’ The Dress. Night. CD enters his bedroom with an oil lamp. Moving furtively as if afraid of waking Catherine, he goes to a cupboard and takes out a young woman’s dress, holding by the shoulders as if it contained a real person. As he sings of his grief at ‘Mary’s’ death, he buries his face in it like a sacred relic - but the nature of its owner or her relationship to CD remains a mystery.

1.5) 2’45” Prize giving.
In the presence of his wife and various civic dignitaries CD makes the closing speech of a ceremony in the newly-opened Birmingham Mechanics’ Institute.

1.6) 8’30” Play Rehearsal.
The professional cast of The Frozen Deep reaches the end of its first morning’s rehearsal. He has laid on a huge spread for lunch, and as it is brought one of the actresses, Maria Ternan tells her colleag-sister Fanny of her intention of seducing CD, while on the other side of the room WC gives CD a worldly appraisal of them. But during the scene we realise that at the principal attraction exists between CD and the youngest Ternan, Ellen, who is of the same age as CD’s own elder dauters.

1.7) 5’30” Mrs Dickens returns from visiting Mrs Ternan.
CD is writing in his study when Catherine enters, furious at having humiliated herself by paying a social visit on Mrs Ternan at hia request. She exits threatening to leave home. Their dauter Mamie, who is a year older than Ellen, is passing the door and enters to commiserate with her father.

1.8) 7’45” Dinner at the Ternans.
CD is at dinner with Ellen & Mrs Ternan. When the latter has to leave, he opens his heart to Ellen. She responds reticently, but eventually they sing a love duet in the knowledge that an irrevocable transaction has occurred.

1.9) 7’30” The end of Dickens’ marriage.
CD enters his dressing room late at night after making a political speech. Catherine, offstage in the bedroom, wakes. At first they exchange pleasantries, but soon the simmering disagreements between them flare up, and Dickens furiously rings for the servants, from whom he demands wood, hammer and nails. When these are brought he begins to nail them across the adjoining door to Catherine’s room. The noise wakes their son who comes in crying. Ashamed of himself, Dickens leaves home telling Catherine their marriage is over.


Act Two (55')

2.1) 13’ Awaiting Charles Tringham.
In 1865, while writing Our Mutual Friend , CD rented two semi-detached cottages in Slough High St in the name of Charles Tringham. Ellen and her mother unveil themselves after returning from the shops and await CD’s arrival. She bitterly laments the shame of having to live incognito, waiting for someone she loves but hardly ever sees. When he arrives CD forestalls ET’s complaints with the promise of a French holiday. They sing sadly of the impossibility of acknowledging their relationship in public. In the end ET leaves to go to bed without the baffled CD.

2.2) 4’45” Train Crash.
CD, ET & MrsT are returning by train from their happy continental holiday when they are derailed. In the ensuing chaos the Guard is suffering from shock, and so CD takes control of the entire rescue effort – before swearing the other male passengers to secrecy and escorting the Ternans away from the scene.


2.3) 31’30” The Ghost’s Dress.
After 10 years of this clandestine relationship CD & ET still love each other, but Ellen is more dissatisfied than ever by the limitations governing their relationship. CD refuses to acknowledge the pulmonary illness brought on by his relentless pace of work, travel and physical exercise. He invites her to join him on a planned reading tour of the US, promising that they can live openly there. She tells him it’s ridiculous to expect this will ever be possible. By way of reconciliation, when he asks her to put on Mary’s dress (Sc1.4) she agrees, knowing nothing of its provenance.
While she is offstage changing into it the 6 principal heroines from CD’s novels appear to him in the room as hallucinations. When ET returns he cannot distinguish between her and the fictional characters, indeed he sees her as Mary (whom, we discover, was Catherine’s younger sister who died while living with them as newly-weds). Horrified at this misidentification Ellen tears off the dress and confronts CD with the fact that she is having a period and challenges him to give her a child. They have a furious confrontation in which Ellen is only saved from Dickens’ blows by the intervention of the ghostly heroines who then join with Ellen in an extended acappella lament of the female condition. At this CD breaks down and reveals what he has never previously told anyone, not even Catherine, that the fear behind his incessant activity (which was in fact to kill him within the year) is his childhood shame at his family’s imprisonment for debt.
Yet when it seems as if CD & ET are becoming close for the first time at this deep level, the ghostly heroines surround and seduce Dickens, coaxing him off into the bedroom while ET is left alone.

2.4) 5’15” The Final Reading.
CD & ET are in the ante-room of a large hall before he gives his final public reading in England prior to setting out for America I 1869. He is obviously unwell but driven on by immense public acclaim. Wilkie Collins arrives to wish him luck, and is surprised to see Ellen, whom he greets as a stranger. CD is called to go on, and ET & WC linger behind for a moment. He is astonished and incredulous when she tells him of their 12 year relationship, and how she has finally decided that it is hopeless. Out of loyalty to his friend WC urges her to reconsider, but Ellen replies that she has finally given up believing that Dickens will ever acknowledge their relationship; and is finally facing the fact that “I’ve been his ‘daughter’ for long enough. Time to grow up, be an independent woman.” She concludes “I once had hopes which now have fled: there’s nothing to be gained by staying: /And in the heartbreak I don’t know who’s been betrayed and who’s betraying.”

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