Dickens and his fireworks

In "Nicholas Nickleby" Mr. Crummles, a stage impresario, is scratching his shaved head to think of something to astound his audiences. "A novelty would be very desirable," he concludes. "It has drawn money before now. What do you think of a brilliant display of fireworks? . . . It fould be very grand."

Some 142 years later, according to all reports, the stage impresarios of our time have made a "brilliant display" of "Nicholas Nickleby" itself -- a "very grand" $4.4 million production lasting 8 1/2 hours and costing the ticket buyer

The tough critics, while vastly admiring the Royal Shakespeare Company, may make their praise fainter by muttering about "Victorian pageant" and "splendid spectacle" -- code phrases among the trade to indicate aesthetic reservations. If the purists choose to go textual, they may well argue that the book, written when Dickens was 26, cannot be counted among his masterpieces, being altogether too crowded with "true gentle creatures" permanently displaying "sweet smiles."

Social observers may comment that the truly rich are paying $11.75 an hour to see, among other things, a multimillion dollar depiction of the poor of 19 th-century England. Or, studying the booming Broadway scene in the context of 1981, they may be unfair enough to point out that when the going gets tough, the tough get going -- to the nearest theater, mostly in pursuit of a musical. (More than two-thirds of the hits on Broadway happen to be musicals.)

Well, yes, Nicholas Nickleby as a young man learning about the world could never hold a candle to David Copperfield. And sure, there may be something wanting in a theater that prefers adaptations to original scripts.

Still, all this is a bit beside the real point of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby." Borrowing from the past is seldom random. Here, we can speculate, is a search for the kind of nourishment contemporary plays starve us on. Hope. Sentimentality. Unabashed lines like this: "He well deserves all the kindness I can show him, and a great deal more. He is the most single-hearted, affectionate creature that ever breathed."

The sociologists who keep reporting that Americans have become cynics ever since Vietnam and Watergate ought to reread thier "Nicholas Nickleby." Dickens sees a dark world, an underworld, as revisionist scholars like to remind us. But out of the shadows of personal malevolence and social injustice strut human beings of indomitable cheerfulness and irresistible energy.

On quite different levels "Nicholas Nickleby," "Annie," and Lena Horne are all telling Broadway audiences the same thing: Life may not be a bowl of cherries, but you can make a song out of even that. Or a dance. Or a "spectacle."

After we have read the headlines again (oh boy!) and told our pollsters that we don't trust politicians or labor leaders or the press that reports upon them, are we turning around to ask our artists to deny our doubts -- to say it isn't so? Are we begging someone -- Dickenr or anybody else -- to show us how people once were realistic without being hopeless?

Maybe we won't always have to take out a loan on the past in order to face the future. In the current Atlantic Benjamin DeMott uses words like "innocent, cheerful, bouncily energetic" and "kind and sane" to describe the novelist John Irving in almost Dickensian terms. Mr. DeMott seems to be suggesting that the two-party system of modern literature -- serious pessimists vs. trivial Pollyannas -- may be making space for a third party: the artist who, like Dickens, refuses to accept an either-or choice.

Like Dickens, we moderns know darkness when we see it. But like Dickens, like Mr. Crummles, we appear a little more ready to say: Bring on the fireworks! What else is night for?

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