Signed invitation card with holograph entry in Dickens's hand and annotated playbill for the production of Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour, given by Dickens's company, the Amateur Players.London: printed by Bradbury and Evans, 1845 Stock Code: 143142
"A success that out-ran the wildest expectation"A superb memento of Dickens's theatrical high-water mark, his bravura performance as the "craven and boastful" Captain Bobadil in his own "strictly private" production of Ben Jonson's comedy Every Man in his Humour.
The invitation card in effect a ticket to the performance carries his characteristic flourished signature on the verso and a holograph entry in his hand, requesting the pleasure of Miss Holskamp's company at the first night, seating her in number 44 in the "Boxes, Second Circle". The success of Dickens's performance is attested by a portrait of him in the role, painted by C. R. Leslie in 1846 and lithographed by Thomas Maguire. The playbill is annotated to give a virtually complete cast list and in this regard may well be unique.
"Stimulated after giving a reading of The Chimes to a small audience of friends at Christmas 1844, Dickens resolved to organize some amateur theatricals of his own. Returning from a spell of residence in Italy, 'he flung himself with the passionate fullness of his nature into' gathering a cast and choosing a play. On 20 September 1845, Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour was played to a private audience at Miss Kelly's Theatre, 'with a success that out-ran the wildest expectation', as Forster recalled, 'and turned our little enterprise into one of the small sensations of the day'" (V&A Dickens centenary catalogue 1970).
The attendee, a Miss Holskamp, was one of four sisters, all born in the Somers Town area of London, near St Pancras. The most likely to have been invited to this performance would be Margaret Holskamp (18271908), cited as a correspondent of Kate Dickens by Lillian Nayder in her biography of Dickens's wife: "In May 1846, Catherine's description of their trip to Italy was more definitive, particularly in regard to its southern boundary, a line that she herself drew the Dickenses disagreed about the ultimate destination of their year abroad. 'We are on the move again,' she wrote Margaret Holskamp, who knew the de la Rues and had discouraged the advances of Augusta de la Rue's brother William" (The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth, 2011, p. 139).
The friendship with the de la Rues is a minor but intriguing episode in Dickens's life: "In Genoa in 1845 and elsewhere he became intensely involved in using, either directly or long-distance, the power of mesmeric healing he discovered in himself to alleviate the condition of Mme de la Rue, an Englishwoman who suffered great distress from hallucinations. This strange intimacy with Mme de la Rue caused Catherine considerable uneasiness, not surprisingly. Dickens's response was righteous indignation (eight years later, when he again met the de la Rues abroad, he wrote home to Catherine admonishing her that he thought it would become her now to write Mme de la Rue a friendly letter, which she obediently did). The Dickens family were back in London in July 1845 and Dickens energetically set about organizing a production of Jonson's Every Man in his Humour to be given by a band of his literary and artistic friends, the Amateur Players. This took place on 21 September sic in a private theatre in Dean Street, Dickens's own virtuoso performance as Captain Bobadil winning many plaudits" (ODNB).
The playbill is annotated in another hand, listing all performers (bar two minor parts), and this is important as it sheds light on the roles taken by Dickens's siblings and friends: Henry Mayhew as Knowell, Fred Dickens as Edward Knowell, Mark Lemon as Brainworm, Dudley Costello as George Downright, T. J. Thompson as Wellbred, Forster as Kitely, Dickens as Bobadil, Douglas Jerrold as Master Stephen, "Leach" (John Leech) as Master Mathew, Augustus Dickens as Thomas Cash, Percival Leigh as Oliver Cob, Marcus Stone as Justice Clement, Frederick Evans as Roger Formal, "Charles" as William, "Jerrold Junior" (Blanchard Jerrold) as James, Miss Fortescue as Dame Kitely. "It is important to note that the rest of the cast Mark Lemon, John Leech, Henry Mayhew, Douglas Jerrold, Gilbert a'Beckett who appears not to have performed on this first night but is named on the ticket came from a specific group, a little band of journalists known as the 'Punch brotherhood' to themselves and as 'those Punch people' to outsiders" (Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 1990, p. 470).
It was an extraordinarily lavish evening at Miss Kelly's Theatre: Jonson's comedy was to be preceded by the overture to Rossini's William Tell and followed by silver-fork novelist Catherine Gore's one-act farce, A Good Night's Rest; or, Two O'Clock in the Morning (a two-hander, the characters being "Mr. Snobbington" and "The Stranger"), which itself was to be preceded by the overture to another Rossini opera, La Gazza Ladra better known as The Thieving Magpie.
Dickens had recently returned from Italy and in Pictures from Italy (published in May 1846) notes several visits to the Carlo Felice theatre in Genoa, where a "second-rate opera company" was performing. It is interesting to speculate that this may have given him the idea of punctuating the theatrical proceedings with Rossini's irresistible music.
Both ticket and playbill are from the collection of celebrated bibliophile William E. Self, who formed a fine Dickens library; he recorded that the names of the players was "filled in by Mrs. Charles Dickens" (the items once appearing in the market with a copy of the note, since lost). The fact that Catherine Dickens contributed to the production in some small measure is attested by Lillian Nayder: "Catherine had seen the first performance, at Frances ('Fanny') Kelly's Royalty Theatre, in September, writing many of the invitations herself" (ibid.). In fact, in September 1850 Catherine appeared as Bridget in Jonson's comedy during rehearsals for another performance by Dickens's troupe, scheduled for November at Knebworth House, the home of Edward Bulwer Lytton (an onstage accident prevented her appearance). It is not wholly fanciful to speculate that the "Charles" who appears in the role of William (servant to Justice Clement) was the eldest of the Dickens children, 8-year-old Charley Dickens.
It is rare to find the two pieces ticket and playbill offered for sale. We have traced just three other such examples at public auction: Sotheby's London 30 November 1931 (lot 112), from the library of Dickens's bibliographer Thomas Hatton (sold for 4), similarly signed and annotated by Dickens (to a Mr ?Lane); another, from the remaining part of Hatton's collection (Sotheby's 20 February 1933, lot 135, price 2); with letters and printed ephemera from the collection of Marion Ely, niece of Thomas Noon Talfourd, dedicatee of Pickwick Papers (Bonhams 12 June 2012). This example originates from the William Self collection, and latterly the Lawrence Drizen collection, appearing in his sale in 2019. Our playbill may be unique in giving anything approximating a complete cast list; it would seem that most Dickens biographers have worked from the names printed on the ticket. A playbill included in the Stanford University Libraries exhibition "Dickens and Show Biz" (2006) has only the names of Lemon, Forster, Dickens (under his early pseudonym "Boz"), and Douglas Jerrold.
A copy of Bell's Edition of the Garrick version of Every Man in his Humour (duodecimo, 1777, later wrappers), is also included.
Together, 2 items. Playbill (265 x 215 mm) printed in red, green, and gold within an ornamental border; invitation card (98 x 136 mm) printed in green and gold.
Playbill lightly creased where folded, both pieces evenly and lightly toned. In excellent condition.
Forster Collection, V&A Dickens centenary exhibition catalogue 1970, G11 (playbill only); Gimbel H803 (playbill only: "printed in blue, gold, and red"); Suzannet F6 (playbill only); VanderPoel A207 (ticket only).
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