3 of Water - The Crummles Strolling Players
with The Infant Phenomenon
Master Crummles; Vincent Crummles;
Mr. Curdles; Mrs. Crummles; Mr. Snevellici;
Miss Bravassa; Percy Crummles;
Thomas Lenville; Miss Snevellici.
Driven out of London by his autocratic Uncle, Nicholas Nickleby and his cousin Smike head for Portsmouth with the intention of becoming sailors. At an inn, the 2 make the acquaintance of Vincent Crummles, theatrical manager and impresario of the Crummles Strolling Players. The young and untested Nickleby is hired by Crummles on the spot to play romantic leads. He is also employed to translate and adapt French tragedies into English, in a manner befitting the somewhat limited abilities of the Crummles players.
Nicholas makes his debut in the role of Romeo. Smike is cast as the Apothecary. During the staging, Nicholas enjoys a flirtation with his Juliet, Miss Snevellici. A natural at love, Nicholas also proves a natural at acting, and his performance as the doomed lover is met with great acclaim. He and Smike are also warmly received by the Crummles troupe, being as they are a motley group of earnest, eccentric, and sometimes histrionic thespians. When Nicholas gets word that his sister is being mistreated, he is compelled to quit the troupe and depart with Smike back to London.
This episode in Nicholas Nickleby is a humorous, entertaining interlude from the on-going trials of the Nickleby family which comprise the rest of the book. As such, it represents a brief but comforting happiness; furtive moments of minor adventure and unabashed joy. As Nicholas is clearly an avatar of Dickens, we see in this joyous idyll the delight the author took in all things theatrical. The Crummles troupe acts as oasis - a minor blessing of felicity and enchantment. Sometimes petty and melodramatic, Nicholas' fellow actors are essentially light relief.
Despite the levity implicit here, the emotions Dickens felt concerning the theatre went very deep. What's more, Mr. And Mrs. Crummles' daughter Miss Ninetta Crummles, The Infant Phenomenon, unwittingly presages something that could hardly be more central to Dickens' emotional world. Namely: the child actress Nelly Ternan, herself once billed as an infant phenomenon.
Very popular in its day, Dickens' 3rd novel Nicholas Nickleby has seen various stage incarnations, many incorporating music and one simply called Smike. An adaptation entitled Nichelas Nickleberry was being produced before Dickens had even finished the novel, resulting in a dramatically different set of events for the Nicklebys. In response, Dickens had Nicholas encounter a gentleman who brags of staging 247 different novels “as fast as they had come out – in some cases faster than they had come out.” Nicholas, sounding unmistakably like Dickens, fervidly retorts:
“If I were a writer of books, and you a thirsty dramatist, I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than to have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations.”
Shorthand : what fun - harmony - solicitation - love's labours won - healing ills through happiness - manna from heaven - meaningless diversion - somewhat indulgent - exploitation of emotion - amusement - gift of the muses - the value of an enterprise conceived in love - heartfelt but poorly staged - sociability - shared interests - some anger at having to share the limelight.