It's all in the family as a Charles Dickens descendant follows in his great-great-grandfather's footsteps


LENOX — When English writer Charles Dickens last toured America in 1868 to give sold-out readings of his stories, little did he imagine his great-great-grandson would follow in his footsteps 150 years later.

At 4 p.m. Wednesday, as part of Ventfort Hall's holiday celebrations, Gerald Charles Dickens — all the men in the family have "Charles" as their middle name — will perform an 80-minute adaptation of his distinguished ancestor's much-loved novel "A Christmas Carol."

Winding up his British tour before traveling stateside, the contemporary Dickens talked by phone about the performance that has taken him, like his ancestor, across North America and far beyond.

"I wanted to be an actor from the age of 9, before I really had much perception of what being part of this family meant," Dickens explained. "For a long time theater was a way of escaping [the Dickens heritage]."

Twenty-five years ago, his life took a turn in a new — and old — direction.

"When I was asked to do a reading of `A Christmas Carol' in 1993, the two worlds collided, and I suddenly realized what a theatrical legacy Charles Dickens had left. He loved theater and wanted to be an actor himself."

His literary scholar father, he recalled, did not push their lofty lineage on him. "He would say, `you'll find Dickens one day, you'll see what all this is about.' And he was absolutely right."

He now considers it an honor to be part of such a distinguished family. "The actual weight of having Charles Dickens' name on my shoulders has been a pleasure and privilege," he said.

Each year since 1995, Dickens has toured the U.S. from New England to Nebraska, Texas to California, appearing at venues from a Victorian parlor to a 2,000-seat auditorium. He also spent a decade performing for cruise ship passengers around the world from China to Chile.

His solo show is simply staged, with just a chair, table and hat stand. "The words, plot and language do the work," he said.

While his ancestor read the story at a lectern, Gerald Dickens fully acts out the story using the characters' physical, facial and vocal mannerisms, capturing nuances with a tone or movement.

He adapted Dickens' original touring text, adding embellishments to entertain audiences of all ages.

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"Younger kids love all the voices and silliness," he said, "while older audiences love the nostalgia of having a story told to them."

The performance has evolved over the years, and now more closely follows the tone of the original text.

"It's a more truthful telling of the story than it used to be," he said. "I'm trying to put across what he wrote, even including the illustrations he commissioned for the first edition. [Dickens] did a pretty good job of writing a script for me."

He still re-reads the book to glean new insights.

Ventfort Hall board president Kelly Blau brought the idea to the programming committee. "She thought it would be a wonderful opportunity," said Ventfort Hall marketing director Linda Rocke. Dickens will also talk with local high school students Thursday. following day.

Each year, Ventfort presents a full schedule of original plays, historical talks and portrayals, vintage puppet shows and monthly murder mystery dinner theater shows in the Library, Great Hall and Billiard Room.

"Whenever we do them we sell out," Rocke said. With many of the shows set in the Gilded Age, audiences are drawn "by the atmosphere and ambience of being in the house," she added.

Built in 1893 for George and Sarah Morgan and opened to the public in 2000, the Jacobean-Revival mansion will be decorated with holiday trees and trimmings throughout the elaborate wood-paneled rooms.

Ventfort Hall's signature silver-service Victorian Tea will follow the performance, with sherry as a special treat alongside six kinds of dainty sandwiches from roast beef to cucumber, and delectable sweets.

While Americans have fully embraced "A Christmas Carol" as part of their holiday experience, this year Gerald Dickens' U.S. tour will be shorter than his usual 70-plus performances. Now 55, he is eager to return to Oxford to be with his wife and two newly-adopted daughters, ages 6 and 4.

With this enlarged family, as he found when his son, now 19, was born, "passages of the story take on a whole new meaning, not just the obvious Tiny Tim section, but also Ignorance and Want," he noted.

"We have to look out for children. If we don't educate them and give them what they need, then where are we going?

"That is why Dickens wrote the book; that was the message he wanted."


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