An excellent and interesting show last night at the Free Library of Philadelphia.  Reuben Wade’s play, Paint the American Eagle, was given a stripped down reading by four actors:  Steven Wright as Professor Franklin Harris; Miriam White as the eldest Dickens child, Kate; Amanda Schoonover as Catherine Dickens;  Brian McCann as Charles.

There will be another reading tonight (Tue Sept 11 at 7PM) and tomorrow afternoon (Wed Sept 12 at 2PM).  I highly recommend it.  The show is part of the Philly Fringe Festival and is free, but you need to reserve a ticket.

The title of the show comes from the novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, written soon after Dickens returned from his disillusioning trip to America in 1842.   The titular Martin and is manservant, Mark, have gone to America to make their fortunes and meet with disaster.  On their return home, they reflect on the American Character:

‘Why, I was a-thinking, sir,’ returned Mark, ‘that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?’
‘Paint it as like an Eagle as you could, I suppose.’
‘No,’ said Mark. ‘That wouldn’t do for me, sir. I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like a ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it — ’
‘And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!’ said Martin. ‘Well, Mark. Let us hope so.’

Playwright Reuben Wade has provided me with this description of his play:

What its about

Paint the American Eagle is a fiction giving voice to American Notes, the book in which Charles Dickens, with wit and intelligence, provided critique of a young republic. While drawing extensively on what Mr. Dickens wrote in the 1840s, the play imagines what the still-famous English writer and his wife and daughter might say to us if they were here today. The play is not a biography, but is informed and influenced by biographers of Charles and Catherine Dickens.

Discovering Paint the American Eagle

Until I picked up a copy of American Notes in the winter of 1990, the year I turned 37, I was completely unaware that Charles Dickens had traveled to America in 1842, that he had not returned to England for six months and that he had published a book about his experience and impressions. Of course I knew Charles Dickens in a superficial way. I knew who he was, sensed his importance to literature without really knowing why, and I liked the little bit of his work, to which I had been exposed. Given that I am mostly the product of an urban education, it is a little ironic that I came upon a collection of Dickens’ on the bookshelf of an old log cabin I rented for a time in rural southwestern Virginia.

Here I found at least three titles which had not come up in my schooling or in conversation: the novels Dombey and Son and Martin Chuzzelwit, along with American Notes, a combination of memoir, essay and travelogue. I have always been interested in American history and cultural development, so I was fascinated with the immediacy of what Dickens reported in the early stages of the American industrial revolution.

Those better informed than I was then, know that Martin Chuzzelwit, one of the books on my log cabin shelf, was the first novel that Dickens wrote following his return to England from America. In this novel, Dickens turns the American characteristics he finds most irksome to hilarious effect; the young English hero, Martin Chuzzelwit, travels to America and falls victim to real estate peddlers who are selling swampland, falsely characterized by the name Eden. Playwright David Mamet later explored the other victim of shady land deals, the American salesman, who must somehow survive  by managing a successful pitch for lots in Glengarry and Glen Ross, the waterlogged Eden of a1981 Florida swamp. It is the familiar I find so interesting in Dickens’1842 America. It was clear from that first reading that Dickens had something important to say to me, even if he said it long before my time.

Like any social animal, I wanted to share my discovery, but hardly anyone I talked to had read American Notes or Martin Chuzzelwit. Eighteen years later, having taken to writing fiction and having no credentials in my area of interest (neither Dickens nor American History), quite naturally I decided to write a play.

Hard upon that idea, a second followed almost immediately; if no one was reading American Notes, something more than excerpts from the book might be required to build an interest in it. That is to say the obvious idea, Charles Dickens reading his American Notes on our stage, just might not be quite as popular, or successful as Mr. Dickens appearing in our time, reading A Christmas Carol.

Catherine Dickens, Charles’ wife, had accompanied him on his journey to America. Although she is barely mentioned in American Notes, I thought there was some chance that she could introduce a twist of lemon to spice the tea. I began to write, fictionalizing a woman I knew nothing about just to get the ball rolling. I began by wondering what might it be like for any English woman to make such a journey, at that time? As is, sometimes the case but not always, this real woman was more interesting than any I could make up. Not only that, but her relationship with Charles and his treatment of her turned out to have relevance to the topics of justice and hypocrisy, which so interested Mr. Dickens.