A Lifetime of Sydney Carton: Sir John Martin-Harvey

Sir John Martin-Harvey as Sydney Carton in The Only Way. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, npg.org.uk

This will be a relatively short introduction to what has been an obsession of mine for approximately 10.5 years. Admittedly, vocational and financial struggles, school, and other assorted humbug–in short, life itself–have often prevented the subject from remaining in the foreground of my directed reading and research, which have been more sporadic. However, the haunting fascination remains. It has influenced creative writing, and notes for future work.

Of course, as two of my mottoes in life are “Dickens is a Way of Life,” and “All Things Relate to Sydney Carton,” well, these will explain much of the fascination:

Sir John Martin-Harvey, born on 22 June, 1863, of a family of shipbuilders in Wivenhoe (Essex), was a turn-of-the-century “actor-manager”–one of the last of his kind. He was also one of the last of the so-called “Romantic” stage, specializing in Victorian/Edwardian melodrama. (A fascinating, but somewhat wild and

Poster of The Only Way, by Christopher Hassall

whirling, read on this subject is Maurice Willson Disher’s The Last Romantic: The Authorised Biography of Sir John Martin-Harvey.) Sir John’s early years in the theatre were spent acting under Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum until breaking out on his own in what would become his signature role: his portrayal of Sydney Carton in a stage adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities called The Only Way, written by Freeman-Wills and Canon Langbridge. (Sir John and his wife Nina de Silva also had a significant uncredited hand in the adaptation, however.) Being Dickens-obsessed, and most especially Carton-obsessed, I have found Sir John’s life to be a source of wonder above and beyond that of the other fascinating actor-managers of the day. And what is most astounding and unusual about this role is that it is one he played and toured for forty years.


Sir John Martin-Harvey–looking Sydneyesque–with his wife, Nina de Silva, in Rouget de L’Isle

The Only Way premiered on 16 February, 1899. Sir John was nearly thirty-six at the time. Clearly, the role and his portrayal struck a deep chord, and is was a hit in his provincial tours, as well as in Canada and the US, and the volume of letters he received from those whose hearts had been touched, or whose lives had been changed, was enormous. So much so, that he donned the Sydney garb as late as his farewell tour of 1939…when Sir John was well into his seventies!

His was a somewhat otherworldly Sydney. Based on contemporaneous accounts, Sir John had a magnetic and somewhat ethereal quality, and even in the dissolute character of our hero, gave the impression of one who was, at heart, too sensitive and too beautiful for this world.

Interestingly, a silent film version of The Only Way starring Sir John himself (1926) was made when Sir John was in his sixties. Of course, he was, as far as earthly time goes, a good twenty years too old to play Sydney, who, ideally, based on the original, might be anywhere from about 37-45 by the end of the novel. (And he is often younger in adaptations, due to cuts which take out the suggestion of the lapse of time between the Lucie-Darnay marriage and the problems that arise for Darnay as a result of Gabelle’s letter–not to mention the lapse of time in the Conciergerie.) However, Sir John did have the benefit of looking younger than his years, for one; for another…it was Sir John. For many, he became the face and voice of Carton, and one might consider the film something in light of his farewell stage performance: a tribute and a legacy to pass on to future generations a glimpse of what might easily be forgotten otherwise. It might only give us a whisper of what it would have been like to see him live on stage during his peak years in the role, but a very significant one.

In April of 2007, I emailed a relation of Sir John’s, who, with immense kindness and generosity, gave me a wealth of information–and a digital copy of the original play, The Only Way, which I devoured–and who also introduced me to the idea that one could still see the film at the British Film Institute on request. (Finally, nine years later, I was to finally save and plan sufficiently to make my first trip to England; alas, the viewing was not to be part of the itinerary, as I contacted someone connected to the BFI’s new streaming service who believed it was no longer viewable. This was a mistake on my part; it was the wrong point of contact.) With the kind help of a kind fellow seamstress-twitterer who has the same obsession, I now realize that one can indeed see it at the BFI’s “Mediatheques”–there are several of them, one being in London. As it happens, I will be in London for one day, October 17th, before going to Paris to see my opera hero Jonas Kaufmann in my favorite role. So, here’s hoping that I can finally have this glimpse into a fascinating phenomenon of theatre history. Apparently, the film is quite literally a “silent” one, as not even the musical score remains.

I realize that acting styles are immensely different now from what they were at the time–perhaps overwrought and florid to a modern sensibility–but I am over-the-moon with excitement for it. For me, anyone who can play Sydney Carton convincingly–let alone to inhabit the role for forty years–is already beatified in my book. I will try with all my heart to get a viewing of this treasure of cinema and stage history on the 17th, and will post about it as I’m able.

Coming This Thanksgiving: The Man Who Invented Christmas

From Celestyn Wordsworth-Nil: 

I confess myself intrigued by–though hardly yet certain of–the new trailer for the Dickensian “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” coming to theaters this Thanksgiving, and presumably based on the book of the same title by Les Standiford.

Certainly, one can hardly go wrong with the cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Ian McNeice, and Dickens Experts Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes.

I will suspend judgment for the present. However, I will certainly be there on opening day, if for no other purpose but to examine the cravats.

Director and Adapter Interview: OSF’s “Great Expectations”

Having written an (unpublished/unperformed) adaptation of a Dickens novel myself years ago, out of sheer passionate obsession, I was so delighted to hear that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was going to be staging an adaptation of Great Expectations for 2015, directed by Penny Metropulos and adapted by herself and Linda Alper.

Delightful interview with two delightfully Dickens-loving ladies.

I hope to be first in line for the tickets!! Keep up the great work, OSF.

Pray, Bring Back the Cravat!

Richard Armitage, looking excessively handsome in North and South

Whilst meditating upon such important topics as the Blessed Bean and the Great Mysteries of the Hereafter, I was simultaneously mourning the shocking lack of cravats in our culture today.

Yet, dear Reader, what could be more becoming to a man than a well-tied cravat? It is certainly a style for the Ages. My spirits were somewhat rallied by the perusal of an article which gives hope to any with a sense of style.

Thoughts on Mortality, Inspired by the Portsmouth Dickens Monument

As I was musing among the tombstones today…

From the Journal of C. Wordsworth-Nil, 11 February:

It is rather late in the day, I reflect, to be erecting the first—the first, mind!— large-as-life statue of the noble Boz upon England’s green and pleasant land. What the deuce took them so long? I’ve discussed this point with Weatherby* to no end. And the said W informs me that Mr Dickens himself expressly wanted no memorial whatsoever! It is stated, clear as the summer sun in his Will—nay, read for yourself, here…if you wish to peruse it in its entirety.

But pray allow me to offer only a few samplings of Mr Dickens’s Will, with the additions of my own reflections:

“I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner…” [Whereupon the said Mr D was buried at Westminster Abbey…]

“…that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial…” […followed by a three day long procession of mourners. Doubtless only some thousands attended.]

“I conjure to my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial, or testimonial whatsoever.” [After which a new monument in bronze has been erected in Portsmouth in recognition of this conjuration.]

On further reflection, I find I am quite moved at sense in which the noble Mr Dickens’s wishes had been interpreted, and it quite inspired me to reflect—with brooding brow—on my own mortality and what bequests and requests should ennoble my own Last Will & Testament…

Indeed, I shall be sure to follow the humble model set by Mr Dickens. That my own funeral shall be comparably modest—with not more than ten-thousand mourners at the outside—and no special attire whatsoever shall be imposed upon them in terms of mourning garb…none whatsoever. With the exception of a cravat of perfect symmetry for every gentleman in attendance, as a tribute to their departed Friend who ever set the example of noble decorum in dress…

I shall state that no monument—nay, none whatsoever—shall be erected to my genius…

Yet, perhaps an addendum wouldn’t go amiss here, that if indeed there should be such an one—unwanted and utterly unnecessary though it be—that the sculptor shall be particularly anxious about my cravat. Furthermore, that the Modest Melancholiac be, even in bronze, accompanied by his Inspiration, holding a cup of the Blessed Brew…in short, Coffee…

But nay, I will leave the details in the most capable hands of my dear Weatherby, who no doubt, with his cheerful disposition, will have the capacity, as I shall not, to live a long and prosperous life and whose noble task shall ever be carrying on the memory of his Friend. You are my Forster, Weatherby.

*Note: Celestyn refers here to the Reverend Mayfair Weatherby, minor canon of St. Sniffles-in-Underbrush, something outside London. (Indeed, a great ways outside London.)

The Drood Inquiry

Unsolved Mysteries…

Celestyn & Friends ~ and all lovers of Mystery and Boz ~ we have a new subject of interest to follow: The Drood Inquiry. We amateur sleuths can follow Drood–and his chief investigator, Dr. Pete Orford–in monthly numbers beginning this April. More on this here. (I hear something about a 20 Sept conference…)

Also, take a peek at the fascinating Cloisterham Tales, a behind-the-scenes look at the Drood investigation.

Happy Birthday to the Immortal Boz!

Charles Dickens

…or shall I say, Happy Bozday?

The Most Estimable Mr Charles Dickens, to whom we owe a most profound debt for his having greatly added to “the stock of harmless cheerfulness” in the world, celebrates his 202nd birthday today.

Pray allow me, dear Reader, to celebrate with a reprinting of his admirable publication of the sampling of Mrs. Leo Hunter’s ‘Ode to an Expiring Frog’ for your gratification. Such pathos, such delicacy!, is worthy of the great Boz himself:

Ode to an Expiring Frog

Can I view thee panting, lying

On thy stomach, without sighing;

Can I unmoved see thee dying

          On a log

          Expiring frog!


Say, have fiends in shape of boys,

With wild halloo, and brutal noise,

Hunted thee from marshy joys,

          With a dog,

          Expiring frog!


~from The Pickwick Papers