WILKIE COLLINS’S PLAY
Wilkie Collins composed two powerful dramas for representation at Dickens’s residence, Tavistock House, a portion of which had been already adapted for private theatricals, the rooms so converted being described in the bills as ‘The Smallest Theatre in the World.’ The first of these plays was called The Lighthouse, and the initial performance took place on June 19, 1855. Dickens not only wrote the Prologue and ‘The Song of the Wreck,’ but signally distinguished himself by enacting the part of Aaron Gurnock, a lighthouse-keeper, his clever impersonation recalling Frédérick Lemaître, the only actor he ever tried to take as a model.
With regard to ‘The Song of the Wreck,’ Dickens evidently intended to bestow upon it a different title, for, in a letter addressed to Wilkie Collins during the preparation of the play, he said: ‘I have written a little ballad for Mary—“The Story of the Ship’s Carpenter and the Little Boy, in the Shipwreck.”’ The song was rendered by his eldest daughter, Mary (who assumed the rôle of Phœbe in the play); it was set to the music composed by George Linley for Miss Charlotte Young’s pretty ballad, ‘Little Nell,’ of which Dickens became very fond, and which his daughter had been in the habit of singing to him constantly since her childhood. Dr. A. W. Ward, Master of Peter-house, Cambridge University, refers to ‘The Song of the Wreck’ as ‘a most successful effort in Cowper’s manner.’
(Slow music all the time; unseen speaker; curtain down.)
A story of those rocks where doom’d ships come To cast them wreck’d upon the steps of home, Where solitary men, the long year through— The wind their music and the brine their view— Warn mariners to shun the beacon-light; A story of those rocks is here to-night. Eddystone Lighthouse! (Exterior view discovered.) In its ancient form, Ere he who built it wish’d for the great storm That shiver’d it to nothing, once again Behold outgleaming on the angry main! Within it are three men; to these repair In our frail bark of Fancy, swift as air! They are but shadows, as the rower grim Took none but shadows in his boat with him. So be ye shades, and, for a little space, The real world a dream without a trace. Return is easy. It will have ye back Too soon to the old beaten dusty track; For but one hour forget it. Billows, rise; Blow winds, fall rain, be black, ye midnight skies; And you who watch the light, arise! arise! (Exterior view rises and discovers the scene.)
II.—THE SONG OF THE WRECK
THE SONG OF THE WRECK
I The wind blew high, the waters raved, A ship drove on the land, A hundred human creatures saved Kneel’d down upon the sand. Three-score were drown’d, three-score were thrown Upon the black rocks wild, And thus among them, left alone, They found one helpless child. II A seaman rough, to shipwreck bred, Stood out from all the rest, And gently laid the lonely head Upon his honest breast. And travelling o’er the desert wide It was a solemn joy, To see them, ever side by side, The sailor and the boy. III In famine, sickness, hunger, thirst, The two were still but one, Until the strong man droop’d the first And felt his labours done. Then to a trusty friend he spake, ‘Across the desert wide, O take this poor boy for my sake!’ And kiss’d the child and died. IV Toiling along in weary plight Through heavy jungle, mire, These two came later every night To warm them at the fire. Until the captain said one day, ‘O seaman good and kind, To save thyself now come away, And leave the boy behind!’ V The child was slumbering near the blaze: ‘O captain, let him rest Until it sinks, when God’s own ways Shall teach us what is best!’ They watch’d the whiten’d ashy heap, They touch’d the child in vain; They did not leave him there asleep, He never woke again.