Spotlight: General Theatrical Fund

The theatre was something close to Dickens's heart. In his early life, he had considered a career within the industry, and felt it was one which greatly improved the lives of those who chose to pursue that path. It is no surprise, then, that fourteen of his speeches were on behalf of the General Theatrical Fund, later the Royal General Theatrical Fund. 

The General Theatrical Fund was established in 1839, and provides support for indigent actors. It still serves this same purpose today! Charles Dickens was its first chairman, and he advocated throughout his life for the charity.

The aim of the institution was to ensure that no actor in the profession was left uncared for, particularly when they reached retirement age. Dickens’s role in providing this meaningful social change can be seen in the speeches he gave annually in aid of the cause.

In 1847, he described the fund as being important due to its accepting nature: “because it is not restrictive, and because it does not favour a few.”

This key message underscored in one of his early speeches for the Fund emphasised his egalitarian outlook, and importantly, his desire to change the imbalanced scene in front of him.

This desire to be an ambassador for change is seen too in a speech at the First Anniversary Festival for the Fund in 1846:

When they have passed for the last time from behind that glittering row of lights with which we are all familiar, let them not pass away into gloom and darkness, - but let them pass into cheerfulness and light – into a contented and happy home.

Here, the analogy of theatre is used well, as he is speaking to an audience receptive to it, and one may see the “gloom and darkness” as being an allegory for those fringes around society which people neglect. His desire to save actors resonates too with a wider empathy for those less fortunate in society.

Peter Orford, senior lecturer on Dickens, reinforces this point in a recent interview:

the speeches for the General Theatrical Fund make an impassioned plea for out-of-work actors that calls on a sense of humanity and community.

It is these two ideas of humanity and community so central to Dickens that may be seen in his more widely-read novels.

His call to humanity is emblematic of his pamphlet-like appeal regarding the destitute, poverty-stricken streets of London in Oliver Twist. The necessity for community in A Christmas Carol may be seen through the story of Scrooge’s reconciliation with his nephew Fred, and the adoption of Tiny Tim. Through his “impassioned plea(s)” we may begin to see his literary works through a new light as a vehicle for him to appeal to a wider audience about issues close to his heart.

Boucicault [Royal General Theatrical Fund]. 1867. Proceedings at the Twenty-Second Anniversary Festival.

Spotlight: General Theatrical Fund