As aficionados of the theatre know, the Victorian age was arguably one of the bleakest eras for the art form, complete with grubby dressing rooms, dingy performance halls, pathetic wages, unappreciative audiences, and stale, torrid melodrama, all served up with a whiff of the illicit and the profane for good measure. Against this backdrop, Dwayne Brenna has created a curiously structured novel loosely based on the life and works of George Dibdin Pitt, stock playwright at the Britannia Theatre in 1840s Hoxton.
The narrative is presented in the form of diary entries penned by Mr. Phillips, a fictional stage manager in the employ of theatre entrepreneur and factory owner Thomas Wilton. Nepotism abounds, as Mr. Wilton’s love for the theatre appears to stem solely from his wife’s lofty but unrealized acting ambitions for both herself and her daughter, who is known as the Parisian Phenomenon. Added to these colourful characters are the company players, those thespians who toil every evening before the glare of the footlights to earn a measly pittance.
As in theatre, the best novels contain clear and engaging themes that provide a sense of meaning beneath the plot and characters. While Phillips is a sanguine and bemused narrator, the use of his diary as a literary device is limiting, resulting in a novel that ultimately feels like a series of anecdotes rather than a well-crafted narrative. Though it lacks a substantive through-line, Brenna’s story comes alive when he describes the foibles of his animated crew of actors. His affection for those who would dedicate themselves to such a profession shines through on every page. Brenna also revels in the vivid depiction of the seamier, uglier side of mid-Victorian England, with its extreme poverty, lack of social safety nets, and terrible health care.
Though Brenna’s depiction of this era is precise and intriguing, New Albion ultimately suffers from the type of thin substance that plagued George Dibdin Pitts’s Victorian melodramas.