Charles and Mary by Carlo Gebler

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BBC Radio 3, 16 January 2011

Carlo Gbler’s bio-drama told the story of Charles and Mary Lamb, the creators of the enduringly popular Tales from Shakespeare. Although the book has remained in print since its first publication in the early nineteenth century, its creation was fraught with difficulties. Charles Lamb (Paul Rhys) was a prolific writer, who published most of his work while trying to hold down a full-time job in the City of London. Occasionally the responsibility of combining two jobs proved too great for him: Roland Jacquerello‘s production included a harrowing scene where he was quizzed by his boss for having written poetry during office time, and forced to read out his efforts in public to an unsympathetic audience. His sister Mary (Lia Williams) spent her time at home looking after their parents – although an outwardly demure young woman, she tended to throw fits, especially during times of stress. During one such occasion, which proved harrowing for everyone, including the listeners, she stabbed her mother (Anna Carteret) to death. There was only one punishment for this; she had to be committed to a madhouse. Charles ensured that she did not go to Bedlam, in spite of his elder brother John‘s (Mark Bazeley's) objections, but the family’s life was ruined.

This climatic moment marked the end of the play’s first movement; the second and final movement concentrated on how life in an asylum changed Mary for ever. While recognizing that she had to remain there for the rest of her natural life, she gradually acquired self-knowledge – understood, in this sense, as an awareness of the consequences of her action. She also revealed a hitherto undiscovered talent for telling stories. Meanwhile Charles acquired a reputation as a writer and poet, which prompted the publisher Godwin (Christine Kavanagh) to commission the Tales of Shakespeare from him. While Mary made a significant contribution to the book – much more than her brother, in fact – her name could not be included on the original frontispiece, as it might have proved harmful to the book’s potential saleability. Her name was only added long after her death.     

Faced with such material, author Gbler could easily have turned Charles and Mary into a violent melodrama. The fact that he did not do so is testament to his skill as a writer. The play was far more interested in the two central characters and how they responded to different circumstances: how Charles coped with the trauma of losing his mother, and consigning his sister to an asylum; and how his sister gradually assumed control over her life, even though she was doomed to spend the rest of her days in an institution. Tales from Shakespeare proved their apotheosis, giving Mary the chance to exercise her creative talent, while providing some form of catharsis for Charles, as he at last learned how to cope with the responsibility of looking after his sister while pursuing his own literary ambitions. Neither of them wrote anything else of note, but at least their lives remained free of further trauma.