The Coastal History Blog 26: “Conference report: Charles Dibdin and his World”

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Over Thanksgiving, I had the privilege to participate in what was apparently the first ever conference devoted to Charles Dibdin the Elder (1745-1814).  In what follows, I will not reproduce information easily enough discovered on the conference website, nor will I suggest that the conference reached a consensus (it did not).  There were some shared themes and resonances worth noticing, however.

An actor, musician, playwright, songwriter, theatrical entrepreneur, and newspaper publisher, Dibdin wore many hats in the course of his long career.  He is best remembered today for his patriotic sea songs, such as “Tom Bowling.”

Yet these solemn and slow-paced songs were only one facet of Dibdin’s life and work.  For his one-man show, he played a modified pianoforte with percussion instruments attached and special keys to make animal noises. Michael Burden’s paper offered a vivid account of Dibdin’s work at the Royal Circus, managing child actors and a large number of horses.

Search on iTunes for that same Charles Dibdin, though, and you will quickly find yourself directed to the more rarified atmosphere of the Jane Austen Songbook.  Nicola Pink’s paper addressed the ways that young women appropriated Dibdin’s songs, which enjoyed a long afterlife as sheet music in the parlour.  Pink drew attention to the interesting phenomenon of women singing naval and battle songs ostensibly written for a male speaker.  Surveying Dibdin’s full range of genres, contexts, audiences, and venues made for a stimulating, if a bit overwhelming, two days.

Dibdin the plain dealer

Oskar Cox Jensen’s paper profiled a single song, “True Courage.”  A few lines of it may capture the tone of Dibdin’s sea songs:

If my maxim’s disease, ‘tis disease I shall die on,–

You may snigger and titter, I don’t care a damn!

In me let the foe feel the paw of a lion,

But the battle once ended, the heart of a lamb.

What was it like to be so closely identified with such songs, and such sentiments? David Kennerley’s paper, “Celebrity, libel, and the politics of personality” drew attention to Dibdin’s decision to litigate when rumormongers spread innuendo that his association with Isaac Bickerstaff went beyond friendship.  Why go to the expense of prosecuting his accusers, with all the attendant expense and risks?  Kennerley argued that for Dibdin, “defending his reputation for sincerity, independence and manliness mattered because it guaranteed the veracity of the common-sense loyalist sentiments expressed in his songs.”  Dibdin ventriloquized the sailor, but testimonials after his death made it clear to what extent his admirers confused his virtues and attributes with Jack Tar’s.

Katie Osborn’s paper reminded us that Dibdin’s roster of “honest men” included plain-spoken farmers (“Hodge” characters) in addition to the sailors more familiar to us today.  The use of dialect speech and intentionally rough or awkward language underscores a persistent problem in reading Dibdin lyrics: Are we meant to admire the manly sentiments, smile at the clumsiness, or a little of both?

The uses of miscellany

Dibdin’s pioneering one-man show featured a range of stock characters (the Jew, the Irishman, the sailor, and so forth).  Harriet Guest’s paper considered the plurality of voices, dialects, and exclamations contained within a single song, “The Margate Hoy.”  In this song, a diverse group is thrown together on a small vessel bound for the seaside resort, where, cheek by jowl, they find a dubious kind of unity in seasickness.

In my own work on Dibdin, I focused so intensely on his Jack Tar character that I failed to fully appreciate how much of his show business career depended on his ability to oscillate between different “voices.”  Dibdin invited his listeners to take joy in the overheard snippets of urban soundscape.

It’s tempting, in light of Dibdin’s reputation as a patriotic songwriter, to wonder if there’s a political point to be taken away from this somehow.  Guest noted that Dibdin’s son, Thomas, included “Margate Hoy” in his 1841 collection, Songs Naval and National despite its civilian theme.  It occurs to me that miscellany is a rhetorical device that has appealed to nation-builders (or nationalism-builders) in many different eras.  George Orwell’s list in “England, Your England” (“the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns… the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings”) is a famous example.  Orwell calls these “not only fragments, but characteristic fragments.” [1]

Yet the resemblance ends here, I think.  Dibdin’s romp through a series of dialects and impersonations is more in the tradition of his predecessor George Alexander Stevens’ physiognomic Lecture on Heads. [2] We’re meant to gawk at the succession of oddities but not to inhabit each subject position in turn, experience a moment of empathy with some of them (as in a Charles Dickens novel) or see them as characteristic fragments of a whole (as in Orwell).

Jibes, jollity, and scapegoating

Dibdin’s sailors had a place in his miscellany, but it was always a privileged place.  Even in their eccentricities, they were the plain spoken “hearts of oak.”  In the miscellanies that I’ve seen, it is the sailor alone who gets to voice patriotic sentiments, exhibits interiority, and performs the “honest man” persona that Dibdin cultivated as part of his own stage presence.  I’m reminded of the plays from the 1770s in which fops and macaroni shared the stage with Jack Tars, but those “unmanly” men always came away as the loser in the encounter.

With Dibdin, it will always be hard to escape the cringe factor. It might be too much to say that Dibdin’s one-man show consisted of “pointing and laughing,” but “distancing and derision” can be equally wounding.  Michael Ragussis’ work on the Irish and Jewish response to stage caricature is very much to the point here. Anxious to avoid sounding like the butt of some dialect joke, those with the means to do so signed up for elocution lessons. [3]

Perhaps the missing expertise at this conference was the historian or cultural critic of humor, and the work that humor performs.

A note on format

The conference organizers, Oskar Cox Jensen, David Kennerley, and Ian Newman deserve special commendation for adopting a workshop format with pre-circulated papers.  This, coupled with the circular seating arrangement, encouraged participants to collaborate rather than… well, we’ve all seen the opposite of collaboration.

Dibdin’s work and his legacy cut across disciplines, and this conference called forth a rare assembly of major scholars from Politics (Mark Philp), Theatre (Jacky Bratton and Jim Davis), Music (Roger Parker) as well as period music performers of the stature of Jeremy Barlow and Ian Honeyman.  Nick Grindle added a valuable art history perspective.  How many conferences span the realm of newspaper publishing (David O’Shaughnessy’s paper) all the way to spectacles and mock naval battles in gigantic water tanks (Susan Valladares’ paper on Sadler’s Wells)?

Nonetheless, the specialists showed admirable restraint despite the inevitable blundering by scholars out of their element.  This kind of restraint probably deserves a place in the emerging literature on academic kindness and constructive behavior at conferences.  Most of us were trained as demolition experts of one sort or another, and it’s hard to learn alternative forms of behavior unless we see it modeled in public places.

As Judith Hawley remarked, individually we had limitations, but as a cooperative group, there was enormous potential in the room.  There will be a book coming out of this conference, but perhaps an equally important legacy is that for the first time there is a community of scholars with a shared interest in moving the Dibdin conversation forward.

 

Notes

[1] George Orwell, “England, Your England,” in The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1984), 250.

[2] Gerald Kahan, George Alexander Stevens and the Lecture on Heads (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984).

[3] Michael Ragussis, Theatrical Nation: Jews and Other Outlandish Englishmen in Georgian Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010

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