Video production has hit a small technological snag, so today I’m posting some fun character analyses of the Nickleby “Power Couples,” as seen by our dramaturg Anthony Fichera. Enjoy!
Long before Bill/Hillary, Nicholas/Elena, Bennifer and TomKat, Dickens seems to have made considerable use of the Power Couple. Here are a few of them.
Mr. and Mrs. Squeers:
Greedy, coarse, vicious: the Squeers represent a replete cornucopia of Dickensian evil. Rapacious exploiters of dysfunctional families and their children (Dickens based at least some of their existence on a Yorkshire school master named Shaw—no relation—who was prosecuted in 1823 for living conditions so sordid that a number of his charges went blind). Mr. and Mrs. Squeers nonetheless manifest some curious differences in their approach to evil. It’s a dynamic we encounter again and again in Nicholas Nickleby: the affected, oddly idealistic male malignly or benignly contrasted with the practical no-nonsense female. (And on some very odd level it may be possible that Wackford DOES believe he is acting as an educator; at least, his commitment to the “act” stands in severe contrast to Mrs. Squeers, who from the beginning manifests a great deal of impatience with her husband’s mere insistence on even maintaining the façade of an authentic school.) The payoff comes, of course, in private: away from the boys, their real feelings for one another (simultaneous mutual loathing and co-dependency: imagine how a modern therapist could have profited from counseling the two) emerge in full force.
Mr. and Mrs. Crummles:
Long before Everybody loved Raymond, everybody loved the Crummles. Warm, all-inclusive, proud mother and father to a fractious but embracing brood of “Children” both direct and metaphorical. The Crummles Company is the anti-Dotheboys Hall: spontaneity and free expression reign exuberantly. The “life-lessons” imparted by this mother and father troupe create happiness for their audiences, respite for Nicholas and transcendence (of a sort) for Smike. But yet: he is the spontaneous dreamer of big dreams. She is the cautious observer of day-to-day affairs. He adopts Nicholas and Smike off the streets like strays, she warily (but benignly) accepts them into the company (after prodding Nicholas a bit to prove his value to their operations). But in opposition to the Squeers: the Crummles do nothing but act: to themselves, to their company and to the world. But it is understood, implicitly, that their bottom nature (thank you Ms. Stein) is one of complete and unaffected love for one another, for their profession and for the world. Because of that, Dickens need not even bother with prolonged domestic scenes of revelation and true feeling. Their theatricality transforms: what is hypocritical and deceitful for the Squeers is made redemptive and life-affirming. For the Crummles, all the world’s a stage and their all-embracing magnanimousness makes it one eternal Opening Night.
Mr. and Mrs. Mantalini:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: he’s a head-in-clouds waxer of lyrical fantasy and she’s got one eye on the books and one eye on the help. He has one eye on the help as well, only in less productive ways. She knows the market. He knows how to spend. He can expound and expound on his capacity for love and romance. She knows how to bend to the often-ridiculous demands of clients. Of the major Power Couples in Nicholas Nickleby, she is by far and away the most authentically in charge. Her shop, her business: these exist entirely because of her. She is well aware that left to his own, Mr. Mantalini would beggar them in a heartbeat; just as she seems positively aware that behind his rhetorical flourishes and curlicues is a man with the potential to create multiple and damaging havoc to the female help if not strictly (and constantly) told—sometimes obliquely, sometimes not—to Stay Away. His ridiculousness and her steely nature manifest themselves with extreme prejudice. Faced with either his potential ruination of the business and the chance to run the show in tandem with the equally steely Miss Knag, Madame Mantalini makes her decision without a tear, without a co-dependent sob and without a single hyperbolic expostulation. She goes where the dictates of business take her. It’s probably a good thing she isn’t married to Wackford Squeers. They’d probably own the most successful boarding school in England…