Twice before - first in 1951, again in 1976 - Emlyn Williams has materialized before us as Charles Dickens. Critics engaged adjectives such as "superb," "magical" and "august" to describe his performance or, more accurately, his re-creation of a troupe of Dickens characters. Last night, Williams tried his luck for the third time. My view is that those adjectives of yesteryear still stand, though a slight assault of the flu and a stuffed nose kept me from a full enjoyment of Williams' powers.
The Welsh-born actor's personation of Dickens is the best of his one-man shows, perhaps only a shade more compelling than his version of Dylan Thomas but certainly better by leagues than the selections from Saki he attempted here a season or two back.
Williams' commanding stage technique, his gift for mimicry, his pliable vocal tones, his exacting diction conspire with Dickens' genius for character types to people the stage with living examples of human arrogance, frailty, cruelty, pretension and pity. He also affects Dickensian attire: evening clothes with red geranium in the lapel, white gloves which he meticulously removes, finger by finger, before he begins, and moustache and chin whiskers.
In short, he appears much as Dickens must have looked when he toured America in the 1850s reading from his works.
Standing at a lectern which is copied after the one used by the 19th-century novelist, Williams offers moments from "Martin Chuzzlewit," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Dombey and Son," "Little Dorrit" and other writings. There is the bizarre tale of a young doctor called by a hysterical woman to save her son's life, only to find that the son is a hanged criminal. Dickens humor surfaces in the satiric descriptions of the social-climbing Merdles, the insufferable Podsnapps (great names, eh?) and the gin-swigging Mrs. Gamp, a midwife who is equally at home at the birth of a baby and the laying-out of a corpse. Williams, with a seminal pause, can suddenly throw into tragic focus a Dickens grotesque: "He was not so much a young man as a swollen boy."
If anything is wrong here it is a certain slickness and sameness. Williams-Dickens has performed this work countless times over the years in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. When I saw it in '76, the appearance, if not the actuality, of spontaneity abounded. Here, every gesture of the hand, every purse of the lips, seemed carefully planned, even contrived. The material, too, seems little changed; one might have thought that Williams would vary it. Perhaps a second viewing is never so exciting as a first.
But such is the authority of this actor's artistry and charm that complaints like this are niggling when measured against the total effect. Williams is both Dickens and his characters. Must we demand more of him?
Emlyn Williams has been playing Charles Dickens for longer than Charles Dickens played Charles Dickens. Dickens produced his celebrated readings from his work for 17 years, whereas Williams, on and off, has been doing them for 29. Rarely has one actor become so associated with one role.
Last night, Williams and Dickens returned to New York, after an absence of some years, to the Century Theater. The personification is as masterly as ever. Age doesn't seem to have any effect on Williams - he is 74 now, but still maintains the looks, voice and bearing of a man in the very vigorous middle age.
Nowadays, one scarcely knows whether he looks remarkably like Dickens, or whether our perceived image of Dickens has become remarkably like Williams. Yet this is by no means an attempt at an impersonation, a walking, talking Madame Tussaud's waxwork.
Williams takes pains to convey the sense that this is a theatrical performance. Everyone knows Dickens' own fascination with the theater - for that matter, he was a great dramatist who happened not to write a play - but one imagines his own readings were obviously high-charged and dramatic, to judge by all accounts, remained essentially readings.
Williams, on the other hand, is an actor. He doesn't make any real pretense at reading, and he has shaped the Dickensian excerpts with his own playwrighting skills. He comes on quite frankly as an actor - in a fashion that even the most flamboyant of novelists could scarcely muster.
He goes to the famous desk, a replica of the one used by Dickens, spies an "unexpected" bouquet, from Dickens' actress-mistress Ellen Ternan, no doubt, smiles knowingly, bangs down his books, and gets to the audience in hand. And the audience, very soon, is not merely in hand, but is in the palm of his hand.
Few actors have ever been so associated with one role before. One thinks idly of the elder O'Neill and The Count of Monte Cristo, and occasionally you must wonder what price this remarkable man of the theater, and a man of letters, has paid for this identification. Although he has done many, many other things during the past 30 years, this strong reference to Dickens must sometimes haunt his dreams of careers past and opportunities lost.
On the other hand, this Dickens persona is a dazzling dramatic achievement, a two-man show of both flash and subtlety. The items vary from time to time.
In this presentation, I enjoyed his crazy characterizations of the gin-and-water swilling Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit and that large dwarf in a small circus, Mr. Chops, from Christmas Stories. And who could possibly resist that bizarre Bedtime Story for a Good Child from The Uncommercial Traveler, concerning a mass murderer who makes pies out of his brides?
This is a limited run, so hurry, for there is a special style here that should not be missed.
Emlyn Williams's return appearance as Charles Dickens, opening last night at the Century Theater marks the 30th year that the eminent Welsh actor, playwright and author, has been engaged in his recreation of Dickens, his body of work and his highly theatrical performance style. In more recent years, he has added Dylan Thomas and Saki to his one-man gallery of portraits, but Dickens remains his most natural literary alter ego.
Standing at a lectern that is a duplicate of one used by Dickens, wearing whiskers and with a red geranium in his buttonhole, he flamboyantly merges his actor's presence with that of his character. He is Dickens on tour, treating us to a healthy sampling of tales, sketches and passages from his novels. He reads - or rather, he acts, for he only pretends occasionally to glance at a book - with the confidence, guile and polish of one who knows the work as if it were his own.
These selections are drawn from ''Martin Chuzzlewit'' and ''Dombey and Son'' as well as from lesser-known books. The pieces have been chosen for their dramatic and also for their satiric value. This is a Dickens who can mock the private as well as the public, physiognomy as well as bureaucracy, dismissing out of hand someone who is ''not so much a young man but a swollen boy.''
Mr. Williams's Dickens delights in his own command of irony and love of language. He may, at times, stretch a pause to make a humorous point or may overly theatricalize gestures, but, one would guess, even that may be in emulation of his role model.
The evening should be of particular interest to anyone with a fondness for Dickens, but also for those who may be skeptical about the ability of a single actor to hold and to captivate an audience. Mr. Williams commands our attention for more than two hours, especially in his second act, which is both more terse and more varied.
He begins that section with the tale of Mr. Chops, a circus dwarf with delusions of social climbing. Mr. Chops, he tells us, was, ''an uncommon small man'' who was ''not as small as he is made out to be, but what dwarf is?'' The actor becomes Dickens pretending to be a circus owner imitating Chops. The evening is filled with such labyrinthine performance sleight-of-hand as we are carried deeply into the Dickens landscape.
For his penultimate selection, he unfolds ''A Tale of Two Cities,'' rushes a brief, vivid picture of France in turmoil, and makes us wish that his retelling of that classic would continue until Sidney Carton's curtain speech. For his conclusion he offers ''a frivolous variation on the theme of mass murder,'' a gory bedtime story told to the author by a casually bloodthirsty nurse.
If you have never seen this justifiably celebrated one-man performance, perhaps it is time that you warmed yourself at the Dickens hearth. ''Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens'' will be on Broadway for the next three weeks.