Joseph Bisat MarshallDickens’ Oliver2013

The following text is an accompaniment to a project completed during my time at Central Saint Martins. The first two sections are a close look at characterisation in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the musical Oliver!

Only that of the equally poignant commentary on the society in which they exist, matches the impact of the interlaced emotional connections between the characters in the story of Oliver Twist, written by Charles Dickens as a serial between the years 1837-9. There are countless themes to be extracted from both the text of the novel and the performance of the musical, which are strikingly true to each other in so many ways, their differences only serving to augment the collective narrative. The words of Gilles Deleuze, provide us with an importantly relevant description of Dickens’ work:

No one has described what a life is better than Charles Dickens, if we take the indefinite article as an index of the transcendental. A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviours turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death.

What is described here will become important in later exploration of typographic form and immersion... for now, it simply serves to inform us of the enduring power of Charles Dickens’ work.

Arguably the most important theme that Dickens presents in all his writing and certainly the most passionately voiced in Oliver Twist, is one surrounding the ‘goodness’ of the soul. More widely, this is the implication of a society’s belief in human worth dictated by social status. Within corrupt surrounding, purity and virtue are absolute. Dickens challenged the Victorian ideology that paupers and criminals are already evil at birth; he argued instead that a corrupt environment is the source of vice. A line from a recent television drama set in Dickensian London asserted this same notion and struck me as being poignant:

Children... men say some are born evil. In my experience it is simpler; they are mirrors as evil or as innocent as the world that gives life to them and this world, I need not tell you this sir, this world is a wicked one.

We find in the story of Oliver Twist a rare situation of the principal protagonist offering, in himself, little to the collective drama. As a child hero of a novel of social protest, Oliver is meant to appeal more to our sentiments than to our literary sensibilities by existing as a facilitator, or rather a magnet to which misfortune is attracted. In challenging the question of innate goodness, Dickens forms characters that express elements of both good and evil… all except for Oliver and a select few. Oliver does not present a broken life, torn between good and evil; instead, he is goodness incarnate. There are reasons for this more relevant to society at that time than now, one of which being that Dickens’ Victorian middle-class readers were likely to hold opinions on the poor that were marginally less extreme than those expressed by Mr. Bumble in the story, the beadle who treats paupers with great cruelty. In fact, Oliver Twist was criticised for portraying thieves and prostitutes at all. Given the strict, misguided morals of Dickens’ audience, it may have been necessary for him to make Oliver a saint like figure; because he appealed to Victorian readers’ sentiments, his story may have stood a better chance of effectively challenging their prejudices. What is much more complex is the multi-layering of the characterisation of the figures surrounding Oliver. Looking in isolation at the story told to us through the novel, it would not be unreasonable to assert a notion of dichotomy, where characters are distinctly separated into those that are complete goodness and barely able to comprehend evil, such as Rose and Brownlow; and those that are complete evil, barely able to comprehend any form of goodness, despite their contextual existence. This works for the story and it can be understood to a point in this way; but it is in the character’s moral complexity, the struggle between good and evil, that we find what is most interesting and integral to the story. In Oliver! the musical, characters express a more obvious representation of the ambiguity formed here. There are specific reasons for this, which we will come to later. A major character in the story, and the one that presents the widest scope for interpretation in performance, is Fagin.

A Closer Look at Character

It has been said that Fagin is a ‘richly drawn, resonant embodiment of terrifying villainy’ and ‘at times, he seems like a child’s distorted vision of pure evil’. In the novel this is true. There is little to be found in the text to excuse him from this colourfully sinister description. Evil, it seems, is meant to extend even through his appearance; Dickens describes him amongst life’s cruellest creatures, ghostly and reptilian. Fagin’s story is one of corruption and abuse. Little is known of his past, but throughout the text we learn of a life devoted to the misguidance of innocent children, manipulated towards aspirations of villainy. In this sense, Fagin is himself, a representation of corrupt surrounding. He is pure evil:

About noon next day, when Dodger and Master Bates had gone out to pursue their customary avocations, Mr. Fagin took the opportunity of reading Oliver a long lecture on the crying sin of ingratitude; of which he clearly demonstrated he had been guilty, to no ordinary extent, in wilfully absenting himself from the society of his anxious friends; and, still more, in endeavouring to escape from them after so much trouble and expense had been incurred in his recovery. Mr. Fagin laid great stress on the fact of his having taken Oliver in, and cherished him, when, without his timely aid, he might have perished with hunger; and he related the dismal and affecting history of a young lad whom, in his philanthropy, he had succoured under parallel circumstances, but who, proving unworthy of his confidence and evincing a desire to communicate with the police, had unfortunately come to be hanged at the Old Bailey one morning. Mr. Fagin did not seek to conceal his share in the catastrophe, but lamented with tears in his eyes that the wrong-headed and treacherous behaviour of the young person in question, had rendered it necessary that he should become the victim of certain evidence for the crown: which, if it were not precisely true, was indispensably necessary for the safety of him (Mr. Fagin) and a few select friends. Mr. Fagin concluded by drawing a rather disagreeable picture of the discomforts of hanging; and, with great friendliness and politeness of manner, expressed his anxious hopes that he might never be obliged to submit Oliver Twist to that unpleasant operation.

Little Oliver’s blood ran cold, as he listened to the Jew’s words, and imperfectly comprehended the dark threats conveyed in them. That it was possible even for justice itself to confound the innocent with the guilty when they were in accidental companionship, he knew already; and that deeply-laid plans for the destruction of inconveniently knowing or over-communicative persons, had been really devised and carried out by the Jew on more occasions than one, he thought by no means unlikely, when he recollected the general nature of the altercations between that gentleman and Mr. Sikes: which seemed to bear reference to some foregone conspiracy of the kind. As he glanced timidly up, and met the Jew’s searching look, he felt that his pale face and trembling limbs were neither unnoticed nor un-relished by that wary gentleman.

The Jew, smiling hideously, patted Oliver on the head, and said, that if he kept himself quiet, and applied himself to the business, he saw they would be very good friends yet. Then, taking his hat, and covering himself with an old patched great-coat, he went out, and locked the room-door behind him.

In reading Dickens’ original, unabridged text, a modern day audience is struck quite forcefully with unsuspecting, rather blatant anti-Semitism that unfortunately cannot be avoided. It would be remiss of not to mention it and isolate it as being something that is clearly not ok. Though this is not the place to discuss it in its entirety, I would urge readers not to form judgements of Dickens’ own character before looking into it further.

This passage is descriptive of the real source of Fagin’s villainy. So often in stories, the audience is presented with characters that exert criminality without cause for dislike. An anti-hero appealing to our sentiments is capable of even the most extreme cases of unlawful activity without ever losing our good will and support. It sounds strange when pointed out, but it is testament to the modern audience’s ability to judge character as well as deed. It takes a more integral shaping of the soul for us to truly dislike something. In Oliver Twist, the reader never views the acts of Fagin’s gang as being the height of their wrongdoing; we are much more interested in what they say and how they feel. Fagin’s ultimate act of villainy, and the thing for which we can never forgive him, is his intelligent, calculated manipulation. I see him as a puppeteer, clutching at strings above his silent marionettes as they dance to a tune they cannot hear. Though his influence is not obvious in every character, there are very few that come into contact with Fagin without finding their lives shaped into his own selfish scheme. We predominantly follow Oliver in this story and as Fagin exerts his tried and tested method of manipulation upon him, we learn how the other characters came to be.

Again, the form of Fagin’s abuse is something that would have been viewed significantly differently around the time that the novel was written. Today it is hard to view Fagin’s character without paedophilic undertones, whereas sadly in Dickens’ time, paedophilia existed prolifically and its recognition did not. In reading the text with this in mind, we find Fagin’s character wholly abhorrent as we begin to recognise the attributes of a potentially sexually abusive figure. I discuss this subjectively as I am aware of interpretation that could quite acceptably lead you away from this assertion; but for me, this is a large portion of the narrative that gives great depth and sadness to the story. The following text, enough to send a collective shiver down the readers’ spines, epitomises the darkness found within Dickens’ words. We see the vilest form of cruelty; that which is meditated and we see it in its most dreadful form, inflicted upon innocence.

In short, the wily old Jew had the boy in his toils. Having prepared his mind, by solitude and gloom, to prefer any society to the companionship of his own sad thoughts in such a dreary place, he was now slowly instilling into his soul the poison which he hoped would blacken it, and change its hue for ever.

There is less ambiguity presented in the novel than there is on stage, though I prefer not to think of them as separate narratives for knowledge of both allow us to fall much deeper into the story. In the novel, Fagin is contorted by an internal struggle of abandonment where he stands separately from the world, numb to those who look through him and alienated into an existence of idle spectating. Though we find his despondence desperately sad, I do not believe the reader is meant to sympathise with or question the judgement of Fagin’s character. His dissonance is just as much a cause as an effect of his villainy and he is all the more evil for it. On stage however, Fagin’s internal struggle is one that the audience recognises more closely as being between evil and goodness; on the surface he appears not as a bad character. This is a situation created by the nature of musical theatre itself. It often sits firmly in its own genre of performance, which has the necessity of displaying to the audience, an extremely careful equilibrium of emotion. Darkness is always contrasted with light. There is absolutely the same depth of emotion to be found in characters on stage for those who would wish to look for it, but a musical also has the potential for lighter viewing, as the exclamation mark in the musical’s title suggests. I do not know why this is. Perhaps the theatre feels raw and real, more so than something you might watch on screen or read on a page. It is interesting to note however, the fact that the careful measuring and direction of emotional weight is not reserved for performance. It exists in all storytelling that is successful; I am arguing for its particular importance on stage. In the novel, for example, the character of Mr. Bumble exerts extreme brutality and blithe humour, a literary device of which Dickens was a master.

In Oliver!, lightness is drawn from the characters that express most malice and this is particularly true of Fagin’s character where much of his villainy is replaced with humour and even kindness. In contrast to the novel, Fagin cares deeply for the children in his protection. His ambiguity of character is presented openly in the show’s final song, ‘Reviewing the Situation’, where he exclaims that he is ‘finding it hard to be really as black as they paint’. He is a villain and remains so at the end of the show; but he is a villain in the same way that many anti-heroes are: fundamentally likeable. The audience is not encouraged to dislike Fagin to the extent that his deeds might warrant and at the closing of the show, we find one of the significant changes in narrative between novel and stage: we presume Fagin’s escape. Importantly, we are not affected by this whereas in the novel we are somewhat reassured by his conviction.

My personal interpretation of Fagin’s character in the show however, is one that renders him just as evil as his character in the novel. The relative lightness of the musical is in fact the thing that supplements the cruelty of which Dickens wrote. It seems to me that his wickedness is made all the more chilling when disguised behind a hideous mask of joviality. During my time working on Oliver!, the role has been portrayed by both Neil Morrissey and Brian Conley to great success, each one presenting a much more human character than many of their predecessors. There has been no one however, that has played the role more true to my own interpretation of the character, than Rowan Atkinson who entirely embraced Fagin’s darkness in his portrayal. The audience would be deathly silent to see Fagin shake Oliver’s hand and hear him say quietly, with a hideous glint in his eye, ‘I hope I will have the pleasure of your intimate acquaintance’.

The show presents its themes through its connections of characters. If I were to select a single relationship that expresses the widest demonstration of these themes, it would undoubtedly be that which is between Fagin and Nancy.

In Nancy’s character we find perhaps the most challenging form of ambiguity found anywhere in the story. Her moral complexity is unique among the major characters of particularly the novel (again it shifts in the musical in a similar way to Fagin). In the text, she is arguably the only character who comprehends and is capable of both good and evil. When Dickens’ wrote of her ultimate choice to do good at great personal cost, he made a strong argument in favour of the incorruptibility of basic goodness, no matter how many environmental obstacles it may face.

To understand why this battle of morals exists in Nancy and where it comes from, we must turn to the characters of young Oliver and the other boys in Fagin’s gang. We realise that Nancy represents a character living as wholeheartedly in the clutches of Fagin’s control, simply further on in life; an adult version of corrupted youth. The following extract from the novel is a peak in the drama, wholly explorative of both Fagin and Nancy’s lives. Here, Oliver has been procured by Bill Sikes, or rather presented to him by Fagin, to aid in a burglary that has failed. The reader, along with Fagin and Nancy, do not know where they are or even if they might return. This is one of the most informative sections of writing in the book:

‘Listen to me, who with six words, can strangle Sikes as surely as if I had his bull’s throat between my fingers now. If he comes back, and leaves the boy behind him; if he gets off free, and dead or alive, fails to restore him to me; murder him yourself if you would have him escape Jack Ketch. And do it the moment he sets foot in this room, or mind me, it will be too late!’

‘What is all this?’ cried the girl involuntarily.

‘What is it?’ pursued Fagin, mad with rage. ‘When the boy’s worth hundreds of pounds to me, am I to lose what chance threw me in the way of getting safely, through the whims of a drunken gang that I could whistle away the lives of! And me bound, too, to a born devil that only wants the will, and has the power to, to-’

Panting for breath, the old man stammered for a word; and in that instant checked the torrent of his wrath, and changed his whole demeanour. A moment before, his clenched hands had grasped the air; his eyes had dilated; and his face grown livid with passion; but now, he shrunk into a chair, and, cowering together, trembled with the apprehension of having himself disclosed some hidden villainy. After a short silence, he ventured to look round at his companion. He appeared somewhat reassured, on beholding her in the same listless attitude from which he had first roused her.

‘Nancy, dear!’ croaked the Jew, in his usual voice. ‘Did you mind me, dear?’

‘Don’t worry me now, Fagin!’ replied the girl, raising her head languidly. ‘If Bill has not done it this time, he will another. He has done many a good job for you, and will do many more when he can; and when he can’t he won’t; so no more about that.’

‘Regarding this boy, my dear?’ said the Jew, rubbing the palms of his hands nervously together.

‘The boy must take his chance with the rest,’ interrupted Nancy, hastily; ‘and I say again, I hope he is dead, and out of harm’s way, and out of yours, that is, if Bill comes to no harm. And if Toby got clear off, Bill’s pretty sure to be safe; for Bill’s worth two of Toby any time.’

‘And about what I was saying, my dear?’ observed the Jew, keeping his glistening eye steadily upon her.

‘You must say it all over again, if it’s anything you want me to do,’ rejoined Nancy; ‘and if it is, you had better wait till to-morrow. You put me up for a minute; but now I’m stupid again.’

Fagin put several other questions: all with the same drift of ascertaining whether the girl had profited by his unguarded hints; but, she answered them so readily, and was withal so utterly unmoved by his searching looks, that his original impression of her being more than a trifle in liquor, was confirmed. Nancy, indeed, was not exempt from a failing which was very common among the Jew’s female pupils; and in which, in their tender years, they were rather encouraged than checked. Her disordered appearance, and a wholesale perfume of Geneva which pervaded the apartment, afforded strong confirmatory evidence of the justice of the Jew’s supposition; and when, after indulging in the temporary display of violence above described, she subsided, first into dullness, and afterwards into a compound of feelings: under the influence of which she shed tears one minute, and in the next gave utterance to various exclamations of ‘Never say die!’ and divers calculations as to what might be the amount of the odds so long as a lady or gentleman was happy, Mr. Fagin who has had considerable experience of such matters in his time, saw, with great satisfaction, that she was very far gone indeed.

There is so much to be learnt here of Fagin’s character. His distress alone at the notion of revealing the scope of his vice to a ‘pupil’ speaks volumes. But more subtle and subjective is the information that can be drawn from this passage regarding Nancy’s character. Though from the start of the story we assume Nancy’s involvement with Fagin from an early age, it is rarely so explicitly described as it is here. Nancy as a pupil of Fagin is distressing, for we know that as a young girl she would not have been subjected to or instructed on identical tasks as the boys in the same position. There are few sentences with sadder implications than this: ‘Nancy, indeed, was not exempt from a failing which was very common among the Jew’s female pupils; and in which, in their tender years, they were rather encouraged than checked’. Use of the word tender speaks most descriptively of the abhorrence of the situation, relating to the manipulation of innocence already described. The very notion of liquor being a necessary accessory to the work she would be subjected to is an awful one. Nancy is a girl born into a painful world where she resides as a victim of circumstance. She exists in the story as the character who is most tainted by the world around her, the person who perhaps has most reason to slip inexorably away from goodness. Her acts of kindness and love are augmented in their significance because of this.

In the show, Nancy’s character is viewed with admiration and good will; she is very much a heroine to which the audience bestows their full support. Here is where the show, on the surface, is much less ambiguous. Though we are directed to the innate goodness of Nancy in the novel, villainous deeds on her part absolutely exist. In the show, this villainy is almost exclusively transferred to Bill Sikes who provides the full extent of malevolence on behalf of all the characters that lose it in translation. It appears that Nancy is under his absolute control, her thievery and prostitution a result of his influence. The violent abuse that he subjects her to is made explicit in the script; the other characters, including Fagin and even herself, view her situation as being one of regretful reality where the hand that the world has dealt her is to be neither questioned nor fought.

Whilst it is Sikes that exerts violence and villainy within the show, I still believe that he is not the source of these deeds; the broader responsibility of this lies with Fagin. This of course does not remove anything of our aversion towards Sikes, for he is evil and brutal as his name suggests. But with knowledge of the novel, we can understand that even Sikes is not removed from Fagin’s manipulation. Particularly in the show, Fagin is portrayed as cowering from Sikes’ violence and is even subjected to it himself to the point where he is forced to succumb to his will. This however, is almost a superficial reaction. He is a terrifying man of brawn and muscle so Fagin has no choice but to allow Sikes his physical power; but perhaps this is a deliberate move on Fagin’s part, for what he cannot control by strength he makes up for with mental corruption. We must remember that Sikes was once a pupil of Fagin and if all elements of the narrative are to be considered, we must also believe that to be under Fagin’s influence is to always be so. Indeed Sikes’ ultimate act of violence in the murder of Nancy is one directed subtly and judiciously by Fagin, the heart of all things evil.

It is in allowing the show and the novel to exist as a single narrative that we find the full depth of character. The show and the novel express multiple layers of narrative that are identical, and they also express certain layers that are not. Each layer can be viewed singularly and understood to that extent, but by viewing these various strands of information as a way of developing understanding and not conflicting with what we already know, we can give great depth to characters, appreciating the story with the complexity of which it deserves.

As Long as He Needs Me

To typographically represent this performance in a single piece of work felt, at first, like an insuperable task. The interwoven narrative that I had begun to discuss is broad and complex; how then can it be captured in an instance? I had established my belief in the story being, upon closer inspection, not really about the protagonist; this is a commentary on the prejudice of society and its manifestation in the misjudgement of basic morality.

My interest was directed to Fagin as an embodiment of society’s vice, and Nancy as a representation of circumstance and choice. It is in their interaction that we find the essence of the story at its most prevalent. I wanted to find the moment in the show where we experience this at its peak. There was no need to attempt the representation of the entire show in this work; it is the entire narrative that I am interested in and in my experience, this exists in singular moments, timeless bursts of emotion. There are various parts of the show that could have been considered, but for me none are more descriptive or distressing than Nancy’s performance of ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ in the second act. Here, Nancy, portrayed in the 2012 UK tour by Samantha Barks, performs an intricate song that is partly inwardly directed, a soliloquy, and partly a form of defence projected outwardly to the audience. It means that the song exists in a kind of fluctuation, the narrative always returning back within the character. It was therefore useful to explore the song, the composition of words and staging, in closer chronological order with the aim of understanding exactly how the words and the performance of the actress interact with the narrative of the story and how in turn this interaction exists between stage and audience.

At this point in the show, Oliver is being cared for at the house of Mr Brownlow after being captured and beaten for the thievery of a pocket-handkerchief. Fagin, upon the realisation that this situation has the possibility of compromising himself and his cohort, has subtly instilled the same fear within Sikes who now also believes the boy’s position to be somewhat dangerous. It is agreed that Oliver must be returned and with upmost vigilance and haste. Nancy is directed to undertake this task, her being the most suitable for what it might entail; when she refuses, wishing to protect her anonymity in that part of the city, Sikes hits her. She falls to the floor, deathly still as the downstage empties of all other characters leaving her alone in her despair.

I have seen this performance many, many times. In doing so, I was able to witness subtleties within subtleties. By watching the scene multiple times, I began to recognise what it is that makes that performance that performance, what gives it its individualities. A well-performed show is organic, raw and spontaneous, as if it has never been performed before and will never be performed again. But this is testament to the actors’ ability to the make the audience feel this way. The subtleties of a performance that seem so singularly in the moment are nearly always deliberate, wonderfully fabricated; perhaps contrary to popular belief, audience understanding of performance on a very personal level is, I would argue, much more affecting of interpretation.

There were two stages to the work: I needed to understand the meaning of words and performance and then allow them to transcend their notational and semantic content, designing them back to the page with deeper and more widespread qualities to pervade their form. There is no better reference for this than the work of the concrete poets of the 19th century whose aim was to elucidate and intensify the meaning of text and boost the effect of words by expressive presentation. To typographically represent understanding, meaning can be described as having shape, a form to be translated and manipulated similar to that of music. In designing type, we become a conductor devoted to the determined organisation of disparate sounds appreciated for their worth only in their conjoined entirety. If we take the idea that typography is to language as musical direction is to a score, we can begin to appreciate this form of design more fully. It is important to note that here type is an agent of language, which by definition is to be performed. The type dictates this performance, the text designed to speed up or slow down the reader, the white space being treated as ‘silence’… if there is a literary equivalent to be had, it is in punctuation, the rhythm of language. The page is a visual object for only a part of the experience of viewing it and it is designed as such. It is important to look at the work in its entirety, replacing visual indicators with the experience that they aim to denote.

Meaning as shape is something not to be thought of academically. I write about the process of this work much the same as it was conducted; through careful analysis after a much more instinctive approach to its creation. Needing a starting point, I wanted to create an initial, raw reaction to the performance with type, not to think about its form but to feel it.

I found that, appropriate to its aspirations of reference to concrete poetry, the work can be read musically. This is to say that it can be read in two parts: On the surface it may be viewed in its totality, its shape, an overall ‘voice’ echoing the performance at its most expansive viewpoint. Here, the intricacies of form may not be comprehended singularly, instead they serve to provide the collective, ‘macroscopic’ understanding with which we see the work at a glance. A conductor doesn’t view any instrument in isolation. To understand more complex and individual rhythms within the work, the piece can be read in its second part; divided sections to be examined in much closer quarters.

Overall, we see that the performance fluctuates. There is a point from which the type emanates and to which it seems to constantly refer, this is the point at the very bottom of the page, completely central. It is the point at the heart of the character. It is central because there is nothing else to which the audience must give their attention. The song is absolutely in that moment where nothing will penetrate the confines it allows itself. The reason for it existing in such a small portion of the page is not lost in the stage direction of the actual performance. At a glance this work is reminiscent of the stage in shape and proportion; Nancy performs this song in darkness, the weight of the space about her bearing down on her character. Every space in the typography is as important empty as it is filled. Space, something normally so neutral and subordinate, has become heavy and sinister in its mystery. Nancy’s performance, like the type, ventures sometimes tentatively and sometimes with monumental strength into this miasma, always to be pulled relentlessly back to the floor from where she came. For me, this is Fagin’s influence, his suffocation of character. The song is, on the surface, a lament to the love despite unspeakable abuse, of Bill Sikes; but we must remember that the cause of this situation, and the reason for her imprisonment in it, lies evermore with Fagin.

Literary understanding seems to be a kind of by-product of communication in this work. It is not necessary to the understanding of the piece as a whole, its illegibility perhaps even augmenting appreciation of narrative. As parts of type are stripped away, the potential for understanding the words semantically increases; it is important in forming the link between the performance and representation. It raises a significant question about the inadequacy of language to convey thought. Language will elide materialisation; it a ubiquitous paradox that is created when we realise that knowing what something means will always denounce the effect of the attempt at its materialisation.

The first two words, set in the Victorian typeface DeVinne, are elongated in their situation to each other; there seems to be a longer than necessary pause between them. Within this space is Nancy’s uncertainty, perhaps at the reality of her words, or perhaps at her decision to voice them out loud. The next word, ‘as’ as a literary conjunctive word is given little emphasis in performance and subsequently it exists similarly in type. I did however choose to drop it slightly away from the baseline. The word ‘as’ felt like the quiet before the storm; we seem to rest at this point before plunging into the next, which brings a much more redolent sense of emotion. ‘He’ refers to the character of Sikes. It is enunciated with the passion that he inspires within Nancy. She says the word differently each time it appears in the song, sometimes with terrible tenderness, loving him in spite of it all; sometimes she almost spits it from her mouth, hating him just as much. Each time, the word is dominant as is his character; it stamps onto the page in seeming disregard for all but itself. Each time this word appears, it is set in Great Victorian, the most flourished type used in the entire piece. This is how I believe Sikes exists to Nancy, complete dominance with misguided reason for it. The word ‘needs’ follows in its predecessor’s wake; it is strong because it can afford to be in Sike’s shadow. There is a wonderful and accidental ambiguity presented here. Given the nature of the type, we cannot tell which words exist in front and which words exist behind. Is the word ‘needs’ stamped defiantly in front of ‘he’, an uncertain conviction stated before the audience and under the gaze of the word behind it? Or does it instead exist behind the word, trapped, unable to be anywhere or anything else? ‘Me’ couldn’t be anything else but small, an insignificant addition to an already complete sentence; this is a song that Nancy performs about herself.

Finding connection

It is only in retrospect that I can view the piece as being not a bad piece of typography; a self-inflicted, default reaction to work that doesn’t seem to work. There was something missing from the connection I had to the typography? There was some connection, I felt something for the ink resting on the surface of the page, the words that I had given a life to more than semantics. But I did not feel enough and there was a reason for this.

I must return to the perennial dilemma created by language once more: the dilemma of its inadequacy in truly representing experience. I have come across this impasse in my work a number of times now and cleverer people than myself have yet to find an answer to its problem. Experience cannot be translated through language. The theorisation of this point is immense, rich in its complexity and often progressing to an ironic logomachy as an unsatisfactory conclusion; but this project presents a discussion further to the ability of words to provide total description of experience. This project aimed to move away from the rigidity of word structure; typography in this form must transcend exegesis and instead allude to the belief that language is something more than this, communication in many various forms. This project was not about words, yet still it eludes experience. I found that it is not only language that possesses this incapacity, it is all representation. We are never in the present, for present has duration and therefore must be classified as past or future, which by definition is ‘no longer’ or ‘not yet’. It seemed that experience is perpetually confined to the present, a place we can go to just once, yet a place we exist in always.

The words that I write now fall far short from explaining what it is that I mean for the very reason of what it is that I attempt to describe. What is it to experience something? What I have explored so far tends my thoughts toward empirical understanding; the necessity of sensory experience in knowledge. Knowledge exists in priory and posteriori forms; this is to say that knowledge is not dependent on experience; perhaps what I am suggesting is not that immersive experience is the only way to understand what is extrinsic to ourselves, but that it is the only way to truly feel.

Performance, and particularly theatre, is a wonderful model in explaining connection because here the components of experience have a very particular spatial existence. The audience denotes complete intrinsically; they are a collective representation of the individual. Upon the stage is the source of the experience, situated outside and away from the audience. It is in the distance between the audience and the stage that we can give space to connection. Though the stage is outside of the audience, in performance they become at once an intrinsic and extrinsic faculty where the theatre ceases to be divided into these two halves and there is a moment of only an experience being shared in collective consciousness.

This project could not recreate something that exists so beautifully and particularly in one space and time. At this point I wished to alter my intent to the explanation of this fact. The typography already produced was not the end point of the work:

Spirit sees, language sees, the body visits. It always exceeds its site, by displacement. The subject sees, the body visits, surpasses its own position, goes out from its role or word... The body goes out from the body in all senses (dans tous les sens).

Michel Serres provided words in summation; the body must visit this project. The start of an explanation has been provided for my frustration in conducting typography on the page. At each point I wished to take hold of the letterforms, to feel the plasticity of their surface, to feel their weight in moving them from one place to another. I found that in creating three-dimensional type instead, the form of typography is given life not only further than semantic understanding, but further also than the understanding of performance allowed in expressive presentation. Three-dimensional type leaves its semantic quality in the two-dimensions and becomes itself, an almost onomatopoeic object.

Nancy’s words began on the floor and it was with genuine emotion that I could see the dust and scratches on the letters that existed physically in the same situation. As I moved them around the stage, the theatre lights illuminating them in mystery and seclusion, I could not help but feel the relevance of my manipulation to Fagin’s character. At that point, carefully and quietly rearranging Nancy’s words, I was Fagin and I understood his actions more than ever before.


Oliver Escapes Being Bound to a Sweep, original The Adventures of Oliver Twist illustration by George Cruikshank, 1837

Oliver introduced to the respectable Old Gentleman, original The Adventures of Oliver Twist illustration by George Cruikshank, 1837

Mr. Fagin and his pupils recovering Nancy, original The Adventures of Oliver Twist illustration by George Cruikshank, 1838

Fagin in the condemned Cell, original The Adventures of Oliver Twist illustration by George Cruikshank, 1839