"I turn to Dickens for a Reset": From Theater to Dickens

February 02, 2020


We asked eighth-time Universe attendee Stanley Kramer of Berkeley, CA to tell us more about what draws him to Santa Cruz each summer. This Q&A is part of our new series highlighting members of the Dickens Project and Dickens Universe community.

What is your professional and/or personal background?

I am 71 years old, and “I come from the city of Boston,/ The land of the bean and the cod,/ Where the Cabots speak only to Lowells,/ And the Lowells speak only to God.” I have an undergraduate degree in English from Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, Class of 1969 (50th Anniversary this year!)  I attended graduate schools at NYU (in Theater) and San Francisco State (in English), without obtaining a degree from either one.  I retired from UC Berkeley Theater Dept. at age 60, after 30 years as Technical Director. I continue to work as a professional Union stagehand and have been a member of IATSE Local 107 for 40 years. I have been married to Susan Rawlins for 35 years. 


How long have you been attending the Dickens Universe?

2020 will be my eighth year. 


How did you discover Dickens Universe? 

Like some others, I presume, I read about it in the article by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, “Dickens in Eden,” in 2011.


What qualities of the Dickens Universe make you keep coming back?

I enjoy studying the novels and being close to Dickens’ use of language and his witty delineation of rich characters. Studying the novels closely as we do lets me understand and appreciate them even more (even the ones I don’t initially take to). It will be interesting to see what the Universe will do to rehabilitate Barnaby Rudge for me.    


I first attended to keep my wife and her friend company, but I think I warmed to it more easily than they did. They come back when we are reading a book they particularly like, but I also enjoy the spectrum of class and age in the people who attend—undergraduates, graduate students, teachers, academics, civilians of all ages from different places and social backgrounds (though I have to say it is about the whitest event I’ve ever been to), all of whom seem to have daunting intelligences, and who are warm and welcoming. I look forward to seeing many of them again each year, and find I am disappointed if they cannot attend. There are classes, approaches, lectures, and presentations that have something to offer most attendees, no matter their level of familiarity or achievement. It is an easy and congenial place in which to learn.


What was your first impression of the Dickens Universe?

I was impressed by the setting of UC Santa Cruz as we drove up the mountain, and by the presence of the great actress Miriam Margolyes at the welcome table. That was cool! Having her in some of my classes is even cooler.  


Explain your connection and interest in Charles Dickens:

I have always been an avid reader, but there have been times when my reading of contemporary books has become tiresome, and I begin to think that the kids writing today have nothing to say to me (I am, of course, wrong about that). That’s when I turn to Dickens for a reset. I also like his sympathy for the working class and poor, his humor, and again, his genius with words, and sounds and rhythms of language. 


Do you have a favorite Dickens novel?

Not one, but several: Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, A Tale of Two Cities, several of which I’ve encountered again at the Universe.


What are some other hobbies or activities you enjoy?

I enjoy hiking, reading, listening to jazz and blues, and other kinds of music, woodworking, fixing things, hanging out on the Northern California Coast, and hanging out with my wife. Having spent my entire adult life in the theater, I avoid it like the plague.


Would you like to share any last remarks about your experience with the Dickens Universe?

I need to say that though I was at first skeptical about our choosing to read Middlemarch, I found it to be among the most rewarding of weeks I’ve spent at Dickens’ Universe. I had a huge helping of humble pie. It was delicious.