"He was quite an odd duck," says actor Grover Gardner, who will be playing Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's upcoming production of "Looking Glass." "He was hopeless with adults -- shy and peckish -- but he had this tremendous ego that he could only express around children. He wrote over 1,000 letters a year and kept a log of all of them. A great many of them he wrote to children. He had literally hundreds of little girlfriends. Any opportunity to meet a girl between the ages of 5 and 12 he went out of his way to seize. He called them his 'child friends,' invited them over to tea, photographed some of them nude and wrote about them in terms that are quite easy to misconstrue today."
Carroll's controversial relationship with 8-year-old Alice Liddell, for whom the author invented a tale called "Alice in Wonderland," is the subject matter of "Looking Glass," which opens March 1 at the New Playwrights' Theatre. At the end of the first act, Carroll is accused of harboring unnatural inclinations toward Alice. In the second act -- a fantastic trial, which takes place in Carroll's mind and is populated by characters from "Alice in Wonderland" -- the author wrestles with his accusers.
"The play touches on some of the hysteria that's going on today with this whole child molestation business," Gardner says. "But its purpose is to explore the curious life of Lewis Carroll. I hope people will say, 'What a nice man and what a wonderful heart he had. Too bad he had to go through this terrible crisis, because at the end of the first act, he really does think he's done something terrible.' "
The 28-year-old actor came here in 1979 from Florida "because I didn't want to go to New York," and has since appeared as Joshua Hickman in New Playwrights' production of "Gardenia" and as the rustic Maine woodsman who turned out to be a detective in Source Theatre's long-running "The Shady Side." To supplement his income as an actor, the resonant-voiced Gardner records books for the blind for both the Library of Congress and a private firm. Among the distinguished tomes he's put on cassette are "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" and "October Light."
And the worst? "Irving Stone's 'Those Who Love,' " replies Gardner without a pause. "It was about John and Abigail Adams. Totally contrived, stilted dialogue, cardboard characters. It was sheer agony. And there were 650 pages of it, too."