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Dickens at 200: 1812–2012

An exhibition in Special Collections

curated by
Jaime Margalotti

Public Performance

Charles Dickens loved the theatre and often participated in amateur productions with friends.  Through the 1840s and 1850s, Dickens helped write and manage such performances in addition to acting in them.  This enthusiasm for the stage proved useful when Dickens began to perform public readings of his popular works.  The first major author to do so, the readings were incredibly popular and proved to be an even greater source of revenue for Dickens than his novels and other publications.  Initially held as charity benefits, Dickens first commercial tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland in 1858 earned him over £10,000.  Dickens’s works were frequently adapted for the stage, with or without the blessing of the author.  In this way, many individuals who had not or could not read the author’s works became familiar with his stories and characters.  They are still frequently produced on stage, as well as in film, television, and radio. 

Charles Dickens.

An account of the first performance of Lytton’s Comedy “Not so bad as we seem”: With Other Matters of Interest. London: Thomas J. Wise, 1919.

From letter to Richard Henry Horne, March 2, 1853.

Popular author Edward Bulwer–Lytton wrote this play in 1850 as a way to raise money for his and his friend Charles Dickens’s Guild of Literature and Art. Dickens continued to perform in the play with his friends between 1850 and 1852, playing before Queen Victoria with Wilkie Collins, John Forster, John Tenniel, and other notable artists in May 1851. Dickens and Lytton intended for the Guild to provide financial assistance to needy artists and writers, but the venture was ultimately unsuccessful and disbanded.

Charles Dickens.

The Readings of Mr. Charles Dickens, as Condensed by Himself. Boston, Ticknor and Fields, 1868.
Volumes on display: Little Dombey; and Doctor Marigold

Dickens returned to the United States for a highly successful reading tour in during 1867–1868. Dickens’s edited the readings to make them better paced for performance, focusing on humor and drama. These official copies were used by attendees of his events to follow along with the reading.

Etching of Dickens at final reading, 1870. From: The Dickens House Guide & Illustrated Souvenier, circa 1970. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

“Bransby Williams, actor, as Dickens characters.” From: Charles Dickens: A Bookman Extra Number. London: Hodder & Staughton, 1914. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Bransby Williams (1870–1961) began as an impressionist in music halls at the end of the 19th century, moving on to theatre, cinema, radio, and television over the course of his long career. Williams was particularly well–known for his Dickens–inspired roles, performing versions of Barnaby Rudge, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. Williams even produced an audio recording of his Ebenezer Scrooge for Thomas Edison in 1913 and a television performance for the BBC in 1950.

Nicholas Nickleby (Advertisement, circa 1981) and “Dickens Dazzles Broadway,” Newsweek, October 12, 1986. William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1981 staging of Nicholas Nickleby was the definition of an epic theatrical event.  The Tony award winning production lasted a marathon eight and a half hours (which could be broken into two separate visits) and cost a then staggering $100 per ticket. 

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (Playbill, March 1986) William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In his The Mystery of Edwin Drood (later called simply Drood), writer Rupert Holmes refashioned the unfinished drama as a musical comedy, with audiences voting on the identity of Drood’s killer and the identity of Datchery.

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol by Tom Mula (Playbill, December 2001) William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been adapted into every form of popular media, but remains a holiday–season staple on stage. Mula’s version is one of numerous re–interpretations or parodies of the well–known tale.

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