Charles Dickens always wanted to be an actor. As a teenager in the late 1820s he was working in London as a lawyer’s clerk and a courtroom stenographer. In his free time he attended the theater with devotion. Dickens later wrote that he “went to some theatre every night…for at least three years.” Actors like William Macready, Charles Kean, Thomas Cooke, and Charles Mathews dominated the stage of this period. Dickens was particularly fond of Mathews, a veteran actor famous for his “monopolylogues,” one man shows in which he played all of the characters. Dickens would go wherever “there was the best acting; and always to see Mathews, whenever he played.” The monopolylogue was a form that naturally appealed to Dickens, who would entertain his coworkers by mimicking various London types, and who, later, as a prolific novelist, would recite his dialogue out loud, in character, as he wrote it.
By 1831 Dickens had begun to think of a career as an actor “in quite a business-like way.” That year he wrote to George Bartley, manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, to ask for an audition. Dickens told Bartley that he possessed “a strong perception of character and oddity, and a natural power of reproducing in my own person what I observed in others.” Bartley agreed to see him. When the day of the audition came, however, Dickens was sick with a cold. He rescheduled for the following season. By then the moment had passed. In the interim he was hired as a reporter for his uncle’s newspaper, The Mirror of Parliament. So Dickens went on to become the most celebrated writer of his age, instead of the most celebrated actor. And yet, he was never fully rid of his early ambition.
Beginning with his first novel, that magnificent, hilarious, deeply humane portrait of English life, The Pickwick Papers, almost all of Dickens’s novels were adapted for the stage. Often they were produced immediately upon publication, sometimes before the serialized chapters had finished running in the magazines that published them, and as often as not without the author’s permission. Within weeks of the publication of A Christmas Carol eight different adaptations were on stage in London. Dickens at least had authorized one of them.
These stage productions were invariably successful at the box office, so hungry was the public for the author’s work. The theater of his day must have been a perfect mirror for Dickens’s stories. He had drawn so much of his style of writing—the larger-than-life characters, the layering of dark melodrama and light comedy (what he called “streaky bacon”), the phantasmagoric set-pieces—from the theater. Simon Callow, in his superb biography, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, writes that, “Every episode of Pickwick introduced new editions of old stage characters; the spirit of Charles Mathews was everywhere in its pages.”
At the beginning of his career as a novelist Dickens also wrote for the stage. While he was writing The Pickwick Papers he composed the libretto for The Village Coquettes, an operetta by John Hullah, that was staged in 1836. The following year, while he was writing Oliver Twist, he wrote a farce for the St James Theatre called Is She His Wife? Callow believes that Dickens was too stage-struck, too reverent of the theater to make it his own: the plays “suffered from his abject adoration of the theatre of his day, which he dutifully reproduced. It would be hard to find a sentence in any essay, novel, story or letter of Dickens’s that does not have some authentic flavour, but you will search the plays in vain for a single Dickensian turn of phrase.”
By 1838 Dickens had largely sublimated his theatrical imagination into his novels. That year he was writing Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby simultaneously, releasing monthly installments of each. For the next twenty years he kept to this pace, publishing as many as three books per year. But he continued to seek out any small opportunities he could find to be involved with the theater.
In 1845 Dickens and a group of literary and artistic friends staged a production of Ben Johnson’s play, Every Man in his Humour, for charity. Dickens took on the role of the great blustering braggart, Captain Bobadil. Performances were held in Soho and West End theaters. At one performance Queen Victoria was in attendance. Dickens went on to play Sir Epicure Mammon in Johnson’s The Alchemist and Justice Shallow in William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor for similar charity productions. In 1856 he collaborated with Wilkie Collins on an amateur production of Collins’s new play, The Frozen Deep. The word amateur is used only in the strict sense that no money was recouped. The play was staged at Tavistock House, Dickens’s home in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London. In order to accommodate a thirty-foot stage and seating for around a hundred people, Dickens spared no expense to renovate the house. Sets were created by Clarkson Stansfield, who, Callow writes, “as well as being the most distinguished marine painter of his time and an RA, had earlier been the chief scene-painter at Drury Lane. Costumes came from Nathan’s, the premier theatrical costumiers, new gas-lines (to the disapproval of the fire office-surveyor) were laid down, machinery and props were loaned from the Theatre Royal Haymarket.”
The impetus behind Wilkie Collins’s script for The Frozen Deep was a controversy that had recently arisen over the doomed Franklin Expedition of the previous decade. Captain Sir John Franklin and a team of 128 men had set out in 1845 to chart the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Sea. Their ships became icebound in the Victoria Straight and all men were lost. In the early 1850s the first discoveries of their fate were made by search parties. A report to the Admiralty that was made public in 1854 suggested that the stranded party had resorted to cannibalism. Lady Franklin protested vigorously against this calumny on her husband’s memory. Like many members of the public, Dickens was incensed at the report, and devoted many words to defending Captain Franklin and his crew. The Frozen Deep portrayed the noble character of British men in a similar situation. Dickens would play the tragic hero, an explorer stranded in the arctic, who sacrifices himself to save another man, his rival for the love of a woman no less.
The first performances were played to audiences of friends, including members of Parliament and government ministers, in January of 1857. This was followed in July by a command performance for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, their family, and guests, including King Leopold of Belgium and Prince Frederick William of Prussia. In July and August six public performances were staged, at the Royal Gallery of Illustration in London, and Free Trade Hall in Manchester, for paying audiences, to benefit the widow of Dickens’s friend, playwright Douglas Jerrold.
By all contemporary accounts Dickens’s performance was excellent. A reviewer for The Leader wrote that what he accomplished “might open a new era for the stage, if the stage had the wisdom to profit by it.” There was not a dry eye in the house by the end. “[I]t was a good thing,” Dickens wrote, “to have a couple of thousand people…in the palm of one’s hand.” Twenty-five years after missing an audition at the Covent Garden Theatre, Dickens had finally tread the boards, and proven himself as an actor. When the engagements were over, he felt “shipwrecked.”
Shortly afterward Dickens gave a series of public readings from his own work, to benefit Great Ormond Street Hospital, which proved very successful. He began to see in the medium of staged readings a natural outlet for his theatrical ambitions. He planned what would be an ongoing and lucrative speaking tour. For ten months between April of 1858 and February of 1859, he held 129 readings across the United Kingdom.
“Readings” is not really a sufficient word for what Dickens did at these appearances. He transformed himself into his characters—into David Copperfield, into Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, Fagin from Oliver Twist, and countless others. Charles Kent, who was in the audience, wrote:
Fagin, the Jew, was there completely, audibly, visibly before us, by a sort of transformation…Whenever [Dickens] spoke [as the character], there started before us high-shouldered with contracted chest, with birdlike claws, eagerly anticipating by their every movement the passionate words fiercely struggling for utterance at his lips—that most villainous old tutor of young thieves, receiver of stolen goods, and very devil incarnate: his features distorted with rage, his penthouse eyebrows (those wonderful eyebrows!) working like the antennae of some deadly reptile, his whole aspect, half-vulpine, half-vulture-like, in its hungry wickedness.
Standing alone on the stage, behind an unobtrusive desk that he had designed himself, Dickens shifted mercurially between characters as he conjured stories for the audience. Simon Callow quotes Thomas Carlyle telling Dickens, “you carry a whole company under your hat.” The effect could be frightening or funny or both. A reviewer for The Times called it a “return to the practice of Bardic times.” A more immediate association might have been to the theater of Charles Mathews—these were monopolylogues.
Throughout the last decade of his life, despite increasingly poor health, Dickens continued to mount major speaking tours. He visited America in 1868, giving 76 readings in New York, Boston, and other cities, then returned to launch a final tour in Britain. In the 1860s, he added a sensational and horrifying segment to his stage repertoire: the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. Charles Kent left a record of the performance:
As for the Author’s embodiment of Sikes—the burly ruffian with thews of iron and voice of Stentor—it was only necessary to hear that infuriated voice, and watch the appalling blows dealt by his imaginary bludgeon in the perpetration of the crime, to realise the force, the power, the passion, informing the creative mind of the Novelist at once in the original conception of the character, and then, so many years afterwards, in its equally astonishing representation.
It was in the portrayal of Nancy, however, that the genius of the Author-Actor found the opportunity, beyond all others, for its most signal manifestation. Only that the catastrophe was in itself, by necessity so utterly revolting, there would have been something exquisitely pathetic in many parts of that affecting delineation. The character was revealed with perfect consistency throughout—from the scene of suppressed emotion upon the steps of London Bridge, when she is scared with the eltrich horror of her forebodings, down to her last gasping, shrieking apostrophes, to “Bill, dear Bill,” when she sinks, blinded by blood, under the murderous blows dealt upon her upturned face by her brutal paramour.
Then, again, the horror experienced by the assassin afterwards! So far as it went, it was as grand a reprehension of all murderers as hand could well have penned or tongue have uttered. It had about it something of the articulation of an avenging voice not against Sikes only, but against all who ever outraged, or ever dreamt of outraging, the sanctity of human life. And it was precisely this which tended to sublimate an incident otherwise of the ghastliest horror into a homily of burning eloquence, the recollection of which among those who once saw it revealed through the lips, the eyes, the whole aspect of Charles Dickens will not easily be obliterated.
These nightly displays took an immense toll on the author. He was already suffering health problems. By the time of the farewell tour he had to lie down for half an hour after every performance to bring his pulse back to normal. There was swelling in his extremities. He slurred words and had difficulty reading. Nevertheless he pressed on and by some miracle or force of will his stage presence did not seem to suffer at all.
Dickens gave his final reading on March 15, 1870, at St James’s Hall in London. He performed A Christmas Carol and the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers. When it was over he addressed a few closing remarks to the audience. His speech ostensibly marked the end of his performing career and the resumption of his writing. But as Callow notes, “it was a sort of swansong, and everyone knew it.” Dickens said:
Ladies and gentlemen—It would be worse than idle—for it would be hypocritical and unfeeling—if I were to disguise that I close this episode in my life with feelings of very considerable pain. For some fifteen years, in this hall and in many kindred places, I have had the honour of presenting my own cherished ideas before you for your recognition, and, in closely observing your reception of them, have enjoyed an amount of artistic delight and instruction which, perhaps, is given to few men to know. In this task, and in every other I have ever undertaken, as a faithful servant of the public, always imbued with a sense of duty to them, and always striving to do his best, I have been uniformly cheered by the readiest response, the most generous sympathy, and the most stimulating support. Nevertheless, I have thought it well, at the full flood-tide of your favour, to retire upon those older associations between us, which date from much further back than these, and henceforth to devote myself exclusively to the art that first brought us together. Ladies and gentlemen, in but two short weeks from this time I hope that you may enter, in your own homes, on a new series of readings, at which my assistance will be indispensable; but from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.
Dickens died of a stroke at his home in Kent less than three months later, leaving his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.
The reading desk and other items are on display at the Morgan Library in New York where Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas runs through January 14, 2018.
Callow, Simon. (2012) Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. London: Harper Press.
Dickens, Charles; ed. Hartley, Jenny. (2012) The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kent, Charles. (1872) Charles Dickens as a Reader. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.