Notes on Theater

I found this 2007 interview with Peter O’Toole enlightening as regards the state of the modern stage. He laments the decline of repertory companies from the point of view of an actor:

When my colleagues and I left the RADA after two years there wasn’t one of us who didn’t have a job. Why? Because in England then there were eighty repertory companies. Then there was Scotland. Then there was Wales. Then there was Ireland. You could even buy a job: “Wanted gentleman beginner improver.” And if you paid them a few shillings a week they would let you be on the stage and you could put it on your c.v. We trained for theater, theater, theater. The advent of cinema and television and wireless had only affected our older colleagues twenty years ago. So the tradition we were in was complete theater…Theater is going away. There are no repertory companies now in England. Not one…So the great link we had with theater is gone.

The loss of repertory companies must certainly deprive young actors of the benefits of apprenticeship, by which they might learn their craft working with older actors, who had done the same in turn. I am reminded of Simon Callow’s description of Micheál mac Liammóir whom he had known in the 1960s:

He carried so much with him, so much history: in terms of theatre alone, the fact that he had played Oliver Twist to Beerbohm Tree’s Fagin, that he had been at the legendary pre-war London performances of the Ballets Russes, that he had seen and met Sarah Bernhardt, gave him a link to a mythic theatrical past. His vocal technique itself belonged to the Victorian theatre: even in his lifetime, Tree was thought to be a throwback, and he had been Michael’s first teacher.

I am not at all sure that drama school can compensate for the lost education that came with being part of a multigenerational lineage stretching back who knows how far? To Garrick?

Symphonie Fantastique

Simon Callow with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

Last week we attended a terrific production of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at Carnegie Hall. It is a dramatic and delirious piece—an opium dream of murder and witchcraft punctuated by incredible orchestral “special effects”—most famously the fall of a guillotine.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner led the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a recreation of the 1832 Paris production where the Symphonie was accompanied by its rarely heard companion piece, Lélio. This is a direct sequel in which the protagonist awakens from an overdose of opium and rises out of despair by contemplating the healing power of art. In the process he conjures a series of musical reveries performed by the orchestra, soloists, and a full choir (in this case the National Youth Choir of Scotland).

While the Symphonie is a purely orchestral work, Lélio is a piece of theater. It requires an actor to play the part of the protagonist—representing Berlioz himself—who interacts with the musicians. Simon Callow played the part in this production, to my delight. Callow is one of two actors I would go out of my way to see in anything. (David Suchet is the other.)

The entire concert was electrifying—really triumphant. I felt a genuine frisson. I think everyone in the audience sensed that something special was happening on stage. I would say it was like nothing I have ever heard, but it might actually have been something I have never heard. Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes in The New York Times:

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire, which Mr. Gardiner founded in 1989, plays on period instruments that produce earthier tone colors than their modern equivalents. Some have since gone extinct, like the serpent and the ophicleide, precursors of the tuba that look like plumbing designed by Dalí.

Since Berlioz’s time, wind instruments in particular have developed so that their sound more perfectly resembles the human voice. But in this earlier stage, a quality of thingness still inhabits the sound of clarinets and oboes. Their solos came across as the voices of animated objects in a way that marvelously suited Berlioz’s macabre vision.

A different program of Berlioz pieces, performed by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, can be heard here.

A Ghost Story for Christmas

A Christmas Carol in prose. - caption: 'Marley's Ghost. Ebenezer Scrooge visited by a ghost.'
Marley’s Ghost, by John Leech, for A Christmas Carol, 1843

Every December we find ourselves in thrall to Charles Dickens and his seasonal classic, A Christmas Carol. Whether you read the novel every year or encounter it in one of its many adaptations and pastiches for stage or screen, there is no avoiding it. It is one of those rare stories that everyone knows, whether they have read the book or not: the miser Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by ghosts and apparitions who show him visions of his own past, present, and future, and those of the people with whom his life is intertwined, rekindling in his heart the warmth of Christian charity.

Dickens was a great keeper of Christmas. Among his earliest writings, the newspaper columns collected in 1836 as Sketches By Boz, there is a commemoration of the holiday which contains many of the themes he would later revisit in A Christmas Carol. He writes, “Christmas time!  That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas…Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers.”

In the first half of the nineteenth-century, Christmas was not universally or extravagantly celebrated in England. Of course midwinter had been a time of revelry in northern Europe since pagan antiquity, marking the beginning of the return of the sun, and the retreat of darkness. But Christmas was never as significant as Easter in the Christian liturgical year. And while a history of merrymaking endured, especially in the countryside, where the rhythms of nature were better felt, in the busy commercial hub of London it was for many people just another day of work.

By the time Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 there were signs of a revival of Christmas in the popular culture. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert introduced the Christmas Tree to England from Germany in 1840. Two decades earlier, American author Washington Irving had recorded the surviving traditions of Christmas in rural England during his long residence in the country. “Old Christmas” was published in 1819 in Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which also contained “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”

Dickens himself included a marvelous description of Christmas festivities in his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, or, The Pickwick Papers, published in 1837. This great sprawling comic novel follows Samuel Pickwick, retired businessman and philanthropist, who, together with members of his eponymous London club, sets out on a series of misadventures to enlarge “his sphere of observation, to the advancement of knowledge and the diffusion of learning.” In one episode Pickwick spends Christmas at the manor of the rough, generous country squire Mr Wardle. Here family, friends, tenants, and servants gather together as one social body, undisrupted by the class warfare of the industrial revolution, under the benevolent lordship of Wardle. There is dancing, kissing under the mistletoe, a raucous game of blind man’s buff, quaffing of wassail, feasting, and storytelling.

Scrooges_third_visitor-John_Leech,1843 (2)
The Ghost of Christmas Present, by John Leech, for A Christmas Carol, 1843

It is interesting that both Dickens and Irving relegated Christmas festivities to the countryside, where the holiday and the great old manor houses in which it was still kept, were depicted as survivals of a bygone age. In the early nineteenth century this was probably accurate enough.

A Christmas Carol changed the way Christmas was celebrated in England. Dickens had intended it to do as much. He did not merely want to glorify the folk traditions of the season. The immediate impetus for the novel was his sympathy and concern for the poor, in particular children. It was a passion nearer to his own heart than anyone could have guessed at the time.

Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 during a period of maritime build-up at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. His good-natured but improvident father, John Dickens, kept the family in middle-class comfort with a well paid job at the Navy Pay Office. For the first ten years of his life Charles Dickens thrived in an atmosphere of love and encouragement. He romped in nature. He read voraciously: The Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding. He wrote stories and staged drawing room theatricals. But John Dickens found himself increasingly in debt. He moved the family to London in 1822 where they struggled to make ends meet. In 1824 he was prosecuted by his creditors and sent to the Marshalsea debtors prison. The entire family lived with him at the Marshalsea except for twelve-year old Charles who was put to work. A job was found for him at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, near the present-day Embankment tube station. He was paid six shillings per week to work ten hour days glueing labels to cans of boot polish in appalling conditions. He never spoke of the experience but he gave an account of it to his friend and biographer John Forster:

The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again.

In time, John Dickens paid off his creditors and was released from the Marshalsea. Charles was allowed to leave the blacking warehouse and return to a semblance of a normal childhood. But the experience changed him forever. Feelings of abandonment and betrayal and loneliness and fear haunted him long after.

The success of Dickens’s early novels made him a very rich man. He relished the role of a celebrity and a gentleman and spent lavishly on himself and his family. But the wretched children whose lives he had briefly and traumatically shared were never far from his mind. He always considered it his duty to employ both pen and purse toward a remedy for the ills of society.

When he wrote A Christmas Carol, he became, in the words of the actor and author Simon Callow,

a spokesman, not just for the oppressed and the disadvantaged, but for the essential integrity of a nation in the throes of radical transformation. There was a widespread unease at the way in which capitalism was evolving, at the loss of community and the inter-relatedness of the groups within it. The writing of the book sprang directly from his horror at the condition of children in the mines. Christmas, Dickens insisted, was mocked unless the absolute dregs of society were rehabilitated and the root causes of their rejection and elimination by society addressed.

This was something that Dickens believed could only be accomplished by the changing of hearts—and a changing of the way that business was done. He was no proto-Marxist. Callow notes, “Dickens didn’t believe you could fob off your personal responsibilities on to the state. He…didn’t believe in a welfare state, but in absolute direct human action.” How different money is in the hands of Scrooge than it is in those of Mr Wardle, or Scrooge’s first employer, the magnanimous old Fezziwig.

It is no coincidence that Dickens’s greatest call to charity was in a book that also called readers to feast and festivity. All of these are expressions of an expansiveness, an overabundance, a pouring forth, of the heart. One cannot exist without the other.

The manuscript of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, on display at the Morgan Library

The monstrousness of Scrooge, as we find him at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, is in his stinginess of heart as well as money. Likewise, his reformation at the end of the novel is a conversion of the heart. Charity and benevolence and festivity and love and joy pour forth in equal measure. He becomes the Dickensian ideal: a “whole” man.

It was a stroke of genius on the author’s part to bring about this transformation with the aid of the supernatural. There is an atavistic power to the evocation of ghosts at this time of year, much as there is to the reenactment of the ancient feast.

I have always liked the English custom of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. It is not as popular as it used to be. We think of it as a Victorian custom, largely because of A Christmas Carol, but it is much, much older. Like other folkways it has receded from the forefront of the culture but we still encounter it.

Over the years, the BBC has adapted a number of the ghost stories of M.R. James for television. These adaptations culminated in a very fine series in 2000 featuring Sir Christopher Lee, titled Ghost Stories for Christmas. James had written his stories as seasonal entertainments during a long tenure as don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge. The BBC recreated James’s original readings for the series: a group of students gather in his book-lined rooms at King’s, which are decorated for Christmas, lit by candles, and a blazing fire in the hearth; they pour glasses of port, make themselves comfortable, and listen while James, played by Sir Christopher, tells a story. There are no special effects. In fact, there is very little to the production except for an intimate atmosphere; James’s words; a haunting and sublime arrangement of the Lyke-Wake Dirge, by the Anglican choral-composer Geoffrey Burgon, as theme music; and Sir Christopher’s inimitable baritone voice. The result is one of my three or four favorite series ever to air on television (the others being Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, of course).

The telling of ghost stories has a corollary in other customs that cast an eerie mood over the Christmas vigil. The parlor game snap-dragon was mentioned by Shakespeare and Dryden, and has an entry in Dr Johnson’s dictionary. It was already an old game in the nineteenth century when Dickens wrote of it in The Pickwick Papers. Snap-dragon is played with a bowl of raisins, soaked in brandy. The lights are dimmed and the brandy is set on fire, producing an uncanny blue flame. Participants attempt to snatch raisins out of the fire and extinguish them by popping them into their mouths and eating them. Writing in his journal, The Tatler, in the eighteenth century, Sir Richard Steele explained, “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit.”

In Pickwick Papers Dickens connected the playing of snap-dragon and the telling of “old stories” in his depiction of a Christmas Eve revel at Dingley Dell Farm, the Kentish manor house of Mr Wardle. After the dance, when the mood of the assembled guests had settled, Dickens writes:

[T]here was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.

“This,” said Mr Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”

“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.”

I think these traditions serve a ritual purpose similar to the antimasque in a masque. They are part of a performance, a folk ceremony, outside the formal liturgy of the church, that commemorates the triumph of Divine order over the fallen world.

The masque was a form of entertainment popular in Jacobean England. It was partly theater and partly dance. It would begin with an antimasque: a short vignette that represented the world in chaos. This might involve portrayals of drunken disorder, witchcraft, or war. The masque proper would then begin with the arrival of the king and queen and courtiers, disguised as ancient gods. They would conquer the antimasque and bring order to the symbolic universe of the hall—a transformation represented by a formal dance.

In the Christian liturgical year, the season of Advent that leads up to Christmas, is a time of fasting and preparation. It is a solemn season. We are given the opportunity to reflect on the hope and hardship of those who lived in the world before Christ was born into it: a world of darkness, confusion, and chaos. Every year we reenact the vigil of those who waited faithfully for the Savior through dark days. When Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas, and we remember the arrival of God in the world, darkness gives way to light, solemnity to celebration, fast to feasting, ghost stories to carols, chaos to Godly order.

The manuscripts of all five of Dickens’s Christmas novels, including A Christmas Carol, are on display together for the first time 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. (1836) Sketches By Boz. London: John Macrone.

Dickens, Charles. (1837) The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman & Hall.

Dickens, Charles. (1843) A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman & Hall.

Forster, John. (1872-4) The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman & Hall.

Steele, Richard. (1887) Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer. London: Cassell & Company.

Dickens and the Stage


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.

Charles Dickens’s reading desk

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.