When still a young writer struggling to find an audience through the sketches of London life and characters that he would eventually publish in George Hogarth's The Evening Chronicle, Charles Dickens managed to arrange an audition. In March, 1832, he wrote to George Bartley, manager of Covent Garden Theatre, indicating that he could provide a performance roughly equivalent to that of gifted mimic and comedian Charles Mathews, whom Dickens idolized for his "travelling entertainments." The appointment was set for April, and the budding actor carefully prepared a repertoire of songs and skits — and then, fortunately for generations of readers, he came down with so severe a cold and facial inflammation that he had to cancel. It is curious that, although Dickens's quintessential young male protagonist, so often thought of as young Dickens's double, never expresses a similar fascination with the theatre or public performance. Perhaps he represents Dickens's intense inner life, for, although he is imaginatively moved by the theatrical experience, he is never tempted to take the boards himself:
. . . although Dickens often attacks the brutish audiences of the period, it is clear that the theatrical experience was for him one whose power overrode any other considerations. Thus, when David Copperfield sees a pantomime at the age of seventeen, ". . . it was, in a manner, like a shining transparency, through which I saw my earlier life moving along," and the young Copperfield is effectively swayed by ". . . the poetry, the lights, the music, the company, the smooth stupendous changes of glittering and brilliant scenery." [Ackroyd 121-122]
Once readers had had a taste of the mid-century bildungsroman, sensing a good thing and being able to pilfer from Dickens with impunity under the pathetic copyright laws of the period, dramatic pirates ("adapters") rushed versions of the story to the English stage, even though, as was the case with so many Dickens novels prior to Copperfield, the story was then only part way through serialisation. First of these six early productions was veteran pirate George Almar's three-act Born with a Caul; or, The Personal Adventures of David Copperfield at The Strand, London (21-29 October, 1850). Eventually, even Dickens himself prepared his favourite child for public performance, in the summer of 1861 creating a reading sequence based on selections from Copperfield, Nickleby, Pickwick, A Christmas Carol, and The Cricket on the Hearth. "Though he later experimented with a reading from Bleak House, on the whole he seems to have found the novels after Copperfield not as amenable to condensation for reading performance" (Kaplan 444).
Shortly after Butler (Copperfield), Potter (Steerforth), Turner (Micawber), and J. Johnstone (Dan'l Peggotty) took to the stage of The Strand in 1850, an all-American cast brought John Brougham's adaptation of the first part of the novel to Barnum's Museum, Philadelphia (6-9 November, 1850). This was the version published by John Dicks' Standard Plays (No. 374), probably quite late (1883?). Samuel French's No. 133, which probably preceded Dicks' by almost twenty years, was so popular a play that it was re-printed in 1868 and 1875.
Perhaps the best known and most frequently staged of the nineteenth-century's dramatic adaptations (those of which are extant reveal that their creators encountered difficulties with transforming a first-person narrative into one purely dramatic and objective) was Andrew Halliday's 1869 four-act Little Em'ly, first staged on either side of the Atlantic within weeks of one another at the Olympic Theatre (London) and Niblo's Garden (New York City). Bolton shows at least twenty-four versions of Halliday's Copperfield over the next three decades, with many end-of-the-century productions in Boston. In fact, as Bolton notes, as a vehicle for drama from the Dickens canon Copperfield was most popular in the decade after the novelist's death, there being 48 separate adaptations in that brief period, undoubtedly as part of the wave nostalgia that Dickens's death seems to have triggered. In all, Bolton records six British and American stagings before the novel finished its serial run in November, 1850, with 111 between then and the end of the century; nearly another forty versions appeared before the first cinematic adaptations in 1912.
Since David's part would be classified as male ingėnue, the greatest character actors of the nineteenth century did not impersonate him; rather, they took the roles of the villains Heep and Steerforth, the comic Micawber, and the straight man Dan'l Peggotty. The well-known American actor who often brought Dickens's characters to the stage, Samuel Emery, appeared in many runs of Halliday's Little Em'ly; in early films the most celebrated thespians to take the part were Lionel Barrymore (1935) and Sir Michael Redgrave (1970).
Undoubtedly the most famous British actor to bring that part to life was British music hall celebrity Bransby Williams, who, doubling as funny man Micawber and melodramatic uncle Dan'l Peggotty packed theatres from Birmingham to Edinburgh during the early 1920's, alternating scenes in a script expressly written for him by "Walter Frederick Evelyn" (i. e., a synthesis of the work of Dickensians Walter Dexter, Frederick T. Harry, and Evelyn Brookes-Cross) to show the full scope of his powers of serious and comic impersonation: "The Garden at Mr. Wickfield's House"; "The Old Boat at Yarmouth"; "David's Lodgings in London"; "Mrs. Steerforth's Home"; "The Storm"; "The Office of Wickfield & Heep"; and, finally, "The Garden of Mr. Wickfield's House." Singled out for comment among the strong supporting cast in the Dickensian's review was Wilfred Launceston as the oily Uriah, who was obviously a little 'over the top': "he kept up the quality of the acting, although we thought the latter a little extravagant in his antics, as we also thought Miss Le Field's Mrs. Crupp a little overdone" (76). The anonymous reviewer, focusing on the caliber of Williams's performances, commended him for a perfect Micawber: "seldom did he make him the clown and buffoon that Tree did." The passing allusion is to veteran Shakespearean actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who had starred as both Dan'l Peggotty and Micawber in Louis N. Parker's adaptation at His Majesty's Theatre, London, in 1914, and revived the play in February, 1921, at Gould Hall, Edinburgh, with a supporting cast of amateurs as a benefit play for the Royal Infirmary.
An extremely early adapted 'reading' for the new media was BBC Radio's "Barkis is Willin'" (29 July 1924). Audrey Lucas's far more ambitious, twelve-episode David Copperfield was broadcast on the BBC Home Service, beginning on 18 November 1940. Among the few stage versions of the War years was Herman Guntz's opera David and Dora (Australia, 1945). Although stage adaptations had continued throughout the 1930's, film versions gradually became more common than new stage adaptations in that decade. The first televised version, according to Bolton, was that scripted by Vincent Tilsley and broadcast on the BBC some thirteen times between 28 September and 21 December, 1956. Bolton records some seven teleplays over the next thirty years, but only eight films between 1911 and 1986: four short, silent-screen versions (1911, 1912, 1913), Laurids Skands' silent movie (1922) The Love Stories of David Copperfield (1924), David O. Selznick's celebrated 1935 production, which featured W. C. Fields' indelible impersonation of Wilkins Micawber, and Delbert Mann's (1970). Nevertheless, based on the number of stage adaptations in each century, Bolton concludes that "David Copperfield joins perhaps only one other of Dickens's creations — A Christmas Carol — in being even more popular during the twentieth century than during the nineteenth" (321).
Twenty years after Bolton's exhaustive research on the subject of stage, film, radio, and television adaptations, Robert Giddings looked exclusively at British made-for-tv adaptations of Dickens's fiction. Even though Britain had had a national public television service since the beginning of the 1950s, only towards the end of that decade did television versions of Dickens's novels appear: A Tale of Two Cities (1957), Great Expectations and Bleak House (1959). However, the first BBC made-for-tv David Copperfield appeared in 1966; Giddings does not regard this production, directed by John Craft, as memorable. Rather, he remarks upon the BBC-1's David Copperfield, which Hugh Whitemore adapted for the small screen as a six-part series screened on 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 December, 1974, and finishing on 5 January 1975 (rebroadcast on 25 April, 2, 9, 16, 23, and 30 May, 1976). BBC-1 screened the next major television adaptation in 1986. At the very close of the twentieth century came the BBC's 185-minute adaptation with an all-star cast, including Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame as young David, Ian McKellen as the brutal schoolmaster Creakle, Alun Armstrong (who starred in Cameron Mackintosh's London stage production of Les Miserables in 1985) as Dan'l Peggotty, and veterans Bob Hoskins (Micawber) and Maggie Smith (Betsey Trotwood). The Anglo-American cast of the 2000 made-for-tv adaptation scripted by John Goldsmith and directed by Peter Medak was not nearly so distinguished, featuring Nigel Davenport as Dan'l Peggotty and (very oddly indeed) Michael Richards of "Seinfeld" fame as Micawber, and Sally Field as Betsey Trotwood. Clearly, David O. Selznick's 1935 black and white film is still, in most people's minds, the "classic" film adaptation; although its screenplay by Howard Estabrook and Hugh Walpole now seems rather dated, and Dickens's London as sanitized, it is appealing by virtue of George Cukor's direction and the stand-out performances of Fields (a part originally intended for Charles Laughton), Edna May Oliver (Aunt Betsey), Basil Rathbone (Murdstone), Jessie Ralph (Clara Peggotty), Lionel Barrymore (Dan'l Peggotty), Freddie Bartholomew as the boy David, and Maureen O'Sullivan as a charming Dora, all of them realized on the Cavalcade of Cinema cigarette-cards (1940).
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Bolton, H. Philip. "David Copperfield." Dickens Dramatized. London & Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.
Giddings, Robert. "Boz on the Box: A Brief History of Dickens on British Televison." Dickensian 103.2 (Summer 2007): 102-115.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.
Morley, Malcolm. "Stage Appearances of Copperfield." Dickensian 49 (1953): 77-85.
"A New 'David Copperfield' Play: Bransby Williams as Actor-Manager." [review of Brixton production 27 February 1922]. Dickensian 18 (1922): 75-77.
Last modified 8 January 2011