The tendency of much nineteenth-century fiction is to the same extremes of vice, virtue, sensationalism, and pathos that one finds in melodrama. . . . The main features of melodrama are familiar: the concentration on externals, the emphasis on situation at the expense of motivation and characterization, the stereotypes of hero, heroine, villain, comic man, comic woman, and good old man, physical sensation, spectacular effects . . . marked musical accompaniment, the rewarding of virtue and punishing of vice, the rapid alternation between extremes of violence, pathos, and low comedy. [Michael Booth, English Plays of the Nineteenth Century, I, 24-25]
From the ancient Greeks in their marble theatrons through the rough- and-tumble Elizabethan audiences of the half-timbered playhouses of the South Bank to the present-day upper-middle-class theatre-goers of New York's Broadway and London's West End, tragedy has had a peculiar appeal which the philosopher Aristotle termed "catharsis," a therapeutic purgation or expulsion from the consciousness of pity and fear. However, nineteenth-century British audiences felt no lift from tragedy; their tastes ran to pantomime, burletta, and especially melodrama. That such popular tastes influenced even serious fiction writers such as Dickens is undeniable; certainly, A Tale of Two Cities exhibits a number of melodramatic features, which early stage-adapters seized upon and heightened.
Shorn of much of their humour and all their original observation, Dickens's novels emerged on the Victorian stage as melodramas, crude, sensational — and tremendously successful. [Rowell 51]
Although Bulwer Lytton's 1833 Copyright Act gave a dramatist a measure of protection, even after the 1842 Literary Copyright Act combined the protection of authors of dramatic works with that accorded authors of literary works, dramatic adaptations of works of genres not stage-related, notably the novel, were outside the terms of British copyright legislation. "To the novelist's delight and irritation, the plays often appeared long before the novels were complete" (Bolton 3), so that, for example, just twelve instalments into The Pickwick Papers the most prolific of London's theatrical pirates, Edward Stirling, staged the burletta Pickwick Papers; or, The Age in We Live at The City of London Theatre, Bishopsgate, on 27 March 1837. By the end of 1838, no less than 26 such adaptations had graced the boards of London's minor theatres; three stage adaptations — by William Leman Rede, T. W. Moncrieff, and Edward Stirling — appeared even before the novel had finished its serial run! "Dickens's novels in general were exploited for their sensational, lachrymose, or farcical elements, which came to be magnified under the glare of the gaslight" (Colby 142). The only way that a novelist such as Charles Dickens could protect himself against theatrical piracy was to acquire the right of stage representation by adapting his own work for the theatre. However, for Dickens, fully occupied with editing a weekly magazine as well as writing novels, a less time-consuming method of controlling stage adaptations of his works was to grant official approval to a dramatist and company who were prepared to work with him. "Whenever this was done such plays were regarded as being the official versions. All the same, other versions were made and performed in other theatres" (Morley 34).
In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the number of adaptations of Dickens's novels on the early Victorian stage prompted critic F. Dubrez Fawcett in Dickens the Dramatist (London: W. H. Allen, 1952) to term these early stage-versions "The Boz Cascade" and "The Dickens Deluge." In the late 1830s, before the passing of a new theatres act (1843) that would empower London's many "minor" playhouses in the East End and south of the Thames (the "Surrey Side") to stage legitimate drama, at 9:00 P. M. working-class patrons flocked to purchase half- priced seats and watch up to four hours of fairy pantomime, effect- laden extravaganza, tuneful burletta, and lurid melodrama, all of which offered "thrilling action, stirring emotion, spectacle, jolly farce, and an ideal image of themselves and their own lives" (Booth I: 25). Examples of all these genres often accompanied a dramatic adaptation of a Dickens novel. Like many of Dickens's early novels, melodramas were often both escapist and realistic: on the one hand, they presented a world in which virtue is ever triumphant in the final scene; on the other, they presented familiar London scenes, domestic themes, and current social problems in a manner that reflected the audience's fundamentally anti-landlord, anti-aristocratic, anti-landowner, and even anti-employer bias. Theatre-going until late in the century was hardly a middle-class affair:
Dickens and other commentators marked, in the Britannia and theatres like it, the huge and suffocating galleries packed with coatless youths who expressed approval and disapproval with shrill whistles, cheers and united sound effects of massive volume; the consumption of fried fish, porter, sausages, ham sandwiches, cakes, oranges and pig-trotters; the babies in the pit; the general spirit of enjoyment; the immense popularity of stage favourites and comic songs; and intense interest in the business of the stage. [Booth, "The Theatre and Its Audience," in The Revels History of Drama in English, p. 27]
Whereas a conventional melodrama such as Douglas Jerrold's The Rent Day (1832) is built around a series of obstacles and blocking- figures, a Christmas Book stage adaptation usually focuses on a single character's problem in the main plot: Scrooge's emotional poverty and social isolation in Edward Stirling's or C. Z. Barnett's A Christmas Carol (1844), Trotty Veck's alienating misanthropy in Lemon and à Beckett's The Chimes (1844), John Perrybingle's possible cuckolding in Albert Smith's The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), and Redlaw's brooding incessantly over past wrongs in Mark Lemon's The Haunted Man (1848). Among the dramatists who early on apprehended the theatrical potential in Dickens's works were Edward Stirling, W. T. Moncrieff, T. P. Taylor, and Charles Webb. So successful in terms of runs were the early Christmas Books on stage that within a year of the publication of The Cricket on the Hearth no fewer than eight stage versions were produced in London alone, and by Christmas Day 1846 competing versions of The Battle of Life were playing at the Albert Saloon, the Grecian, the City of London, the Bower Saloon, the Britannia, and the Surrey (the last of these under the management of playwright Stirling). To thwart "unauthorised" productions Dickens elected to provide the pirate of his own choosing with proof-sheets so that the version produced with his advice and assistance would be first into the field. Thus, he settled upon his friends Mark Lemon and Gilbert Abbot à Beckett for The Chimes at the Adelphi Theatre, and Albert Smith for The Cricket on the Hearth at the Lyceum. "There is considerable evidence that Dickens had written this Christmas story not only with the stage in mind, but specifically with the view to having it produced by the Keeleys' company at the Lyceum" (Bolton 48).
The visual appeal of all his abundantly illustrated novels, but especially of his five Christmas Books, is evident in the adapters' employing the tableau vivant so frequently. Thus, the moment realised in a plate by Leech or Phiz might become a "frozen scene" in which the actors would assume the postures, expressions, and juxtapositions of the illustration to the delight of the audience. Although the elaborate scene painting and costumes that contributed to the effectiveness of dramatic adaptations of the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and William Harrison Ainsworth were not significant factors in most adaptations of Dickens's novels, Dion Boucicault's version of The Cricket on the Hearth — Dot in 1859 at New York City's Winter Garden Theatre, in 1860 at the Boston Museum and Boston Academy, at London's Adelphi in 1862 and at Edinburgh's Theatre Royal later that year, and finally at Birmingham's Theatre Royal in 1864 expended considerable effort on the fairies' costumes and special effects.
Whereas Scott never took money from his friend Terry for his assistance with dramatic adaptations, Dickens appears to have bargained with competing theatrical managements for his early proofs and the use of his name on advertising posters in order to secure some recompense for his work when dramatized.
Particular actors and actresses played particular characters from Dickens, and individually came to be especially associated with Sam Weller, Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger, Smike, Newman Noggs, Mr. Crummles, Nell, the Marchioness, Scrooge, Caleb Plummer, Captain Cuttle, Little Emily, Peggotty, Mr. Micawber, Jo, Lady Deadlock, and Hortense. [Bolton 55]
It is no accident that the majority of the characters mentioned come from Dickens's earlier, picaresque novels and the early Christmas Books, for after David Copperfield the Dickens tide that had swept the minor playhouses subsided, only to swell again after his death in 1870. By far the most popular work for stage and screen adaptation has been A Christmas Carol: within two months of its publication in December 1843, although Christmas was well and truly over, eight stage adaptations appeared, and each new Christmas season since has augmented the number. Ironically, considering Bolton's giving the total of Carol adaptations as being 357 (by 1987),
it can be rather shocking to discover that after the mid- 1840s there was a marked decline in the number of Carol adaptations. One finds, in fact, only a relative handful of revivals prior to the turn of the century. [Guida 41]
Although the second Christmas book, The Chimes has not had the Carol's enduring appeal, "at least nine stagings of "The Chimes" occurred in the first season of its life" (Bolton 268) in London and provincial theatres. However, after first announcing The Chimes for Christmas 1844, the management of London's Strand Theatre settled upon a revival of the more sentimental Carol. "Stirling's "Chimes" at the Lyceum ran about thirty-three performances, whereas his "Carol" at the Adelphi in early 1844 had run more than forty, and his "Martin Chuzzlewit" at the Lyceum itself had run over 100" (Bolton 268). The next Christmas Book, The Cricket on the Hearth was quite a different story, however: within a month of its 20 December 1845 publication no fewer than 16 productions appeared on the London stages alone — in fact, of some two dozen theatres in the metropolis, only six were not featuring some version of the novella, although the most popular version of the story, Dot by Dion Boucicault, appeared fourteen years later. Whereas Bolton records 24 distinct adaptations of the Carol by the end of the nineteenth century, he gives 114 for The Cricket on the Hearth, as opposed to 117 for David Copperfield, 46 for A Tale of Two Cities, and a mere 16 for Great Expectations, although these full-length novels proved much more popular as the subjects of film- adaptations in the twentieth century.
- A Bibliography of Commentarty on Dramatic Adaptations of Great Expectations
- The 1861 adaptation of Great Expectations
Bolton, Philip. Dickens Dramatized. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.
Booth, Michael. English Plays of the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969. Vol. 1.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 1998.
Guida, Fred. A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: A Critical Examination of Dickens's Story and Its Productions on Screen and Television. London and Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000.
Leech, Clifford, and T. W. Craik, eds. The Revels History of Drama in English, Vol. VI: 1750-1880. London: Methuen, 1975.
Morley, Malcolm. "The Stage Story of A Tale of Two Cities." Dickensian 51 (1954): 34-40.
Rowell, George. The Victorian Theatre 1792-1914. 2nd edn. London: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Last modified December 7, 2002