ne cannot properly appreciate the psychological realism as well as the theatrical qualities of the Christmas Books of Charles Dickens until one places these five novellas and their dramatic progeny in the context of the Hungry Forties and early Victorian drama. The central message of these seasonal productions, that the hope of the world lies in the reformation of the individual human heart and in the social reintegration of the deviate, is consistent with both the drama and the problems of the period prior to the repeal of the Corn Laws and the expiration of Chartism. Then, too, this was the age of the minor playhouses and new periodicals, innovations that indicate a cultural broadening and a new awareness of the importance of entertainment, information, and moral guidance for the middle and working classes.
The Theatrical Context
The founding of The Illustrated London News in 1842 and the passing of the Theatre Regulation Act in the year following are both the result of a new appreciation of the theatre. Although the act did away with the old patent monopoly of Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres in the metropolis, it compromised between the conservatives who favoured protecting 'legitimate' drama and the reformers who advocated legitimizing the myriad of unlicensed houses that had sprung up in London since the turn of the century. The new act extended the censorship powers of the Lord Chamberlain to include such minor theatres as the Surrey, the Adelphi, and the Lyceum, precisely those playhouses whose productions The Illustrated London News tended to depict and comment upon. To protect the sensibilities of the increasingly middle-class audiences who flocked nightly to these playhouses, the office of the Lord Chamberlain was empowered to review any play about to be produced by any theatre in the United Kingdom; the Lord Chamberlain's approval in writing was necessary before any play could go into production.
A number of the manuscripts deposited in the Lord Chamberlain's Collection (and subsequently transferred to the Manuscript Division of the British Library) are still prefaced by letters from theatre managers requesting "the usual licence" from John M. Kemble, the Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays. For example, one may read Gladstane's request which accompanies Edward Stirling's manuscript of A Christmas Carol, or, Past, Present, and Future (25 January 1844) — possibly taking its subtitle from Carlyle's best-seller of the previous year, Past and Present; Ennis's request for the licensing of Mark Lemon and Gilbert Abbot A'Beckett's adaptation of The Chimes (12 December 1844); Mary Ann Keeley's licensing application for Albert Smith's adaptation of The Cricket on the Hearth (13 December 1845); and Thorne's request (written on behalf the actress-manager Mrs. Keeley) accompanying the manuscript of Albert Smith's The Battle of Life (14 December 1846). In each case a date written in another hand indicates Kemble's approval within several days of receipt.
The manuscripts are otherwise holographic, although the hands are consistently different from those of the accompanying licensing letters. The handwriting in the scripts of The Cricket on the Hearth and The Battle of Life is the same, suggesting that both may have been penned by the playwright, Albert Smith. However, since, for example, the handwriting in The Chimes manuscript differs from that in The Haunted Man manuscript, although Mark Lemon was involved in the writing of both plays, the identities of the writers are conjectural. Certainly the roughness of these scripts; their slap-dash appearance, spelling, and punctuation; and their lines inserted and scratched out suggest that these are first drafts, to which business, movements, effects, and music were added during production.
Amazingly, the versions printed in such series as Dicks' and Duncombe's often closely agree in dialogue with the manuscripts, lending credence to the frequent claims that the printed texts are based on prompt copies. On the other hand, especially towards the ends of the plays, differences are evident, perhaps resulting from changes made between submission to the Lord Chamberlain and opening night. Since, however, the plays were often printed years after their initial stagings, these differences may reflect additions and deletions made over the course of production. What is especially interesting about these dramatic adaptations is their relation to the original novellas that inspired them. Often the plays preserve elements of plot and character that Dickens afterward altered in proof, so that, for example, in Lemon and A'Beckett's The Chimes Meggy Veck is living in a common-law relationship with another man some years after the death of her first love, Richard.
The first such dramatic adaptation of a Christmas Book actually occurred after the Christmas season. The adapter was Edward Stirling (born "Lambert"), a theatrical opportunist who had previously pirated the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Harrison Ainsworth, and Charles Dickens for the stages of the minor theatres. By the time he retired in 1879, Stirling had produced 190 scripts, but "quantity rather quality was the order of the day," as Stirling himself remarked in his autobiography Old Drury Lane: Fifty Years' Recollections, or, Author, Actor and Manager (1881). The playbills posted by the management of Thomas Gladstane announced that on the 4th of February, 1844, the Theatre Royal Adelphi would be staging not just another dramatic adaptation of a popular novel, but "the only dramatic version [of A Christmas Carol] sanctioned by C. Dickens, Esqre." As Gladstane and Stirling had guessed, although six weeks had elapsed since Christmas, the Adelphi's would not be the sole dramatic version — by the 12th, there were at least seven versions running simultaneously on the London stages. For forty-two performances at the Adelphi, a not inconsiderable run by early Victorian standards, A Christmas Carol shared the nightly bill with a burlesque of Richard The Third and "Wreck Ashore."
How Stirling obtained Dickens's official sanction is uncertain. Since the work had gone on sale on December 17th, 1843, the publishers Chapman and Hall had gone through seven editions and sold thirteen thousand copies. So great was the popularity of the little book that theatrical piracy was inevitable. Ironically, this, one of the best loved stories in the English language, at first lost the author money, for his income on sales of the first 6,000 copies was but £230 while costs he incurred in suing Parley's Illuminated Library for pirating the Carol amounted to £700 when the malefactors declared bankruptcy. Ackroyd in Dickens (1990) speculates that it was Dickens' Pyrrhic victory in the Carol suit that produced his loathing and disgust for the legal system. Dickens had been very particular about producing a high-quality, reasonably-priced product for the Christmas book trade. The slender volume was bound in red cloth, with a gilt design on the frontboard and spine, and edges trimmed and gilt. Sixty per cent of the book's cost was incurred in the binding and the colouring of four of the eight plates by Punch magazine artist John Leech. Only sixteen per cent of the costs of the book involved the actual printing. By the close of 1844 the book had sold almost 15,000 copies — but at a profit to Dickens of only £726. Dickes's first biographer, his friend and legal advisor John Forster, had thought the price somewhat uneconomical, "too large for the public addressed . . . too little to remunerate their outlay" (315). Even though Dickens had received £200 for each instalment of the novel Martin Chuzzlewit and three-quarters of the profits on monthly sales averaging 20,000 a number (and never rising above 23,000), he was pressed for money because of the demands of his 'blood petitioners', especially his parents.
As early as November of 1843, beset by bills attendant upon maintaining a life-style he could barely afford, Dickens had considered moving his family to Italy for three years. His plight in 1844 is reminiscent of Michael Warden's in The Battle of Life, though this juvenile lead was a prodigal aristocrat rather than a rising novelist. Dickens had counted upon A Christmas Carol generating royalties of "a Thousand, clear" (Letters IV: 42). When it failed to (largely because of his own insistence on a quality product), Dickens was convinced that Chapman and Hall, despite their previous generosity and forebearance with him, were padding their charges. By early February he had received a scant £230 from Carol sales. Perhaps part of the motivation for sanctioning the Stirling production was pecuniary: for his advice and official sanction the Adelphi must have offered an appropriate honorarium.
From the appearance of the initial serial numbers of Pickwick onward, Dickens had found himself plagiarized by dramatic adapters, and powerless to strike back since British copyright law did not protect novelists or guarantee them any financial compensation for use of their work on stage. Logically, if Dickens, in need of ready money, could not beat the pirates in court, he could derive some profit from allying himself with one of their number. Robertson Davies in the sixth volume of The Revels History of Drama in English tersely notes the essential principles of Edward Stirling and the other adapters who tackled A Christmas Carol in January, 1844: where in the original "dramatic incident was strong it was exaggerated; eccentric characters, where they existed, were made occasions for shows of professional skill" (241). With the various adaptations of the five Christmas Books, however, there were the additional characteristics of spectacular stage effects, traditional Pantomime characters, and the inclusion of as much dialogue as possible from the original novellas. In particular, the dramatist sought ingenious ways of retaining the "original" and humorous observations of the Dickensian Christmas Book narrator, even if doing so materially altered the nature of some of the story's characters.
Whereas a movie or theatre audience of today would be likely to notice such alterations, a mid-nineteenth century audience would be somewhat less discerning, particularly since many members of the predominantly working-class audience would not have read the original. In fact, the audiences of the Adelphi and Surrey in the 1840s would have little in common with their twentieth-century British and North American counterparts. To begin with, whereas an audience today is relatively sophisticated, educated, and upper-middle class, an audience in one of London's playhouses in the East End or south of the Thames would have been less affluent, less educated, and generally less sophisticated. Secondly, the theatrical fare of today, designed to appeal to audiences escaping from the banality of television, is by early Victorian standards both naturalistic and high-brow. At an unlicensed playhouse in the early 1840s plebeian theatre-goers would flood into the half-price seats at nine o'clock for up to four hours of varied entertainment; already, the play at the top of the bill would have been run. What did lower-middle class artisans and working-class citizens of the metropolis expect as entertainment? Action, emotion, spectacle: farce, burletta, pantomime, and, above all, melodrama. Verse drama, in particular Shakespeare, was confined to London's pair of patent houses.
The Christmas Books and Melodrama
rom the standpoint of the late twentieth century it is easy to denigrate both the quality of Victorian melodrama and the sophistication of its intended audience. However, as Peter Ackroyd notes of early theatrical adaptations of Oliver Twist, "What might seem to us now stale, faded, sentimental and grotesque then hit audiences with a fresh blast of life and truth"(276). Dickens himself was much more influenced by theatrical writers such as Tobias Smollett than by 'interior' writers such as Jane Austen. Since he himself was always concerned with his audience and with the effect he was having upon that audience, his preference was for writing which offered a direct and immediate appeal. Not only was he attracted to the more theatrical novelists but also he expressed a preference for what might be called middle-class drama; he liked to quote from Robert Browning's A Blot on the 'Scutcheon and Bulwer-Lytton's Not So Bad As We Seem, and he had a fondness for such plays as Douglas Jerrold's Time Works Wonders.
. . . it ought not to be forgotten that melodrama, subsisting as it does on highly patterned language, is in fact an art of great discipline and often of verbal dexterity. It ought to be remembered, too, that this style, which at times appears sentimental or forced to a modern audience, would seem quite natural to one of the nineteenth century: that is why Dickens, in the same speech where he suggested that novelists were essentially writing for the stage, declared that the two most permanent attributes of that stage were "truth" and "passion." [Ackroyd: 285]
In his five-volume English Plays of the Nineteenth Century (1969) Michael Booth defines the nineteenth-century British theatre's most pervasive form, melodrama, as concerned with "externals," placing "the emphasis on situation at the expense of motivation and characterization," and utilizing extensively "the stereotypes of hero, heroine, villain, comic man, comic woman, and good old man" (I: 24). Accompanied by music (partly to distinguish it from the 'legitimate' drama that minor houses were legally prohibited from playing), the Burletta was legally defined as "any piece in three acts with at least five songs" (Hartnoll 79). A typical melodrama (that is, literally any type of play with music) moved rapidly from violence to pathos to physical comedy, punishing vice and rewarding virtue. It provided a working-class audience with an idealized image of life. Factory-owners, landlords, squires, and rent-collectors, all those stern and oppressive representatives of the Establishment, were generally evil and vicious; factory-hands, tenant-farmers, peasants, and renters were cheerful and virtuous in the face of life's vicissitudes. In the world of nineteenth-century melodrama as in "The Sermon on the Mount," the meek inherit the earth and the arrogant are brought low. Virtue triumphs over both evil and adversity. Despite the cliché of absolute poetic justice, melodrama was realistic in its depiction of London and village scenes, domestic and familial themes, and contemporary social problems. The shortage of income for the working class, doubtful harvests, escalating rents, the daily grind experienced by rural and urban poor alike, strikes produced by the prospect of machines eliminating workers, long hours of manual labour in factories and fields, low wages, miserable living conditions — these were all grist for the mill of the writer of melodrama. Dramatists such as Jerrold and Buckstone exploited the titillation produced by witnessing the plight of marginalized female workers, struggling to survive, for such, if they lost their jobs, would have to turn to prostitution. However, the paradox of melodrama was that, despite the sometimes grim reality of its staging and situations, melodrama in its conclusion is quite unrealistic, proving through the appropriate nemesis what Booth terms "the validity and utility of rigid moral principle" ("The Victorian Stage: Illusion and Reality" 10).
Dickens, then, was very much apart of this theatrical milieu, as such novels as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby indicate. He, too, exploited many of the same scenes and themes as the melodramatists: brutal authority, underpaid labour, child workers, demoralizing prisons, penal workhouses, and repressive schools. The 'Dickens' Circle' was a decidedly theatrical one: the great actor-manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, William Macready; the artist Clarkson Stanfield, known for his stage sets; the dramatists Douglas Jerrold, Mark Lemon, Gilbert Abbot A'Beckett, and Ian Noon Talfourd. Both Jerrold's drama and journalism influenced Dickens immensely.
The Christmas Books, Plays, and Jerrold's 'Formula' Melodrama
etween Dickens's childhood and his writing Hard Times For These Times in 1854 Douglas Jerrold, Royal Navy veteran of the Napoleonic wars, produced over seventy plays. His two most popular and famous melodramas were Black-Ey'd Susan, or, All in the Downs (1829) and The Rent Day (1832), based on a well-known painting by Sir David Wilkie, R. A. Jerrold's "formula" for melodrama may be deduced from an analysis of these plays. It involved, first of all, strongly distinguished characters: the stout-hearted tar, the vicious squire, the greedy steward, the virtuous peasant girl. Added to these stereotypical characters was occasional music to heighten the suspense and accompany the entrance and exit of certain principals. Domestic matters intruded into both the serious main plot and the comic subplots. The setting is a country village in which poverty oppresses an honest, hard-working peasantry who are being exploited by a negligent landlord and his ruthless agent.
Jerrold's Gnatbrain in Black-Ey'd Susan offers his own version of the Jerrold formula: "one broken head — then, one stony-hearted landlord — one innocent young woman — ditto, jealous [the comic woman who contrasts the heroine] — one man tolerably honest — and one somewhat damaged [the comic man]" (I, iii). The result is a play that often does not cohere, the comic business of the subplot being poorly integrate d with the serious business of the main plot.
Although Dickens transcended these stereotypes of the Jerrold formula, his many adapters, especially Stirling and Barnett, did not. Certainly the dramatic adaptations of Dickens's The Chimes (1844) and The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), handled by Mark Lemon, G. A. A'Beckett, and Albert Smith, make use of the stereotypes and stock situations familiar to afficionados of early Victorian melodrama. In the former play, the ingenue, Meggy Veck (who, despite her lower class origins, speaks standard English), is engaged to the hopeful, manly Richard, a blacksmith. But callous figures epitomizing a callous and parasitical Establishment — including the local political boss, Alderman Cute, and his statistician, Filer — persuade the young couple that, in view of their poverty, their marrying would be irresponsible (a rehearsal of the then-controversial Malthusian argument for eliminating the "surplus population"). Meanwhile, Will Fern, the dislocated rural labourer, is the victim of a conspiracy by his former landlord, Sir Joseph Bowley, M. P., and Alderman Cute. In the pessimistic vision afforded the play's protagonist, the ticket porter Trotty Veck, by the spirits of the Chimes in the bell tower across from his hovel, Fern is sent to prison for rick-burning, his niece Lilian turns to prostitution, and the destitute Meg commits infanticide. The plot in some ways anticipates that of the popular Christmas film It's A Wonderful Life since these misfortunes are presented as consequences of the death of the protagonist. However, as in A Christmas Carol, the imagined future is averted, and the characters are brought back for a reprise and a tableau, as in the dramas of the period. In fact, The Chimes both as novella and as melodrama ends with a celebratory New Year's dance in a manner reminiscent of Shakespearean comedy.
In The Cricket on the Hearth, the less grim sequel to the first pair of Christmas Books, there is still something of Dickens's earlier emphasis on what Kaplan in his biography terms "poverty, misery, miserliness, and misshapings as well as the generosity, lovingness, and redemptive capacities of the human heart" (176). The third Christmas Book is still highly melodramatic, even if it smacks less of Chartism and the anti-Malthusian> debate. Once again, the plot is highly dependent upon the stock situations and stereotypes of melodrama. Tackleton, a misanthropic capitalist, exploits the industry of the ingenious toymaker Caleb and his blind daughter Bertha. Personally as well as publically villainous (though, as the dénouement reveals, not a villain), Tackleton compels May Fielding to marry him; but the young woman is spared marriage to her mother's creditor by the sudden return of her lost sailor-lover, Caleb's son Edward. Moreover, the gambit of the main plot, Dot's supposed infidelity with the young man disguised as an old traveller, resembles Rachel Heywood's putative adultery with the disguised Grantly in Jerrold's The Rent Day.
Even Dickens's use of names in the Christmas Books follows the melodramatic practice of letting the appellation telegraph the nature of the character. The dramatic adapters of the Christmas Books are even less subtle. For example, while the names "Marley" and "Scrooge" have subtle associations that contribute to the reader's interpretation of their characters, C. Z. Barnett in his dramatic version of A Christmas Carol is fairly obvious in his dubbing the charity collectors who visit the miser "Cheerly" and "Heartly" and in his re-christening nephew Fred "Frank Freeheart." In addition, Barnett introduces a sordid, lower-class villain, "Dark Sam," who doubles as the thief who picks Bob Cratchit's pocket and the undertaker's man who robs Scrooge's unattended corpse. In the original, Dickens designates this character as "the man in faded black," and has him perform only the latter function.
Although constrained by the novelist, Dickens's "official" Carol adapter, Stirling, introduced such new characters as "Will O'Gap," one of those "Miners . . . who labour in the bowels of the earth" (Stave Three), and dubbed his undertaker's man "Blink." These sorts of elaborations the dramatic adapters of succeeding Christmas Books rarely needed to provide since Dickens had, in essence, already done their work for them, in terms of dialogue, sets and costumes, properties and movements, act and scene structure, as well as in the naming of characters major and minor. What name could be more comically appropriate for a stage grocer than "Chickenstalker," for example? (Dickens so liked this surname that he applied as a nickname to one of his own children.) In the same vein, "Tilly Slowboy" is admirably suited to the stage version of the gangling, awkward nurse of The Cricket on the Hearth: hardly a feminine role, the part was often taken by a male comedian, as in the Pantomime tradition. She is the bumbling servant in the household of the old carrier, John Peerybingle, who thinks himself a "bingle-bangle" man who has been cuckolded by his diminutive young wife, "Dot." Such emblematic names continue in The Battle of Life: Snitchey and Craggs are legal partners, Clemency Newcome and Benjamin Britain partners in domestic service. The whimsical surname reappears in the last of the series, The Haunted Man, with the Tetterbys.
Jerrold's clumsy expositions, in which the villain typically reveals both his nature and situation in an opening soliloquy, sacrifice subtlety for clarity. Similarly, C. Z. Barnett has his Scrooge raise the curtain with the proclamation of his character and intentions: "Folks say I'm tight-fisted — that I'm a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching miser" (I, i); in the best traditions of Shakespeare's Richard the Third and Marlowe's Barabbas, he initially appears a stage villain and proud of it. But he does not gloat as would a true stage villain, as does Jerrold's Crumbs, when his capacity for driving a hard bargain sends debtors to the poor house. Scrooge, unlike the villains of contemporary melodrama, possesses the capacity to change. Whereas melodrama exploits an appearance of reality for effect, as Booth notes, "it hardly shows the reality or truth to the actual experience of Victorian life" ("Illusion and Reality" 10).
And herein lies the chief difference between the melodrama and the Christmas Books. In each, despite its abundance of characters and its complementary major and minor plots, Dickens focuses on a single character's moral problem: Scrooge's misanthropy, Trotty's lack of faith in his fellow man (as underscored by his tag-line that the poor are "born bad"), Peerybingle's temptation to murder the youth he supposes to be his wife's lover, and so on. As in The Haunted Man , the novelist moves his protagonist from pessimistic, hard-hearted alienation to a moral regeneration and a social re-integration through a rekindling of imaginative sympathy. Jerrold, by contrast, creates a number of independent or at least tenuously-related plots, each initiated by its own introduction. He interweaves these separate strands, entangles them, then neatly unravels them all at nearly the same time. For example, in The Rent DayJerrold must resolve the play's chief problem, the eviction of Martin and his wife Rachel for their non-payment of rent, at about the same time that Martin's younger brother, Toby, proposes to Polly, the melodrama's comic woman. Jerrold also simultaneously delivers an appropriate nemesis for the two pairs of villains and reconciles Grantly, the landlord, to his tenant, Martin.
While his full-length novels written both before and after the Christmas Books possess such complexity of plot (though accompanied by far greater attention to such matters as character motivation), in each of the five Christmas Books Dickens has created an intimate narrative, uncluttered and economical, though sufficiently relaxed to set the appropriate seasonal tone with descriptions of sharp weather and winter scenery. Moreover, Dickens is not forced by the exigencies of a highly coincidental plot to make his characters say what real people could never say — even if the spirits and ghosts do tend to lapse into blank verse.
The Christmas Books, Plays, and the Pantomime
Charles Dickens . . . remained both a delighted spectator and a serious critic of pantomime throughout his life, and . . . its characters, its situations, and its structures were etched deeply into the essentially dramatic and theatrical nature of his creative imagination, so deeply that the dramatis personae of his novels, the movement of his plots, and even the meaning of his vision can all be understood in terms of pantomime conventions. [Eigner x]
lthough Michael Slater contends that only the first two books in the series have a seasonal setting that is significant to the action, Christmas and its attendant festivities assist in establishing the atmosphere in all the Christmas Books. And all make an appeal to the reader's social conscience, utilize supernatural machinery (admittedly only incidentally in The Cricket on the Hearth and negligibly in The Battle of Life), and adopt "a style more colloquial than that which Dickens usually adopted in his big novels" (Slater, "Introduction to the Christmas Books " I: vii). The Christmas Books terminate in each case with the sort of wondrous dénouement common to Shakespeare's romantic comedies, the kind of ending always appealing to the sentimental Victorian public, but never more so than at the Yuletide season. What Slater describes as their "theme of memory and its beneficial effect on the moral life" (I: viii) accorded well with the festive spirit which Dickens was not merely augmenting but in a very real sense creating with his celebration of traditional foods, pleasures, and pastimes.
Part of these Christmas-time traditions was the pantomime, with its opening in the cave of gloom, and its fairy-tale characters. A Christmas Carol alludes directly to this tradition with the introduction of Ali Baba, Aladdin, Valentine and Orson, and even Robinson Crusoe and Friday. The first pair are as much derived from Dickens's childhood reading of The Arabian Nights as the popular stage at Rochester, but the second pair, from a French romance translated as The History of Two Valyannte Brethren by Henry Watson about 1550, had appeared in Planché's Riquet with the Tuft (1836) and Drury Lane's Harlequin and King Pepin; or, Valentine and Orson (1843). In his farce The Strange Gentleman (1836) Dickens's title character terms Tom the waiter "that one-eyed Orson" (275), perhaps an allusion to Planché's pantomime as much as to Dickens's childhood reading. Finally, Defoe's characters from his 1719 novel were first introduced into pantomime by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in his sole venture into this theatrical genre,Robinson Crusoe; or, Harlequin Friday (1781). For the last two decades of the eighteenth century the prize-fighter Daniel Mendoza appeared in another pantomime, Robinson Crusoe; or, Friday Turned Boxer, according to Gerald Frow in "Oh, Yes It Is!" A History of Pantomime (1985).
Even February in the first half of the nineteenth century was not too late for a pantomime, which may explain in part why eight London theatres offered adaptations of the first Christmas Book over a month after Christmas. Pantomime features in the Christmas Books include the pattern of moral confrontation, the gripping opening, the scenic splendour, and the transformation scene. The second of the series even has the lengthy subtitle characteristic of both contemporary pantomime and melodrama, and was adapted for the stage by Mark Lemon, one of the leading pantomime dramatists of the era. The kind of allegorical confrontation that one finds between the Dark Fairy and Good Fairy at the beginning of early nineteenth-century pantomime is perhaps reflected in Dickens's juxtaposing misanthropic or pessimistic figures such as Scrooge or Redlaw against more congenial figures such as Bob Cratchit and the Tetterbys. The opening sequence of a pantomime in the Hungry Forties would often pit such allegorical figures as Education and Ignorance against one another, a convention that throws fresh light on the Spirit of Christmas Present's discovering the hideous spectres of Ignorance and Want, their "wretched appearance" (Barnett 8) sharply contrasting the sumptuous, green and ermine-trimmed robes and sanguine visage of their conductor. The Victorians were also fascinated by fairies, whose appearance often offered stunning visual effects, as in Dion Boucicault's 1859 adaptation of A Cricket on the Hearth; in his Dot!, fairies from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream provide an opening "not unlike the commencement of the characteristic pantomime" (Morley, "'The Cricket' on the Stage" 21), debating the relative merits of Elizabethan and contemporary drama with the Victorian fairy, Home, and her attendants Kettle, Cradle, and Cricket.
Finally, although all the Christmas Books build toward spiritual transformations, some even offer the possibility for the kind of physical transformation that served as the pantomime's climax and provided an excuse for exposing marvels of scenic engenuity. Stirling and Boucicault show themselves particularly adept at this aspect of adaptation, the former offering a scene in a mineshaft in Carol and the latter opening the wood to reveal Edward Plummer "asleep on Mast of Ship" (p. 7) in Dot! It was within this convention that Dickens was working when he offered "one or two expensive notions about Scenery" (Letters, IV, 662) for the Keeleys' production of The Battle of Life in 1846, one of these notions almost certainly being the transformation scene in II, iv. On stage, transformation displayed "intricate design and development" (Meisel 184) of scenery; in the Christmas Books transformation provides startling plot revelations (such as Edward's revealing his true identity in The Cricket on the Hearth). All the Christmas Books involve some sort of wondrous denouément that, like Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, produces a metamorphosis of despair to hope, accompanied by such radical shifts in character and behaviour as we witness in Scrooge, Tackleton, and Redlaw. These former misanthropes enact the role of Benevolent Agent or Good Fairy by ensuring a brighter future for the other characters.
The changes in their thinking are signaled by changes in expression, by more open gestures, by more lively speech, and by acts of philanthropy. During the period in which Dickens wrote the Christmas Books the most usual method of manifesting character-transformation in the pantomime was to have the characters of the Harlequinade drop their over-sized paper-mache heads through traps to reveal the faces of the actors. Since the problem characters of the Christmas Books display a kind of metaphorical swell-headedness, their conclusions, effecting a change in attitude and a social reintegration, are consonant with the spirit of pantomime transformation.
Finally, the romantic plots of the Christmas Books take their origin in the typical pantomime plot, which Planché summarized as that of "A nursery tale, dramatically told, in which 'the course of true love never did run smooth', formed the opening; the characters being a cross-grained old father, with a pretty daughter who had two suitors" (from Recollections and Reflections 136, as cited in Eigner 2). Each Christmas Book contains a variation on this pattern, but he Battle of Life, with the crusty, misanthropic Dr. Jeddler, a pair of comedic servants, two suitors, and two young women in love with the same young man, comes closest to Planché's synopsis. Although the union of the lovers and the conversion of the father occur within the context of a grand finalé, the change of heart is effected without the intervention of a Good Fairy in The Battle of Life. In the other Christmas Books, as we have seen, the transformation of the misanthrope into a philanthropist very much depends upon such supernatural intervention. The pessimistic Trotty Veck, the exploitative Tackleton, the parsimonious Scrooge, and the alienated Redlaw are likewise liberated from their cynical, worldly selves, and re-baptized as social, affable beings in a carnival celebrating their spiritual regeneration. Only through such a dramatic change of heart may society hope to re-enter paradise.
Responding to popular agitation for reform of the Theatre Regulation Act, Parliament finally granted London's numerous minor theatres official status at the same time that part-publication and serialization were revolutionizing the English novel. In each case, change was a direct result of market demand and a popular urge towards democratization of British social institutions; even though the Forties were indeed 'Hungry' there was a strong demand for reasonably-priced popular entertainment, both on stage and in print. There has been, however, a tendency on the part of modern critics to divorce works of fiction such as Dickens's Christmas Books from the broader cultural context, particularly that of the drama. Since Dickens sanctioned dramatic adaptations of the Christmas Books, which some critics such as Morley and Fawcett suggest he composed with an eye to theatrical adaptation, these form a natural link between literature and drama of the first half of the nineteenth century. Evident in their composition, as well as in the plays they spawned, are the influences of the most popular forms of contemporary drama, the melodrama, and the pantomime.
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Text last modified 14 October 2002; link added 20 July 2017