Exploring Dickens' theatrical legacy

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Jan. 27, 2003 at 12:47 PM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Charles Dickens wasn't just a novelist, but was also a man of the theater. That side of his creative personality is currently being explored and documented in an exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

"Best of Times: The Theater of Charles Dickens," on display through Feb. 15, is a one-gallery show in an intimate setting furnished with Victorian-style showcases full of letters and manuscripts and centered on a fireplace with a crackling gas log fire. The walls are hung with portraits, colorful posters, and playbills as old as the 1830s and as recent as yesterday. It seems as though Dickens has just stepped out for a pint with members of the Pickwick Club.

Even before the publication of his first novel, "The Pickwick Papers," in 1837 made him one of the most popular authors in England, Dickens had written a play based on his story "The Great Winglebury Duel" that was performed at the St. James's Theater in London. He had loved playing with toy theaters as a youth and acted in plays as a student at the Willington House Academy.

As a young man he took part in many amateur performances at the Theater Royal, Haymarket, that raised funds for indigent writers and actors and their families, and there is a print of him in the exhibition costumed for the role of Capt. Bobadill in Ben Jonson's "Every Man in his Humor."

He even performed before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at a command performance of "The Frozen Deep" in 1857. He wrote "The Frozen Deep" in collaboration with Wilkie Collins, the famous mystery story writer, and Dickens played the lead role of Richard Wardon in its staging at the Gallery of Illustration.

He and Collins also wrote a mystery play together, "No Thoroughfare," that ran for an impressive 151 performances at the Adelphi Theater in 1867 and was often revived after Dickens' death in 1870. But Dickens' plays were no match of his novels, and being inferior they gradually disappeared from the theater and are forgotten today.

His greatest fame in the theater is based on the dramatic adaptation of his 14 novels and his many Christmas stories. A musical version of "A Christmas Carol" with a fabulous London setting designed by Tony Walton has been playing annually at New York's Madison Square Garden Theater since 1994. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis also has a nearly annual musical production.

"Pickwickians," a stage version of "The Pickwick Papers," opened in London only seven months after Dickens completed the serialized novel. A lavish 1903 American musical, "Mr. Pickwick," starred the popular De Wolf Hopper and is considered one of the first modern Broadway musicals, but when New York producer David Merrick presented another musical adaptation of the novel in 1965, it ran only 56 performances.

One of the most enduring Dickens properties in various dramatic adaptations for the stage and screen is "Nicholas Nickleby," currently to be seen in a new film version. Its most famous staging was the 1981 Royal Shakespeare Company's eight-and-a-half hour adaptation by David Edgar starring Roger Rees, which had a successful New York run.

"Nicholas Nickleby" was first dramatized in 1838 but its most famous stage adaptation was written by Dion Boucicault, the Irish-American playwright, under the title "Smike." It opened at New York's Winter Garden in 1859. It was revived in 1877 with actress Bijou Herron in the male title role and there are photographs in the exhibition of her in a pants costume taken by the foremost theater photographer of the day, Napoleon Sarony, to prove it.

Another famous actress who played a male Dickens role was Adah Isaacs Menken who toured the United States in 1862 in the role of Pip in "Great Expectations." Another adaptation of this play by actor Alec Guinness opened in London in 1939 and toured the United Kingdom for nearly 40 years. The long-run record for a Dickens show on Broadway was Lionel Bart's "Oliver," based on "Oliver Twist." It opened in 1963 and ran 774 performances.

Dickens had great success reading his plays on the lecture circuit in Britain and the United States, making use of his talent to dramatize, and there are several reading copies of his plays annotated in his own hand in the exhibit.

Excerpts from "Oliver Twist" never failed to bring tears to his audiences' eyes, especially the passage about the murder of Nancy Sykes which had the power to make Victorian ladies faint. Readings of "Dombey and Son" had the same effect, and in 1862 Dickens wrote:

"We had an amazing scene of weeping and cheering...I read the Life and Death of Little Dombey and I certainly never saw a crowd so resolved into one creation before or so stirred by anything."

Friends of Dickens felt the long reading tours took a lot out of the author and may have contributed to his deteriorating health and death at the age of 58. There is a playbill in the exhibition advertising his "Farewell Readings" in London in 1868. It was the last time Dickens merged his talent for writing with his talent for performing, an act that obviously gave him deep satisfaction.

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