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public readings

The Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens
Philip CollinsPhilip Collins

public readings. 

Dickens's public readings, described at the time as ‘a novelty in literature and in the annals of “entertainment” ’ and ‘a wholly unexampled incident in the history of literature’—for no great author had thus performed his works in public—were enormously successful, artistically and financially. Audiences relished this opportunity to see so long-loved and illustrious an author and hear him brilliantly enacting his own creations: he was ‘the greatest reader of the greatest writer of the age’. There were objectors: John forster thought this activity was a substitution of lower for higher aims, a dereliction of Dickens's duty to literature, and a dubious occupation for a gentleman. Others thought that the touring, and especially his addiction to the last item he devised, the spectacular but exhausting ‘Sikes and Nancy’, had caused his premature death. Certainly, the time and energy he gave to the reading left less time for writing, while the substantial box-office income reduced the incentive to write. Dickens found that he could earn more, and more quickly, by reading than by writing, and in these ‘restless’ unhappy later years he could more easily force himself to repeat a performance than undertake the long, lonely task of creating a new novel. But also he enjoyed the footlights, the adoration of a visible audience, the exercise of his considerable histrionic skills, and the kudos of his success. Moreover, as the success of such later Dickens-readers as Bransby williams and Emlyn williams has shown, no classic English novelist's work lends itself so well to such purposes, for his prose is highly auditory and his stories offer strong narrative, emotional, and comic opportunities.

Before becoming an author Dickens had most wanted to be an actor, and later he often maintained that he would have been as successful, and happier, on the stage. Giving readings from his works gratifyingly combined his two great talents and ambitions, being even more inspiriting than the amateur theatricals which he had organized and starred in during the 1840s and 1850s, for now he was scriptwriter, and took all the parts and collected all the applause. From early in his career he had read his latest compositions to family and friends, and these private readings sometimes became elaborated—notably the Chimes readings to distinguished friends which he dashed home from Italy to deliver.

After further such performances, to English expatriates in Italy and Switzerland, he mooted the possibility of making a fortune by repeating them in England, ‘in these days of lecturing and reading’ (11 October 1846). Conditions were indeed propitious, and it is surprising that Dickens delayed so long, given his skills and delight in performance and the dramatic quality of his fiction. Mechanics' Institutes and such-like recent establishments provided suitable audiences and auditoria, respectable people for whom theatres were taboo yearned for more admissible stage performances, and steam transport facilitated such touring ventures. Literary men were more commonly giving lectures (Coleridge, Hazlitt, and Carlyle are obvious instances), and actors and recitalists, professional, semi-professional, or amateur, were increasingly offering recitals of prose or verse. The most illustrious and sustained effort of this kind was the actress Fanny Kemble's: in 1848, like her father Charles Kemble before her, she abandoned play-acting in favour of giving solo readings of Shakespeare's plays, touring America as well as Britain. Such events were more fully organized and better rewarded there, so British recitalists and lecturers were increasingly being attracted; notably, Thackeray preceded Dickens on American platforms, lecturing there profitably in 1852–3 and 1855–6. One other precedent, or inspiration, for Dickens was the actor he most admired in his youth, Charles mathews the elder, and his imitators. These ‘monopolyloguists’ devised entertainments in which the soloist performed a dazzling range of characters, with lightning changes of costume.

Appropriately, Dickens's first public readings were given in aid of an adult-education establishment in Birmingham, late December 1853. (He strongly supported adult-education, and most of his subsequent ‘charity’ readings were for similar institutions.) He read A Christmas Carol and The cricket on the Hearth, with huge success, and was inundated with invitations to perform for cash, but although tempted towards this, ‘if they will have him’, he continued only with occasional ‘charity’ readings (always of the Carol). Late in 1857 his ‘paid’ idea quickened: he needed much ready cash to refurbish Gad's Hill, recently purchased, and was very ‘restless’, his marital unhappiness having been exacerbated by his infatuation with Ellen ternan. It was no coincidence that his marriage broke down within weeks of his starting paid readings, on 29 April 1858 (at the height of the London ‘season’). He gave more-or-less weekly performances in St Martin's Hall, Long Acre, London, so successfully that he soon expanded his plans. His original repertoire consisted of Christmas books (Cricket, The Chimes, and the Carol). Soon only the Carol survived (always remaining the quintessential reading), joined by episodes from the novels (‘The Story of Little Dombey’ and ‘Mrs Gamp’) and abbreviations of Household Words Christmas stories (‘The Poor Traveller’ and ‘Boots at the Holly Tree Inn’; see public readings texts). With this expanded repertoire he undertook a substantial tour, including Scotland and Ireland, August–November 1858, adding a new item which became his most frequently given one, ‘The Trial From Pickwick’, and returning to London for a Christmas/ New Year series. He then concentrated on writing A Tale of Two Cities, never undertaking substantial reading engagements while composing a novel. Having completed it, he made a short readings tour in October 1859, followed by a short Christmas series—his last in St Martin's Hall, which burned down soon after, destroying much of his equipment.

Dickens had designed a transportable stage-rig, slightly modified over the years—desk, carpeting, screens framing gaslights—which helped audiences to see and hear him better. (Emlyn Williams used a replica of his desk, now in the Dickens House Museum, for his Dickens performances, and found it technically ingenious.) A small team of around half-a-dozen accompanied him, including his manager (the experienced and efficient Albert smith, until his premature death), a valet-dresser, a gasman, and sundry odd-job and clerical staff. It was a highly professional organization and Dickens gave it his full-time attention, meticulously supervising arrangements and never accepting hospitality while touring. During his first tour he sometimes managed seven performances a week, including matinées (though he disliked these, as class-divisive, and always insisted on seats being available at working-class prices). Later, four became his maximum. It was exhausting work: having to project his voice into large auditoria under the heat of the gaslamps left him in need of a rubdown and change of clothes after performing. Nevertheless, having begun the readings under financial necessity and in the emotional turmoil of 1858, he kept returning to the platform between novels (which, partly though not wholly because the readings produced ample cash, now declined in frequency). In his amateur theatrical days, he had exclaimed, ‘There's nothing in the world equal to seeing the house rise at you, one sea of delightful faces, one hurrah of applause!’ This thrill never palled. ‘It was not applause that followed’ his performances, one admirer wrote, ‘but a passionate outburst of love for the man’—and Dickens may be forgiven for relishing this, especially when his emotional life was unsatisfactory.

His rapport with audiences was remarkable, his eyes—‘like two exclamation points’—commanding their attention and his skill in gesture being uncanny. By contemporary standards, his manner was restrained: he drew no attention to himself or his legendary fame, he eschewed claptraps and took no curtain calls, he narrated in a lively but ‘natural’ fashion as if telling a story in a ‘gentlemanly drawingroom’, not a barnstorming actor tearing every passion to tatters. He found an acceptable mode which, while using histrionic skills, was not ‘acting thoroughly out’: unlike an actor, he did not pretend that there was no audience but acknowledged their presence and joined in their amusement or grief. But, as another reviewer remarked, ‘He does not only read his story; he acts it’, taking on the visage, body-shape, and gestures, besides the voice of his characters—and, with up to a score of characters in an item, he had splendid opportunities to show the skills earlier apparent in his theatricals, where he usually starred as a ‘character’-actor. Verbally, he enhanced audiences' apprehension of his texts ‘a thousand-fold’, as enthusiasts said, disclosing to them unnoticed nuances, felicities, implications, and jokes.

For his next readings, March–April 1861 weekly, he chose St James's Hall, off Piccadilly, a large auditorium holding 2,127 people which remained his usual London location. He was still writing Great Expectations and found the ‘fatigue and excitement’ of performing ‘very difficult to manage in conjunction with a story’; he never attempted this again. Finishing the novel in June, he prepared an autumn tour, re-rehearsing the existing repertoire, but substantially enlarging it with six new items. Of these, two—long readings based on his two last novels—were never performed, and a third, ‘Mr Chops the Dwarf’ (from a Christmas story), remained unperformed until 1868, when it was unsuccessful. The tour began in October 1861 with two new items, ‘David Copperfield’ (initially a two-hour reading, but later reduced) and ‘Nicholas Nickleby at the Yorkshire School’ (usually paired with ‘The Trial from Pickwick’). Another new item joined the repertoire in December: ‘Mr Bob Sawyer's Party’ (from PP). Introducing new items was hard work: never remiss, Dickens had become more exacting, and came to regard 200 rehearsals as necessary, sometimes culminating in private ‘trial’ performances before family and guests. The three new items proved triumphant successes. ‘Copperfield’ became his favourite item; its main plot concerned Steerforth's seduction of Em'ly and ended with his and Ham's death in the storm—an impressive moment—with the comic relief and light pathos of David and Dora's ‘Courtship and Young Housekeeping’, including a fine Micawber episode. The ‘Nickleby’ reading ended with cheers as Nicholas thrashed Squeers (enacted with ‘startling reality’, a reviewer noted), before the high-spirited encounter with John Browdie and the pathos of Smike. ‘Bob Sawyer’, with its tipsy medical students, offered Dickens new comic opportunities, gleefully taken.

Arthur Smith was dying when this tour began, and no satisfactory replacement emerged. Dickens gave short spring seasons in London, 1862 and 1863, and three triumphant ‘charity’ readings in Paris, January 1863: henceforth the Parisians' quick, intelligent response became the standard by which other audiences were assessed. Edinburgh and Manchester audiences ranked high. Specially responsive audiences inspired Dickens to extra efforts and inventiveness: he was very sensitive to the ‘feel’ of a house. For over three years there were no more paid readings, partly because he lacked a reliable manager but also because he was writing Our Mutual Friend (serialized May 1864–November 1865). He gave occasional Christmas ‘charity’ readings, however, for the local (Chatham) Mechanics' Institute, of which he was a loyal supporter.

Early in 1866 he contracted with Chappell, the impresarios, to give 30 readings in London and elsewhere, from April to June. The manager they appointed, George dolby, soon became a trusted associate and friend. For this season Dickens devised a new reading from his latest Christmas story, ‘Doctor Marigold’, the monologue of a market trader, which evoked a highly popular blend of laughter and tears. A similar but longer tour followed, January–May 1867, with Chappell raising his nightly expenses-paid fee from £50 to nearly £60, further raised to £80 for the 1868–9 farewells. Even at £50 Dickens was earning more than Macready had commanded as leader of the English stage. For the 1867 tour Dickens created three new items from his 1866 Christmas story: ‘Barbox Brothers’, ‘The Boy at Mugby’ and ‘The Signalman’. The last of these was never performed (the fate also of another late Christmas story reading, ‘Mrs Lirriper's Lodgings’) and the other two were failures.

Still beset by ‘enormous’ expenses, Dickens now ominously began ‘to feel myself drawn towards America, as Darnay in the Tale of Two Cities was attracted to the Loadstone Rock, Paris’ (10 May 1867). He had been considering an American tour since 1858—Australia was another possibility he contemplated—but the Civil War intervened, though he was also reluctant to endure a long separation from home and from his beloved Ellen. Moreover, railway travel was irksome to him after his involvement in the Staplehurst accident, June 1865 (see Kent), and for a while he refused to travel express (and he found American railroads ‘truly alarming’). But the lure of America prevailed: the opportunity to revisit old friends, to astound his American admirers, and to amass a large dollar nest-egg. Like Thackeray, a predecessor on the American circuit, he was conscious of needing to bequeath substantial funds to dependent womenfolk. Dolby spied out the land and reported favourably, and in September, despite Forster's predictable opposition, Dickens agreed to go, with Dolby as manager. As the readings' official chronicler, Charles kent, remarked, this tour was regarded ‘as a public and almost international occurrence’, and he organized a farewell banquet, on 9 November, attended by over 500 notabilities from public and artistic life. The banquet was unprecedented, ‘a high historical event’ (New York Tribune), and appropriately Dickens then travelled to Liverpool in a royal saloon carriage.

He rested in Boston, and there triumphantly began his tour on 2 December with the Carol and ‘The Trial’, the pairing with which he opened in every American city. His repertoire was unadventurous, consisting of his nine most popular items. These were published by the Boston firm of his great friend J. T. fields—the basis of all collections of the readings until Philip Collins's 1975 edition. The tour was enormously successful: Dickens netted £19,000, though he had lost performances during a political crisis and changed dollars into sterling at a disastrous rate. But the work was gruelling (American auditoria were often huge, and the weather severe), and Dickens's health and spirits were often wretched. He was sustained by Dolby's devotion, the loving care of Fields and his adorable wife, and an old-trouper sense of duty which infallibly brought him up to scratch. He ‘felt nearly used up’, beset by sleeplessness, ‘climate, distance, catarrh, travelling, and hard work’ (30 March 1868), but the local press reported how much more ‘genial’ he appeared that night than his photographs suggested—‘a hearty, companionable man, with a great deal of fun in him’.

The tour ended on 20 April 1868 and he soon recovered from its effects. He had agreed to undertake a long farewell tour of 100 performances, beginning on 6 October, for which he devised a new item to ensure that Chappell did not lose on their generous terms but also to display his power in ‘very passionate and dramatic’ narration, ‘the murder from Oliver Twist’. Hesitant about the wisdom of performing it, he eventually gave a ‘trial’ performance before an illustrious audience (14 November 1868). Everyone was impressed, but family and friends argued that its effects on himself and his audiences would be damaging. ‘Sikes and Nancy’ went into repertoire, however, on 5 January 1869, and he became obsessed with giving it, despite its evident toll upon his emotional and physical wellbeing. His health so deteriorated that his doctors made him abandon the tour on 22 April. They rashly permitted him a short farewell series in London in 1870. After his final performance, 15 March (inevitably, the Carol and ‘Trial’), he said, ‘From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore’—words inscribed on his funeral card less than three months later.

Philip Collins