Dickens’ Fatal Performances (1857)

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, here’s an unpublished essay written for the “Writers Gone Wild” project.

A plain stage, a small desk, and the author: Charles Dickens giving a reading, from Harper's Weekly

Charles Dickens, public readings were like prostitution. First, he did them for free, then for his lovers, and finally, on this day, doing it for money, appearing on stage in London for his first paid performance. Dickens had a flair for the dramatic as a child, boasting that “I was a great writer at 8 years old or so — was an actor and a speaker from a baby.” He would perform parts of plays and songs before the family. This love for performing surfaces in “David Copperfield”:

It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles […] by impersonating my favourite characters in them [his favorite books.] I have been Tom Jones […] for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch.

Dickens’ life might have taken a different altogether had he not been so ill that he missed a scheduled audition at the Covent Garden theater in the early 1830s. Instead, he participated in amateur theatricals, and even installed a small stage in his home.

But not everyone appreciated his readings. Mark Twain criticized his pronunciation and that his “fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him a comical Scotch terrier look about the face.” A note in the New York Times in 1884 — 14 years after Dickens’ death — reassured its readers that those “who never heard Dickens read that the lost nothing which might help them to understand his creations.” Besides, the anonymous Times writer noted, he did it for the money anyway.

It was true that the returns were very good. A night’s work could bring in £800. His five month reading tour of America earned him £19,000. But it wasn’t just the money that Dickens loved. He had a passion for acting. He was also fortunate that, in the 1850s, public readings were growing popular. While some readers were content simply to read from a book, some hired actors to perform the various parts, or spice up the performance by displaying scenes from the book.

But Dickens was an entire theatrical company in one person. On a bare stage, using a desk to hold his script, a carpet to muffle his steps, gas lights for illumination and screens behind him to focus the audience’s attention on him, Dickens threw himself into his performance, shaping his voice and contorting his body to meet the demands of his story. For each of his works, he rewrote scenes, removing some of his criticisms of society as inappropriate for the stage, and tightened them up. His prompt book contained extensive notes to remind him how to move and act.

Poster from one of Dickens' final performances in 1869. Click to embiggen.

And he was a success. For the next 15 years, audiences thrilled to his performances. They loved his recitation of “A Christmas Carol” and his other holiday stories, “The Chimes” and “Cricket on the Hearth.” He brought out the pathos in “Dombey and Son” and the humor in the trial scene from “The Pickwick Papers.” But the piece de resistance was the murder of Nancy Sikes from “Oliver Twist,” that Dickens added to his repertoire in 1868.

His performance of the piece was so intense that it, along with a steady diet of cigarettes and alcohol, affected his health. He looked haggard, and his foot turned lame, forcing him to cancel some readings. Biographers believe it contributed to his premature death in 1870.

But performing must have been a pleasure and a balm, allowing Dickens’ to bask in the public’s adulation as he relived the best of a lifetime of work. At his final performance on March 15, 1870, he closed with the trial scene from “The Pickwick Papers,” his first work. At the end, as the applause died away, he gave a final benediction that began:

Ladies and gentlemen, It would be worse than idle for it would be hypocritical and unfeeling if I were to disguise that I close this episode in my life with feelings of very considerable pain. For some fifteen years, in this hall and in many kindred places, I have had the honour of presenting my own cherished ideas before you for your recognition, and, in closely observing your reception of them, have enjoyed an amount of artistic delight and instruction which, perhaps, is given to few men to know.

Less than three months later, on June 9, Charles Dickens collapsed at his beloved Gads’ Hill home and died.