The story of the Crummles' traveling theatrical troupe in Nicholas Nickleby was one close to Dickens' heart. As a child Charles was exposed to, and loved, the theater. As a schoolboy he formed a small dramatic company of his friends. Had it not been for an illness on the morning of a scheduled audition at the Covent Garden theater in the early 1830s, just before his writing gained attention, he may have made a career on the stage.
After years away from the stage, Dickens agreed to direct and perform in three plays while in Montreal, Canada in 1842. The success of the Montreal plays provided the spark that rekindled Dickens' love of the footlights. Back home in London Dickens gathered friends to perform Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour for charity, which was a huge success.
These amateur theatricals continued throughout the middle years of Dickens' career as a world famous author. He worked tirelessly as actor and stage manager and, as his friend John Forster remarked, often adjusted scenes, assisted carpenters, invented costumes, devised playbills and generally oversaw the entire production of the performances.
Many of his friends and associates in the arts, including Forster, Douglas Jerrold, John Leech, Mark Lemon, Augustus Egg, Wilkie Collins, and George Cruikshank acted in these theatricals which were performed across Britain. The distinguished actor William Macready, a close friend of Dickens, provided guidance in the performance of the productions. Another friend, artist Clarkson Stanfield, lent a hand designing scenery. The schoolroom in his home, Tavistock House, could be converted to a theater for small performances. The Dickens' amateur troupe even performed twice for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
This close association with the theater had an important impact on Dickens the author. Theatrical characters abound in the novels and the stories are told in such a visual way that they easily lent themselves first to illustrations in the novels, stage dramatizations, and finally to film.
Later in his career Dickens' theatrical training contributed to the success of public readings of his works, some of which were so physically taxing that they may have hastened his early death.
Dickens was, first and foremost, an entertainer. From childhood and into adult life he loved the stage and loved and needed the outpouring of adulation he received. He performed in amateur theatricals throughout the 1840s and 50s and, had he not achieved early fame as a writer, would almost certainly have made a career on the stage.
In 1853 Dickens began giving public readings of his works, first for charity, and beginning in 1858, for profit. Before this time no great author had performed their works in public, but Dickens' works were uniquely suited for performance, as they would later successfully adapt to the screen. Dickens' friend and advisor, John Forster, argued unsuccessfully that such public exhibition for money was beneath his calling as a writer and a gentleman.
Throughout the 1860s, except for a break at mid-century when he was writing Our Mutual Friend, Dickens undertook reading tours of Britain, making more money from the readings than he could from writing, even though he always made sure that seats were available at working-class prices.
The performances initially included the Christmas books: A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and Cricket on the Hearth. Later Dickens incorporated scenes from Dombey and Son, Nicholas Nickleby, Pickwick Papers, Martin Chuzzlewit, and his favorite, David Copperfield. He tightened the narrative, wrote stage directions to himself in the margins, and tried to infuse as much humor as possible, leaving out passages of social criticism as inappropriate for evenings of entertainment.
Dickens biographer Edgar Johnson on the public readings: "It was more than a reading; it was an extraordinary exhibition of acting ...without a single prop or bit of costume, by changes of voice, by gesture, by vocal expression, Dickens peopled his stage with a throng of characters."
Thomas Carlyle, author and friend of Dickens, after attending one of the readings, remarked that Dickens was like an entire theater company...under one hat.
Dickens' six-man entourage for these reading tours included his manager (Albert Smith, later George Dolby), a valet, a gas man, and a couple of others doing clerical work and odd jobs. The unique stage equipment included a reading desk, carpet, gas lights, and screens behind to help project his voice forward.
After much deliberation, and with the promise of big money, he undertook a reading tour of America from December 1867- April 1868 which earned him 19,000 pounds.
On Dickens return to England, and in declining health, he began a farewell tour of Britain in October 1868. This tour included a new addition, a very passionate and dramatic performance of the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist. Many believe that the energy expended in this performance, which he insisted on including even as his health worsened, hastened his early death on June 9, 1870.
Mark Twain saw Dickens perform in January 1868 at the Steinway Hall in New York and gave this report.