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Dickens on the Stage Sikes and Nancy

Sikes and Nancy

Excerpt from Charles Dickens as a Reader by Charles Kent

On November 14, 1868 Charles Dickens organized a special reading to a select audience to get their opinion on whether or not Sikes and Nancy, the telling of the horrific murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, should be added to his repertoire of public readings of his works. William Charles Kent (1823-1902), editor, journalist, and Dickens' friend, was among those chosen to witness this test reading. Here he gives an account of the event.

Most in the audience, Kent among them, felt the reading was sensational and should be added. A few worried about possible hysteria in the audience and the reading's effect on Dickens' already frail health. Dickens read the account with such passion that his pulse soared during its performance. Dickens added Sikes and Nancy to his farewell reading tour of Britain.

ON Saturday, the 14th of November, 1868, there were assembled together in front of the great platform in St. James's Hall, Piccadilly, as fit audience, but few, somewhere about fifty of the critics, artists, and literary men of London. A card of invitation, stamped with a facsimile of the well known autograph of Charles Dickens, and countersigned by the Messrs Chappell and Company; had, with a witty significance, bidden them to that rendezvous for a "Private Trial of the Murder in Oliver Twist." The occasion, in point of fact, was a sort of experimental rehearsal of the last and most daring of all these vividly dramatic Readings by the popular Novelist.

Conscious himself that there was a certain amount of audacity in his adventuring thus upon a delineation so really startling in its character, he was not unnaturally desirous of testing its fitness for representation before the public, first of all in the presence of those who were probably the best qualified to pronounce a perfectly dispassionate opinion. It certainly appeared somewhat dubious at the first, that question as to the suitability for portrayal before mixed assemblages, of one of the most powerfully tragic incidents ever depicted by him in the whole range of his voluminous contributions to imaginative literature. The passages selected to this end from his famous story of Oliver Twist were those relating more particularly to the Murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes. A ghastlier atrocity than that murder could hardly be imagined. In the book itself, as will be remembered, the crime is painted as with a brush dipped in blood rather than pigment. The infamous deed is there described in language worthy of one of the greatest realists in fictitious narrative. Henri de Balzac, even in his more sanguinary imaginings, never showed a completer mastery of the horrible.

Remembering all this, and feeling perfectly assured at the same time, that the scene then about to be depicted by the Author in person, would most certainly lose nothing of its terror in the representation, the acknowledgment may here be made by the writer of these pages; that, on entering the Hall that evening, he was in considerable doubt as to what might be the result of the experiment. Compared with the size of the enormous building, the group of those assembled appeared to be the merest handful of an audience clustered together towards the front immediately below the platform of the orchestra. Standing at the back of this group, the writer recalls to mind, in regard to that evening, a circumstance plainly enough indicating how fully his own unexpressed uncertainty was akin to that of the Author-Reader himself. The circumstance, namely, that Charles Dickens, immediately on entering the hall, before taking his place at his reading-desk upon the platform, came round, and after exchanging It few words with him, uttered this earnest Aside,-"I want you to watch this particularly, for I am very doubtful about it myself!" Before that Experimental Reading was half over, however, all doubt upon the matter was utterly dissipated. In the powerful effect of it, the murder-scene immeasurably surpassed anything he had ever achieved before as an impersonator of his own creations. In its climax, it was as splendid a piece of tragic acting as had for many years been witnessed.

What, in effect, was Macready's comment upon it . some months afterwards, when, with an especial eye to the great tragedian's opinion, If "Sikes and Nancy" was given at Cheltenham? It was laconic enough, but it afforded a world of pleasure to the Author-Actor when his old friend-himself the hero of so many tragic triumphs-summed up his estimate, by saying, characteristically, "Two Macbeths !"

Four of the imaginary beings of the novel were introduced, or, it should rather be said, were severally produced before us as actual embodiments. Occasionally, during one of the earlier scenes, it is true that the gentle voice of Rose Maylie was audible, while a few impressive words were spoken there a1so at intervals by Mr. Brownlow. But, otherwise, the interlocutors were four, and four only: to wit-Nancy, Bill Sikes, Morris Bolter, otherwise Noah Claypole, and the Jew Fagin. Than those same characters no four perhaps in the whole range of fiction could be more widely contrasted. Yet, widely contrasted, utterly dissimilar, though they are, in themselves, the extraordinary histrionic powers of their creator, enabled him to present them to view, with a rapidity of sequence or alternation, so astonishing in its mingled facility and precision, that the characters themselves seemed not only to be before us in the flesh, but sometimes one might almost have said were there simultaneously. Each in turn as portrayed by him meaning portrayed by him not simply in the book but by himself in person-was in its way a finished masterpiece.

Looking at the Author as he himself embodied these creations-Fagin, the Jew, was there completely, audibly, visibly before us, by a sort of transformation! Here, in effect-as several years previously in the midst of his impersonation of Wilmot in Lord Lytton's comedy of Not so Bad as we Seem, namely, where, in the garret, the young patrician affects for a while to be Edmund. Curll the bookseller-the impersonator's very stature, each time Fagin opened his lips, seemed to be changed instantaneously. Whenever he spoke, there started before us-high-shouldered with contracted chest, with birdlike claws, eagerly anticipating by their every movement the passionate words fiercely struggling for utterance at his lips-that most villainous old tutor of young thieves, receiver of stolen goods, and very devil incarnate: his features distorted with rage, his penthouse eyebrows (those wonderful eyebrows!) working like the antennae of some deadly reptile, his whole aspect, half-vulpine, half-vulture-like, in its hungry wickedness.

Whenever he spoke, again, Morris Bolter--quite as instantly, just as visibly and as audibly-was there upon the platform. Listening to him, though we were all of us perfectly conscious of doing, through the Protean voice, and looking at him through the variable features of the Novelist, we somehow saw, no longer the Novelist, but-each time Noah Claypole said a word-that chuckle-headed, long-limbed, clownish, sneaking varlet, who is the spy on Nancy, the tool of Fagin, and the secret evil-genius of Sikes, hounding the latter on, as he does, unwittingly, to the dreadful deed of homicide.

As for the Author's embodiment of Sikes-the burly ruffian with thews of iron and voice of Stentor-it was only necessary to hear that infuriated voice, and watch the appalling blows dealt by his imaginary bludgeon in the perpetration of the crime, to realise the force, the power, the passion, informing the creative mind of the Novelist at once in the original conception of the character, and then, so many years afterwards, in its equally astonishing representation.

It was in the portrayal of Nancy, however, that the genius of the Author-Actor found the opportunity, beyond all others, for its most signal manifestation. Only that the catastrophe was in itself, by necessity so utterly revolting, there would have been something exquisitely pathetic in many parts of that affecting delineation. The character was revealed with perfect consistency throughout-from the scene of suppressed emotion upon the steps of London Bridge, when she is scared with the eltrich horror of her forebodings, down to her last gasping, shrieking apostrophes, to "Bill, dear Bill," when she sinks, blinded by blood, under the murderous blows dealt upon her upturned face by her brutal paramour.

Then, again, the horror experienced by the assassin afterwards! So far as it went, it was as grand a reprehension of all murderers as hand could well have penned or tongue have uttered. It had about it something of the articulation of an avenging voice not against Sikes only, but against all who ever outraged, or ever dreamt of outraging, the sanctity of human life. And it was precisely this which tended to sublimate an incident otherwise of the ghastliest horror into a homily of burning eloquence, the recollection of which among those who once saw it revealed through the lips, the eyes, the whole aspect Of Charles Dickens will not easily be obliterated. The moral drawn from it-and there was this moral interpenetrating or impregnating the whole-became appreciable, it might even have been by Sikes himself, from the first moment the ruffian realised that the crime had been actually accomplished. It spoke trumpet-tongued from the very instant when he recoiled from " it !" Nancy no more, but thenceforth flesh and blood- But such flesh, and so much blood! Nevertheless, in that Experimental Reading of the 14th of November, 1868, the effect of all this appeared, in the estimation of the present writer, to have been in a great measure marred by the abruptness with which, almost the instant after the crime had been committed, the Reading was terminated. Sikes burnt upon the hearth the blood-stained weapon with which the murder had been perpetrated-was startled for a moment by the hair upon the end of the club shrinking to a light cinder and whirling 'up the chimney-and then, dragging the dog (whose very feet were bloody) after him, and locking the door, left the house. There, the Experimental Reading abruptly terminated.

It seemed not only insufficient, but a lost opportunity. Insomuch, that the writer, on the following day, remonstrated with the Novelist as earnestly as possible, urging him to append to the Reading as it then stood some fragmentary portion, at least, of the chapter descriptive of the flight, so that the remorseful horror of Sikes might be more fully realised. Of the reasonableness of this objection, however, Dickens himself was so wholly unconvinced, that, in the midst of his arguments against it, he wrote, in a tone of good-humoured indignation, .. My dear fellow, believe me that no audience on earth could be held for ten minutes after the girl's death. Give them time, and they would be revengeful for having had such a strain put upon them. Trust me to be right. I stand there, and I know." Than this nothing could very well have been more strongly expressed, as indicative of the conclusion at which he had deliberately arrived.

So frankly open to conviction was he, nevertheless, that, not disdaining to defer to the judgment of another when his own had been convinced, the Reading was eventually, after all, lengthened out by a very remarkable addition. The printed copy of this fragment of Oliver Twist, artistically compacted together as "A Reading," has, appended to it, in blue ink, three pages of manuscript in the Novelist's familiar handwriting, in which, with a cunning mastery of all the powers of condensation, he has compacted together in a few sentences what he always gave with wonderful effect before the public, the salient incidents of the murderer's flight, ending with his own destruction, and even his dog's, from the housetop.

Nothing that could most powerfully realise to the audience the ruffian's sense of horror and abhorrence has been there overlooked. The ghastly figure follows him ever)'Where. He hears its garments rustling in the leaves. "If he stopped, it stopped. If he ran, it followed." Turning at times to beat the phantom off, though it should strike him dead, the hair rises on his head, and his blood stands still, for it has turned with him and is behind him! Throwing himself on his back upon the road-" At his head' it stood, silent, erect, and still: a human gravestone with its epitaph in Blood."

What is as striking as anything in all this Reading, however-that is, in the Reading copy of it now lying before us as we write-is the mass of hints as to byplay in the stage directions for himself, so to speak, scattered up and down the margin. "Fagin raised his right hand, and shook his trembling forefinger in the air," is there, on p. 101, in print. Beside it, on the margin in MS., is the word" Action." Not a word of it was said. It was simply done. Again, immediately below that on the same page - Sikes' loquitur-" 'Oh! you haven't, haven't you?: passing a pistol into a more convenient pocket (' Action,' again, in MS. on the margin.] 'That's lucky for one of us-which one that is don't matter.'" Not a word was said about the pistol-the marginal direction was simply attended to. On the opposite page, in print, " Fagin laid his hand upon the bundle, and locked it in the cupboard. But he did not take his eyes off the robber for an instant." On the margin in MS., oddly but significantly underlined, are the words "Cupboard Action." So again afterwards, as a rousing self-direction, one sees notified. in manuscript on page 107, the grim stage direction, "Murder Coming."

As certainly as the "Trial from Pickwick" was the most laughter-moving of all the Readings, as as the "Story of Little Dombey," again, was the most pathetic, "Sikes and Nancy" was in all respects the most powerfully dramatic and, in many ways, the most impressive and remarkable.

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