Tracing Dickens: A Tale of Two Centuries of Impact

by Matt Levy

07/24/12 13:19

 Turn on your TV, go to the movies, walk down the street, or, if all else fails – read a book – and you will no doubt encounter a trace of Charles Dickens.  It isn’t hard to find influences today of the storied Victorian author; indeed the bigger challenge would be to pin down a facet of modern entertainment he hasn’t influenced.  The shoemaker-turned-novelist famously catalogued life in England in his works, turning a spotlight to the contrasting lives of the privileged and lower classes and tense social conditions that defined his day.  Generations of audiences worldwide have grown up following the adventures of Oliver Twist, pondering the great expectations of Pip Pirrup, imagining the inhabitants of two taled cities, and gleefully scorning miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge every year around the time of Christmas carols.  Dickens’ literary genius transcends giving birth to enduring characters; he shaped modern social outlook and helped give birth to social rights and justice movements worldwide.  Through careful satire and keen observation, Dickens exposed harsh realities in which an untold many lived every day of their lives, all the while maintaining unending whimsy and exuberance.  It is for this reason that now, in 2012, we celebrate the legendary author’s 200th birthday and explore the lasting influence of his work and how we can still find it in Samuel French’s massive catalogue.

 

 

Certainly, A Christmas Carol is one of Dickens’ most beloved classics.  The timeless of tale of miserable old Ebeneezer Scrooge and how he finds redemption on Christmas Day is one of literature’s most cherished stories.  Each December, while A Christmas Carol is broadcast on seemingly endless repeat in seemingly endless adaptations on television worldwide, playhouses and theatres all across the United States present the story in front of live audiences.  For many areas, attending a performance of A Christmas Carol is an annual delight, and theatres regularly look to Samuel French to find the perfect adaptation to stage.

 

 

The Samuel French catalogue boasts many variations on a wonderful old theme.  There are, of course, several direct adaptations of the novel for the stage, including A Christmas Carol by John Mortimer, A Christmas Carol by Michael Paller, A Christmas Carol by Cora Wilson Greenwood, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Ludlam.  Musical versions can be found in A Christmas Carol with a book by Christopher Bedloe, adaptation and lyrics by James Wood, and music by Malcolm Shapcott; and Farndale Avenue... Christmas Carol by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin, Jr.  There are also many looser adaptations, taking the story on the road with a traveling company performing their 15th season of the show (Dickens' Christmas Carol: A Traveling Travesty by Mark Landon Smith); to the frozen lakes of Minnesota (A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol with book, lyrics, and music by Phil and Paul Olson); into Harlem, Hell’s Kitchen, and Wall Street in New York City (in Times Square Angel by Charles Busch; Christmas Is Comin' Uptown with music by Garry Sherman, book by Philip Rose and Peter Udell, and lyrics by Peter Udell; and Humbug by John Wooten, respectively); and onto the 1940s radio airwaves in A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol, by Walton Jones, David Wohl and Faye Greenberg.

 

 

Perhaps one of the best-known modern adaptations of the story in the Samuel French catalogue is the musical Scrooge! by Leslie Bricusse.  The musical, made into a film in 1970, exists as a script both in its full form and an abbreviated, leaner fifty-five minute version adapted in mind for small theatre groups and schools.  Bricusse’s take on the story is traditional, and the stage show has enjoyed noted success in England, where it was hailed as “Sensational” and “Terrific” by BBC Radio 2; and in the Unites States, 

where it has become an established favorite of regional playhouses nationwide.  The fact that the musical will be playing its 30th season at the Spring Lake Theater Company in Spring Lake, New Jersey this December is a testimony to Dickens’ drawing power and Bricusse’s delightful interpretation.

 


Of course, Christmastime isn’t only when Dickens comes into the cultural spotlight.  As a novelist, he wrote some of the most enduring classics in the western literary canon still visible on the cultural radar.  In a 2003 BBC survey of the United Kingdom’s favorite novels, several of Dickens’ works found spots in the top 200, including
A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Oliver Twist, and The Pickwick Papers.  

 

 

 The latter, a story of life in England, elaborate balls, and not a little bit of betrayal, is filled with characteristic Dickensian whimsy.  Pickwick has also found lyrical expression by way of Leslie Bricusse, with music by Cyril Ornadel and a book by Wolf Mankowitz.   It famously spawned the hit song “If I Ruled the World,” which has been covered by musical greats including Sir Harry Secombe, Tony Bennett, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and Celine Dion.  The song had a number 34 spot on Billboard’s “Top 100 Pop Singles” chart in 1965, and recently was featured in Tony Bennett’s 2006 Grammy Award-winning album Duets: An American Classic.

 

 

Billed as “impossible not to be moved [by]” by USA Today, “Epic, electrifying theatre” by TalkEntertainment.com, and “[A] return to the era of big blockbusters such as Les Miserables, Phantom, and Miss Saigon” by the Associated Press, Jill Santoriello’s A Tale of Two Cities opened on Broadway in 2008 and was nominated for three Drama Desk Awards, two Outer Critics Circle Awards, and a Drama League Award in 2009.  Although the musical has since left the Great White Way, it is now available for production by regional playhouses and colleges all over the country.  Its flexible design allows for creativity from the part of the design team, with both traditional proscenium-style stagings and innovative in-the-round productions bringing Dickens’ timeless tale to life in ways that still speak to modern audiences.  True fans of Dickens know that not all his classics are light-hearted fare about folk life in England; his masterwork A Tale of Two Cities revolves around London and Paris during the period of the French Revolution, including the devastating series of events leading up to it and the demoralizing consequences for the central cast of characters after.  To stage such a complex, interwoven environment is no small feat, but Santoriello’s musical adaptation more than meets the challenge, with grace and consciousness to spare.


 

Samuel French boasts an additional musical adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities with a book by Dave Ross and Vivienne Carter; and music and lyrics by Dave Ross, Neil Parker and Michael Mullane.  Companies with especially versatile performers can find delight in Everett Quinton’s A Tale of Two Cities, which centers on a transvestite club performer who finds himself reenacting Dickens’ entire novel for a baby!

 

 

Other adaptations of Dickens classics in the Samuel French catalogue include Hard Times by Stephen Jeffreys, which explores the benefits and new hardships the Industrial Revolution unleashed in England, and Great Expectations, the beloved story of a young, naïve blacksmith apprentice who yearns to turn himself into a gentleman, adapted by Alice Chadwicke.

 

 

With stories encompassing class distinctions, social responsibilities, and consequences, but always filled with color and love for humanity, it is no surprise that Charles Dickens’ work has withstood the test of two centuries of change and upheaval.  Perhaps it is because his work, though rooted firmly in Victorian context, transcends its own time and engages audiences everywhere who have felt the pressures of society; who have each felt themselves playing  the protagonist trying to make his or her way through a world filled with morals, paradoxes, and dreams both realized and shattered.  It is not merely the history of the great or scrutinizing the small that interested him and his work, but the way it all fit together to form one cohesive, bustling, colorful picture.  Dickens wrote for humanity, and his work will always stay relevant as long as there exist social orders and the many types of people who fill them; in other words, as long as people are people.  And to that, we here at Samuel French say happy birthday to you, Mr. Dickens.  Here’s to many, many more. 

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