Charles Dickens and Show Biz

Overview of the Exhibition

Dickens: More Than a Novelist

To mention the name "Charles Dickens" is to call up unforgettable images.  The author of Great Expectations and David Copperfield is remembered for countless characters, such as Scrooge the miser; Tiny Tim, the poor child whom he befriends in A Christmas Carol; and Oliver Twist, the parish boy who dares to ask for more.  Literary historians tell the rags-to-riches story of the young Dickens who filled bottles in a blacking warehouse, before he wrote Pickwick Papers, which made him famous almost overnight.

However, the second side to Dickens, his passion for public performance and all aspects of the theater, is neglected.  This passion drove Dickens to write, produce, direct, and act in theatricals; to include his children and their friends in home-theater performances, and to mount benefit performances in support of worthy causes and indigent friends.  For years there was little comment about the strain on Dickens's health resulting from public reading tours of England and America, or about his 1857 performance in The Frozen Deep, which led to his liaison with the young actress Ellen Ternan, and the subsequent breakup of his marriage.  By comparison to his fame as a novelist, Dickensís prominent connections with the theater remain largely unexplored in contemporary American discussions.

Dickensís love of theatricals was paralleled by efforts of his contemporaries to use his work as source material for the stage.  The show biz industry in England and America eagerly piggybacked on Dickensís popularity, releasing hundreds of dramatizations, spoofs, and musical numbers advertised in books, periodicals, and playbills.  Prominent actors and actresses specialized in performing as Dickens characters.  Well-known stage directors and producers used Dickensís popularity to boost sales of their productions.  Adaptations were presented in large halls and neighborhood theaters across England and America.  Dickens supported some of these efforts, and objected vehemently to others.

Following Dickensís death in 1870, an upturn in stage adaptations, driven by nostalgia and the desire to exploit his work, continued until about 1900.  Theatrical activity then slowed, but rebounded after the invention of the silent film, which was followed by hundreds of twentieth-century Dickens entertainments in talking pictures, television and musicals.

About the Stanford Exhibition

Ideally, an exhibition should tell compelling stories in new and visually captivating ways, and should appeal to broad, diverse audiences.  Charles Dickens and Show Biz is presented with these objectives in mind.  While Dickens the novelist is familiar to many, his deep association with theatricals is not.  Telling the story of his personal involvement with the stage is the first objective of the exhibition. 

The second is to bring alive the richness and variety of public entertainment that derives from his work.  Plays and musical adaptations written for the stage have been an important part of the Dickens entertainment canon from 1836 until today.  But as public tastes changed (influenced in part by technological advances in media), once-popular entertainment forms such as tableaux vivantes and toy theaters have disappeared, and new forms have taken their place.  Charles Dickens and Show Biz brings alive these dramatic developments in the entertainment industry.

Some Dickens works, notably A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, have been re-interpreted many times and in many venues.  These works endure.  This exhibition suggests that the wide appeal of specific themes and subject matter selected by Dickens (e.g. the hope of redemption and spiritual rebirth, and the suffering of neglected children) accounts for this lasting quality of Dickens on the stage and screen.

Advertising has always been an important component of the success or failure of public performances.  Through Charles Dickens and Show Biz, the visitor can see the evolution of event publicity from its principal form in the 1830s, the theater playbill, through the development of its modern counterparts: movie posters and movie stills, postcards, pressbooks, and advertisements for screenplays, musicals and television productions.   Advertising by its nature is designed to capture attention, create awareness, and generate interest in a performance.  Likewise, publicity pieces spanning 175 years of theater and entertainment history have their own drama and excitement.