Up Into the Clouds Together: Dickens on Stage

Charles Dickens left traces of his art as a riveting storyteller in the texts he prepared for the stage. These volumes, known as prompt-copies, were special versions of his stories that he personally prepared for his public readings; the largest surviving number of them are now held by The New York Public Library's Berg Collection. When on stage, Dickens placed the prompt-copies before him on his reading desk; if he forgot a line or lost his place during a performance (a rare occurrence), he could then glance down for his prompt. Most were small editions that Dickens had privately printed specifically for use in his stage performances, each then handsomely bound up in his library binding. The only known prompt-copy of A Christmas Carol, however, was assembled by inlaying the pages of a regular edition (in this case, the 12th, published in 1849) into larger sheets, and the whole was then bound up nicely for Dickens, and bears his bookplate.

Each prompt-copy "” more working manuscript than crib "” served as a canvas for Dickens's brilliance as both editor and performer, the pages heavily marked up with carefully worked-out cues and stage directions, which he would eventually have memorized to perfection, as indeed he would individual readings in their entirety. There are as well numerous cuts, revisions, comments, editorial symbols, and transitional or "bridge" passages inserted in the working "manuscript," reflecting the continuous "sculpting" of the readings as Dickens polished and tightened them so that each would achieve its maximum effect in performance. In the Carol prompt-copy, for example, one can trace the evolution of the reading, which formed a popular part of the bill from the beginning of Dickens's career on the stage in 1853, to the very last of his "Farewell Readings," in London, on March 15, 1870. An intricate network of revisions, deletions, and pointers to the performer ("Weird" "” "run on" "” "clean over") documents Dickens's constant reworking of the text, which gradually reduced the length of the reading from three hours to a more dramatically effective hour-and-a-half. The American writer Kate Field, who was in the audience many times during Dickens's 1867-68 reading tour of America, recalled how in the performance of the Carol, "the magnetic current between reader and listener" set in with the introduction of Scrooge. And that when Scrooge was startled by the ghostly knocker, so was Field: "Of course Scrooge saw it, because the expression of Dickens's face, as he rubs his eyes and stares, makes me see it, 'with a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.'"

More Images from Dickens's Christmas Carol Prompt Copy

Related Publication: The first full-color facsimile of Dickens's Christmas Carol Prompt Copy

Illustrated Presentation: Charles Dickens: The Life of the Author

About the Berg Collection of English and American Literature