Dickens and the theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon

Dickens in 1842

Nineteenth-century novelist Charles Dickens is particularly associated with the festive season. His “little Christmas book” A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and with its larger than life characters, dramatic plot and heartwarming message, it was an instant success. It was adapted for the stage just six weeks after it appeared and it’s been a favourite in every medium ever since. It’s been rewritten and updated even more times that Shakespeare’s plays, and in 2019 versions can be seen at many theatres including Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End where for the first time in the UK a woman plays Scrooge. Sally Dexter is Fan Scrooge, Ebenezer’s sister, just as miserly and miserable as her brother.

I’m currently researching the history of early theatre in Stratford, and although the focus is on Shakespeare, the name of Charles Dickens keeps on cropping up. It was the actor Charles Mathews the Elder, while on one of his trips to the town in 1820, who proposed that the town needed a proper memorial, ideally a theatre, to Shakespeare. Although Dickens was only a child at the time, he later came to admire Mathews who impersonated a number of different characters in his one-man shows.

The 1827 theatre in Chapel Lane, around 1860

Mathews’ rallying call resulted in a national attempt to raise money by public subscription for a monument to Shakespeare, but when this failed in 1824 townspeople took on the idea of celebrating Shakespeare and created the Shakespeare Club. Their aim to begin with was simply to mark the Birthday with a fine dinner, but two years later club members formed a group to build a theatre, issuing shares to raise the £1000 or so needed. The theatre opened in 1827 under the name of the Shakspearean Theatre, and many Shakespeare plays featured in its first season. It stood in Chapel Lane, on the site of New Place Great Garden.

The manager of the theatre invited famous actors to perform in it, including, in 1829, William Charles Macready. Some years later Dickens would become a great friend of Macready and dedicated his novel Nicholas Nickleby to him. The novel contains a long section in which Nicholas joins the Crummles Theatre Company and ends up playing Romeo for them. This Company travels from town to town performing in small provincial theatres very much like the Stratford one. By the late 1830s when Dickens was writing the novel, companies like Crummles’ and theatres like the one in Stratford, were struggling to stay in profit. Many of them were closed or remodelled as larger theatres in the cities became popular.

Dickens adored the theatre, and was a good amateur actor. His best-known intervention in Stratford was to raise money in the aftermath of the purchase of Shakespeare’s Birthplace by heading performances of several plays including The Merry Wives of Windsor in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow during the summer of 1848. Most of the performers were amateurs, and Dickens revelled in the experience. What’s less well-known is that Dickens and his company intended to perform in Stratford’s little theatre. It would have been wonderfully appropriate, so why didn’t it happen? From Dickens’ collected letters and contemporary newspaper reports the picture emerges. Privately Dickens decided that a Stratford performance might draw people away from Birmingham, but the reason given in public was that the theatre was too small. His correspondence includes details about the Stratford theatre itself. He estimated that at top prices it would have taken £200, seating 550 people (top prices would have been half a guinea for the best seats). One friend sent him a sketch of the layout in a letter now held at the Victoria and Albert museum. I’m waiting impatiently for a photograph of this document – images of the inside of the theatre are almost non-existent. Dickens visited Stratford several times, and the letters also reveal that while in Birmingham he and some of his company visited Stratford, signing the visitors’ book at Holy Trinity Church.

A provincial theatre similar to Stratford’s theatre suffering a small audience, around 1830.

The letters also reveal rather more about Dickens’ motivation for the tour: although the playbills stated that the aim was to raise money for a curatorship of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the letters show that he would only hand over the profits if his friend Sheridan Knowles was appointed. Knowles was a well-known writer whose plays, like The Hunchback, were among the most popular in pre-Victorian England. Knowles was well-known in Stratford: he delivered an oration on Shakespeare at the Shakspearean Theatre at the Birthday Celebrations in 1837. By the 1840s he had fallen on hard times, though not hard enough to refuse a pension of £100 per year from the government. When, for whatever reason, no curator was appointed at the Birthplace, it seems Dickens handed the money over to Knowles regardless (at least £1500, half the price of the Birthplace itself). Dickens’ generosity to the Birthplace suddenly doesn’t seem quite so impressive.

My searches for other Dickens links with the little Chapel Lane Theatre continue. Was an adaption of any of Dickens’ books, particularly A Christmas Carol, ever staged there? It’s disappointing to find that a performance came so close, a connection with Dickens would not have saved the theatre from being demolished in 1872 in order to re-establish the area as Shakespeare’s garden.

If you’re interested in the history of this theatre I’m giving a lecture on the subject to the Stratford Society on Monday 16 December. Details can be found on the Society’s website.

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