top of page
The Critical Writings of Charles Dickens:
A resource for scholars and Dickens lovers

The Role of Theater

Condition of the English Theater:

It was Dickens' belief throughout his career that the drama in England was in a sad state. The best novelists and poets were not interested in play-writing because of the difficulties in getting serious drama produced, the lack of public interest, and the meager financial rewards. Many people considered plays socially unacceptable. The theater was held in such low repute that reformers, concerned with elevating the poor and working classes, usually inveighed against theater-going. The great plays of the past, especially Shakespeare's, were presented in all kinds of bastardized versions.

To all these aspects of the role of the drama in society Dickens applied himself and, later, his coterie of writers for Household Words and All the Year Round.


In Sketches by Boz, Dickens published "Private Theatres," a portrait of theaters in 1836.


This essay, titled "Theatrical Advertisement, Extraordinary" was published in Bentley's Miscellany in February 1837. It was identified as Dickens' by G. Seawim, "A Newly Discovered Dickens Fragment," Dickensian, LN (Winter 1959), 40-41.


Dickens' fascination with the art of pantomime found expression twice in the beginning of his career, in this article, "The Pantomime of Life," and in his contribution to the Memoirs of the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi (1779-1837).


The Memoirs of Joseph GrimaldiJoseph Grimaldi (1779-1837), the famous clown, wrote his memoirs which were then revised by Thomas Egerton Wilks. The revised manuscript was acquired in 1837 by Richard Bentley, who asked Dickens to rework it for publication. Dickens abridged Wilks' version and added introductory and concluding chapters, but he was not pleased with his role in the Memoirs and stipulated that he appear as editor, not author of the

work. The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, edited by Charles Dickens, was published in 1838.


In a letter to Richard Bentley on October 30, 1837, Dickens returned Grimaldi's manuscript to Bentley, saying it would need much revision. Bentley (1794-1871) was a publisher, founder of Richard Bentley and Sons, and owner of Bentley's Miscellany.


The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi was published in 1838, with an Introductory Chapterby Dickens.


Upon publication of the Memoirs, critics objected that Dickens did not personally know Grimaldi. Dickens addressed these concerns in a letter published in Bentley's Miscellany, "Concerning Grimaldi: A Letter From the Editor to the Sub Editor."


Many years later, Dickens wrote a letter to John Britton (1771-1857), an antiquary, in which he mentions Grimaldi dismissively.


In John Forster's review "Covent Garden," the opening of Macready's production of King Lear, which Forster had been unable to attend, is discussed. William Charles Macready (1793-1873) was a prominent actor and life-long friend of Dickens and Forster. Forster quotes from reviews in other journals and then from "a friend on whose judgment we have thorough reliance."  William J. Carlton in the Dickensian, v. 61 (Autumn, 1965) surmises that the friend was Dickens. Certainly the viewpoints reflect his.


The Letters of Charles Dickens: The Pilgrim Edition Volume 2: 1840-1841
Edited by Madeline House, Graham Storey
Oxford University Press, USA, 1969

Dickens thought very highly of Macready's acting skills. On May 6, 1841, he wrote the actor after seeing him in Byron's Werner. Read Letter


In this review of Much Ado About Nothing at the Drury Lane Theater, Dickens mentions several actors in addition to Macready. Robert Keeley (1793-1869) was an actor. Louisa Cranstown Nisbett (1812-1858) was manager of the Queen's Theater and a comic actress. Samuel Phelps (1804-1878) was an actor and manager.


On June 13, 1843, Dickens wrote to Douglas Jerrold about the play he was writing. John Baldwin Buckstone (1802-1879) and Benjamin Nottingham Webster (1797-1882), were both actors, managers, and playwrights.


In Pictures from Italy published in 1846, Dickens described the theatrical scene in Genoa.


Dickens gave a speech to the General Theatrical Fund about the state of British theatre on April 6, 1846.


On August 29, 1847, Dickens wrote to Samuel Phelps expressing his pleasure at the production of Cymbeline.


On September 10, 1847, Dickens wrote a letter to Forster about the production of As You Like It, praising the manager of the theater.


Dickens wrote a letter to Effingham William Wilson (unidentified), thanking him for a pamphlet titled Proposals for a National Theatre.


In an article in the Examiner on May 12, 1849, Dickens reviewed Virginie and Black-Eyed Susan.


Carlton, William J. "Dickens or Forster? Some King Lear Criticisms Re-examined," Dickensian, LXI 
(September, 1965), 133-40.

Robert Fleissner in Dickens and Shakespeare, 1965, prints a revised version of this text and notes variations between his text and that in the Dickensian, v. 44, both of which are used here. A few cases where Fleissner does not indicate variation are footnoted. "Noble" is omitted in Fleissner's text. Similarly, "renunciation" is "denunciation" in Fleissner's text, "we" is "I," and "indeed" is omitted entirely. Read Article


Dickens published "The Amusements of the People" in HW on March 30, 1850, writing about the public nature of theatrical art.


Dickens continued the second installment of "The Amusements of the People" on April 13, describing the theatre through the eyes of a fictional visitor, Mr. Whelks.


On June 27, 1850, Dickens wrote to W. H. Wills about his dashed hopes for continuing "Amusements of the People" in Paris.


Dickens greatly revered the stagecraft of Macready. On February 27, 1851, Dickens wrote a letter praising the actor on his performance and expressing regret about his final appearance at the Drury Lane Theater.


At a banquet in London held for Macready's benefit, Dickens gave a speech in his honor. "Wednesday night last," was Macready's farewell performance as Macbeth at the Drury Lane Theater on February 26, 1851.


In a speech at the General Theatrical Fund on April 14, 1851, Dickens stressed the importance of the Fund's non-exclusivity.



On October 4, 1851, Dickens and R.H. Horne co-wrote the article "Shakspeare and Newgate." Richard Henry Horne (1803-1884) was a playwright, a man of letters, and a contributor to HW.


Dickens' acquaintance with the most illustrious theatrical personalities did not blind him to the existence of the bit players who subsisted on next to nothing yet cheerfully made their contribution to the total illusion of a play. In "Gaslight Fairies," published in HW on February 10, 1855, Dickens pays tribute to them.


In a letter to Wilkie Collins dated March 4, 1855, Dickens wrote a scathing review of a production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Standard Theater. Charles James Mathews (1803-1878) was an actor, dramatist, and manager.


Nelson, Harlan S. "Dicken's' Our Mutual Friend and Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor."  Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Vol. 20, No. 3, Dec., 1965


Percy Fitzgerald (1830-1926) was a journalist and novelist who contributed to HW and AYR. Read Article



In reviewing the autobiography of a contemporary theatrical figure, Wilkie Collins touches on many points Dickens brings out in his articles on the state of the theater.


"Dramatic Grub Street," by Wilkie Collins, attributes the sad state of the drama in England-as compared to France-to the fact that in England even the most successful plays bring little financial gain to their authors. This echoes, in another context, Dickens' continual cry for more money for writers.


This attack by Percy Fitzgerald onstereotypes in drama recalls much of Dickens. The last portion of the article, dealing with the dramatization of Dombey and Son makes clear Dickens' attitude to the treatment of his "chee-yld."


The Nonesuch Dickens: The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume III
Edited by Walter Dexter
The Nonesuch Press
Duckworth & Co, London, 2005

Charles Kean (1811-1868) was an actor and rival of Macready, and therefore not one of Dickens' friends. In a letter to R.H. Horne, Dickens writes that he cannot help mount the play onstage. Read Letter


In February 25, 1860, Dickens published "Two Views of a Cheap Theatre" in AYR.


On June 23, 1860, Dickens wrote about revisiting his hometown, "Dullborough Town," in AYR, giving particular attention to the theater: "The Theatre was in existence, I found, on asking the fishmonger…"


Nelson, Harlan S. "Dicken's' Our Mutual Friend and Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor."  Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Vol. 20, No. 3, Dec., 1965

Charles Allston Collins (1828-1873) was the younger brother of Wilkie Collins and a painter and illustrator who married Dickens' daughter Kate. His article was published in AYR. Read Article


In the following two articles, Dickens has the writer, Andrew Halliday (1830-1877), a dramatist and essayist, revive Mr. Whelks, the character introduced by Dickens sixteen years previously in "The Amusements of the People."  The purpose is to take the reader once more on a tour of the deplorable entertainments available to the working man. Halliday published "Mr. Whelks Revived" in AYR on June 16, 1866.


Halliday followed with "Mr. Whelks at the Play," published in AYR on June 23, 1866.


On February 13, 1869, Dickens published a short piece titled "A Slight Question of Fact" in AYR defending the state of theaters against a previous attack in The Pall Mall Gazette.

bottom of page