Dickens loved to perform his stories—so he created a special version of A Christmas Carol for exactly that purpose. He tore the pages out of an original book, and stuck them into a new, large leafed, blank paged book. Then he chopped up the text, cutting descriptive scenes and adding stage directions for himself, to create a performance script. Such an annotated copy is called a prompt copy.
In 1853, 10 years after the novel’s publication, Charles Dickens gave the first public performance of A Christmas Carol in Birmingham’s town hall. He performed for a rapturous crowd of 2,000, all working people from the town, and it lasted just under three hours. Before this time, no great author had performed their works in public and for profit, which many thought beneath Dickens’ calling as a writer and a gentleman. Despite this criticism, Dickens always presented himself to his audience in full evening dress, with a bright buttonhole, a purple waistcoat, and a glittering watch-chain.
His stage equipment consisted of a reading desk, carpet, gas lights, and a pair of large screens behind him to help project his voice forward. Without a single prop or costume, Dickens peopled his stage with a throng of characters, it is said, “like an entire theatre company…under one hat.” The arrival of Scrooge always created a sensation; Dickens became an old man with a shrewd, grating voice whose face was drawn into his collar like an aging turtle. It is reported that the audience “fell into a kind of trance, as a universal feeling of joy seemed to invade the whole assembly”.
On performance days, Dickens stuck to a rather bizarre routine. He had two tablespoons of rum flavored with fresh cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea, and, half an hour before the start of his performance, would drink a raw egg beaten into a tumbler of sherry. During the five minute interval, he invariably consumed a quick cup of beef tea and always retired to bed with a bowl of soup.
His last reading took place in London at St. James’ Hall on March 15, 1870. At the end of the performance, he told his audience: “From these garish lights, I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.” There was a stunned silence, broken by a tumult of cheering, hat-waving and the stamping of feet. With tears streaming down his face, Dickens raised his hands to his lips in an affectionate kiss and departed from the platform forever.
Adapted from “Ten Things You Never Knew About Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol” by Clive Francis (December 5, 2012), The Telegraph. © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2012.