Behind the Bar by John Henry Henshall.

A pub in the late Victorian era, shown in ‘Behind the Bar’ by John Henry Henshall.

Theatre and the Music Hall

When Dickens was in his infancy, popular entertainment in England was undergoing a period of critical change. The industrial revolution led people to move from the country to the city in search of work, resulting in the adaptation and rejection of rural traditions. Like the village pub, the urban public house became an important social space. However, other forms of more sophisticated entertainment, such as theatres, offered a world far removed from country pursuits. By the mid nineteenth century, city life offered an increasingly wide range of leisure activities including sporting events, music and exhibition halls meant to cater for the tastes of the working and middle-classes who valued and were prepared to pay for their entertainment.

The new audiences wanted music, dancing, spectacles and excitement, and many theatres began to meet public demand. In the early nineteenth century, a number of these began presenting musical concerts, ballets, gothic dramas, melodramas and pantomimes. In London, this led to the popularity of theatres such as Astley’s  Amphitheatre (established in 1777, but refurbished in Victorian splendour in 1844), which were a cross between theatre and circus, and an increasing number of minor theatres such as the Lyceum (1809), the Surrey (1810), the Sans Pareil (1806), later renamed the Adelphi, and the Coburg (1816), later called the Royal Victoria.

Portsmouth High Street

The High Street looking north torwards Portsmouth Theatre and a poster for the Theatre Royal in Commercial Road.

Dickens’s novels were frequently adapted for the stage, and at times, because his works were serialised in magazines such as Household Words (1850-59) and All the Year Round (1859-70), they appeared as plays even before they were published in novel form. The Adelphi staged a number of Dickens’s works including ‘The Christening’ (1834), a farce based on ‘The Bloomsbury Christening’ which was later published in the first volume of Sketches by Boz (1833-36); The Pickwick Papers (1836-37) under the title of ‘The Peregrinations of Pickwick; or, Boz-i-a-na’ (1837), and ‘Nicholas Nickleby; or, Doings at Do-The-Boys Hall’ in 1838. The Lyceum also staged adaptations of Dickens’s novels including a stage version of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), performed from July 1844-April 1845, and of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which ran from January – March 1860. Struck by the success of these minor theatres, the patent theatres began altering their programmes to cater for public taste by mounting costly spectaculars, incorporating complicated mechanical ‘special effects’ to draw the crowds. In 1843, parliament passed a Bill which liberated the independent theatres. From then on, Variety became a byword for theatrical entertainment and for the next twenty years, these theatres would stage many dramatic forms including domestic plays, melodramas and burlesques, providing up to six hours of diversion for only a few shillings.

All the minor theatres in London, especially the lowest, constitute the centre of a little stage-struck neighbourhood.  Each of them has an audience exclusively its own; and at any you will see dropping into the pit at half-price, or swaggering into the back of a box, if the price of admission be a reduced one, divers boys of from fifteen to twenty-one years of age, who throw back their coat and turn up their wristbands, after the portraits of Count D’Orsay, hum tunes and whistle when the curtain is down, by way of persuading the people near them, that they are not at all anxious to have it up again, and speak familiarly of the inferior performers as Bill Such-a-one, and Ned So-and-so, or tell each other how a new piece called The Unknown Bandit of the Invisible Cavern, is in rehearsal; how Mister Palmer is to play The Unknown Bandit; how Charley Scarton is to take the part of an English sailor, and fight a broadsword combat with six unknown bandits, at one and the same time (one theatrical sailor is always equal to half a dozen men at least); how Mister Palmer and Charley Scarton are to go through a double hornpipe in fetters in the second act; how the interior of the invisible cavern is to occupy the whole extent of the stage; and other town-surprising theatrical announcements.  These gentlemen are the amateurs—the Richards, Shylocks, Beverleys, and Othellos—the Young Dorntons, Rovers, Captain Absolutes, and Charles Surfaces—a private theatre.

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz (1833-36)

A Victorian Music hall

A Victorian music hall by Gustave Doré

Music Hall was another very popular form of public entertainment. While it began as a primarily working-class phenomenon, in the latter part of the nineteenth century it attracted a cross-section of society. Nevertheless, social divisions continued to be subtly enforced by the pricing of seats in particular locations. The history of music halls begins with ‘singing saloons’ in pubs which, by the 1830s, offered late-night Saturday evening sing-songs while customers ate their suppers. The popularity of such entertainment led to the opening of the first music halls, including the Star in Bolton (1832), the Polytechnic in Salford (c. 1840), the Eagle (c. 1825) and the Canterbury (c. 1848) in London. Dickens frequented the Eagle on City Road in London and wrote about the such musical entertainments in Sketches by Boz.

The more musical portion of the play-going community betake themselves to some harmonic meeting. As a matter of curiosity let us follow them thither for a few moments. In a lofty room of spacious dimensions, are seated some eighty or a hundred guests knocking little pewter measures on the tables, and hammering away, with the handles of their knives, as if they were so many trunk-makers. They are applauding a glee, which has just been executed by the three ‘professional gentlemen’ at the top of the centre table, one of whom is in the chair—the little pompous man with the bald head just emerging from the collar of his green coat. The others are seated on either side of him—the stout man with the small voice, and the thin-faced dark man in black. The little man in the chair is a most amusing personage,—such condescending grandeur, and such a voice! ‘Bass!’ as the young gentleman near us with the blue stock forcibly remarks to his companion, ‘bass! I b’lieve you; he can go down lower than any man: so low sometimes that you can’t hear him.’ And so he does. To hear him growling away, gradually lower and lower down, till he can’t get back again, is the most delightful thing in the world, and it is quite impossible to witness unmoved the impressive solemnity with which he pours forth his soul in ‘My ’art’s in the ’ighlands,’ or ‘The brave old Hoak.’ The stout man is also addicted to sentimentality, and warbles ‘Fly, fly from the world, my Bessy, with me,’ or some such song, with lady-like sweetness, and in the most seductive tones imaginable.

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz (1833-36)


Literature and the Theatre

Dickens is commonly regarded as ‘the most theatrical of Victorian novelists’ and theatre features in many of his works, most famously in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), in which Nicholas and Smike join the Crummles theatrical company and head for Portsmouth.

Theatrical Emotion of Mr. Vincent Crummles.

Nicholas was … left at leisure to entertain himself with his own thoughts, until they arrived at the drawbridge at Portsmouth, when Mr Crummles pulled up.

‘We’ll get down here,’ said the manager, ‘and the boys will take him round to the stable, and call at my lodgings with the luggage. You had better let yours be taken there, for the present.’

Thanking Mr Vincent Crummles for his obliging offer, Nicholas jumped out, and, giving Smike his arm, accompanied the manager up High Street on their way to the theatre; feeling nervous and uncomfortable enough at the prospect of an immediate introduction to a scene so new to him.

They passed a great many bills, pasted against the walls and displayed in windows, wherein the names of Mr Vincent Crummles, Mrs Vincent Crummles, Master Crummles, Master P. Crummles, and Miss Crummles, were printed in very large letters, and everything else in very small ones; and, turning at length into an entry, in which was a strong smell of orange-peel and lamp-oil, with an under-current of sawdust, groped their way through a dark passage, and, descending a step or two, threaded a little maze of canvas screens and paint pots, and emerged upon the stage of the Portsmouth Theatre.

Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39)

Portsmouth Theatre, the venue at which the Crummles perform was, according to The Chronicles of Portsmouth (1828), situated at ‘the upper end of the High Street’ and is described as ‘a plain building, without the least trace of architectural ornament, and not very appropriate for the purposes of theatrical entertainment’. It was demolished in 1854 and a new theatre, the New Theatre Royal, was established in Guildhall Walk, Portsmouth in 1856.


Public Readings

Dickens’s interest in theatre also emerged in his commitment to public readings of his work, which are considered ‘the culmination of his lifetime’s dedication to the cause of popular entertainment’. Dickens performed a variety of extracts and short stories in tours that covered the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, and took him to America in 1867-68.

St Georges Hall

St Georges Hall – the last place that Dickens read on stage in Portsmouth.

Mr Charles Dickens is an excellent reader. He uses little action, but he can make his features eloquent. He is far from monotonous, and throws an alteration of light and shade, so to speak, into his reading, by means of a rapid or slow utterance, according to the character or importance of the passages read. He, therefore, maintains the interest of his subject for two hours with comparative ease, and carries his audience with him by means of the variety which he imparts to his entertainment. Without any aid from costume, or any extravagance of motion, by the mere power of facial expression, he impersonates the different characters of his stories and brings them ideally, but vividly, before the spectator’s mind. Mr Dickens has invented a new medium for amusing and English audience, and merits the gratitude of an intelligent public.

Illustrated London News, 31 July 1858

Among Dickens’s most celebrated  performances was ‘Sikes and Nancy’, the murder scene from Oliver Twist, which he added to his farewell tour. These public performances, given originally for charity and later for profit, made the author and his works increasingly popular and brought Dickens into direct contact with his readership. Ever anxious to make his readings accessible to people from a broad social spectrum, Dickens always insisted that a proportion of seats should be sold at reasonable prices to ensure that working-class families could afford them.


Discover more…

Please return to the Portsmouth map to explore  further.  (If you are using a mobile device, return to the quick index page).  Or you may like to read the book, Dickens and the Victorian City, written by Dr Brad Beaven and Dr Patricia Pullham at the University of Portsmouth.


J. A. Hammerton, The Dickens Picture-Book, p. 159.