Today, in the spirit of the holiday season, I’ll be stepping out of the colonial period and traveling to Victorian era Boston to remember Charles Dickens’ historic visit to the city in 1867 and his highly acclaimed readings of A Christmas Carol. I’ll also be introducing you to a gentleman whose recent dramatic performances of Dickens’ holiday classic in and around Boston received rave reviews with all proceeds going to benefit the Greater Boston Food Bank – the largest hunger-relief organization in New England. First to Mr. Dickens himself – Charles Dickens arrived in Boston on November 19, 1867. It was his second visit to America and to Boston, his first being in January 1842. Dickens stayed at the luxurious Parker House, an earlier version of today’s popular Omni Parker House Hotel. Shortly after his arrival, the author wrote a letter to his daughter commenting on his lodgings. “This is an immense hotel, with all manner of white marble public passages and public rooms. I live in a corner, high up, and have a hot and cold bath in my bedroom (communicating with the sitting-room), and comforts not in existence when I was here before. The cost of living is enormous, but happily we can afford it.” Tickets for the first four readings that Dickens had announced sold out immediately. As his manager had planned, there were a few weeks to relax before the busy tour began. During this period, Charles Dickens attended several dinner engagements and spent a good deal of time rehearsing from the reading script he had created and memorized. He practiced the facial expressions and gestures for all the wonderful characters in his story, including Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, in a tall mirror that hung in his room. (This mirror and other artifacts from Dickens visit can be seen today at the Omni Parker House Hotel.) Dickens is believed to have given his first informal reading of A Christmas Carol on Saturday, November 30, 1867 in the Press Room of the Parker House to a small group of men called “The Saturday Club”. Among the group of writers, philosophers, historians, and scientists that day was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Just two days later, Charles Dickens’ first formal reading would take place.
Opening night in Boston for Dickens American reading tour was Monday, December 2, 1867. As the day dawned, an early winter snow swirled about the city but by evening the roads were in fine shape for the carriages that transported many of the guests to Tremont Temple. Outside the theater, scalpers were offering the prized $2 tickets for $40 – the equivalent of about $400 today! The New York Times of the following day stated, “one of the largest halls in the city was filled to every available part by perhaps one of the most appreciative, fashionable and brilliant audiences ever assembled in New-England.” A Boston paper mentioned that Dickens appeared, “before as large an audience as could be comfortably crowded into that hall, in which all the poets, philosophers, sages and historians of this city and vicinity were mingled like plums in a Christmas pudding.” Charles Dickens walked on stage at about 8 o’clock receiving cheers and applause, and strode to his reading table (shown in this original illustration) that contained a block for resting his elbow and held a glass flask filled with water. For most of his performances, the author was dressed in a suit with a red carnation in its buttonhole and a velvet vest containing a heavy gold chain running from pocket to pocket. The New York Times of December 3 states, “After silence was restored Mr. Dickens proceeded to read his “Christmas Carol,” which occupied about one hour and a half. The novelist did not confine himself to the printed page, but rather spoke from memory. During the rendering of this reading his audience was completely spell-bound, so happily and so true to nature did he acquit himself in all its parts. His wonderful power of delineation, versatility of voice and power of gesture excited the admiration of all.” A link to the complete original article from The New York Times as well as an audio podcast appear at the bottom of this post. Charles Dickens was very pleased with the reception he received on opening night. From the Parker House he wrote, “Success last night beyond description or exaggeration. The whole city is quite frantic about it to-day, and it is impossible that prospects could be more brilliant.” Dickens had three more performances that week in Boston and then took the train to New York to continue his tour. The reading tour covered numerous cities on the east coast and lasted for more than four months before concluding in Boston. During this time, Dickens performed on average four evenings a week.
Some of Charles Dickens’ early performances in England beginning in 1853 were done for charity. In that tradition, since 2006, actor and living history interpreter Al LePage has been giving dramatic reading performances of A Christmas Carol across the United States and Canada to benefit organizations helping those who are hungry and in need. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts who now lives in Portland, Oregon, LePage is the founder of Great Stories Alive! – an organization that brings history to life by portraying people from the past. “Performance with Passion & Purpose” is how LePage defines his work. His recent Boston area engagements included four shows at the Omni Parker House Hotel; one at Converse Hall (Tremont Temple) on the exact date that Dickens performed there in 1867; and one show at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts that sold out well in advance. Admission for each show was $18.67 with 100% of the proceeds going to benefit the Greater Boston Food Bank. During his shows, Al LePage takes on the role of a fictional Englishman named Thomas Hutchinson – a “traveling thespian” who had seen one of Dickens’ early performances in England. With the famous novelist’s blessing, Hutchinson uses a copy of Dickens’ original speaking script to share his Christmas tale with the masses and cultivate generosity for the needy during the holiday season. LePage as Hutchinson, in correct Victorian period attire, takes his audiences on a journey back in time. Those attending his Boston shows were transported to the year 1876 – just nine years after Dickens’ visit, to experience the same historic events in the same historic spots the author did during his own dramatic readings.
Al LePage, as Dickens did before him, uses voice, facial expressions, gestures and movement to create 26 characters complete with accents. He adds some wonderful sound effects too. From his perfect depictions of the miserly Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost, to his fine portrayals of the loving father Bob Cratchit and his sickly son Tiny Tim, LePage keeps his audience hanging on every word while they feel and experience the suspense, joy, sadness, and fight back the tears. I was fortunate to have a ticket for both an evening performance in the Press Room of the Omni Parker House Hotel, where the actor received a rousing standing ovation, and the very historic and memorable December 2 show at Converse Hall. There were plenty of surprises for the audience before, at intermission, and after each performance. LePage’s creative stories and improvisational style kept everyone fully engaged beforehand, while during the intermission at Parker House shows the hotel graciously supplied warm cider and a very tasty dessert. After each performance, some fun and highly meaningful gifts were given away. At the conclusion of the event at Converse Hall, two lucky audience members were selected to receive an 1838 twopence and an 1817 half-a-crown (both coins were mentioned in the story) while the grand prize was a copy of A Christmas Carol printed in Boston in 1876! All events hosted at the Parker House were sponsored by Omni Hotels/Resorts, Parker House/Boston. The print media sponsor for all Boston performances was GateHouse Media New England.
Audio Podcast of the article from The New York Times on December 3, 1867
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD AUDIO
Available NOW! A wonderful DVD of Al LePage performing A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens at Martha-Mary Chapel, Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Don’t miss this “Dramatic Reading Performance by Englishman Thomas Hutchinson”. Purchase your copy today. A clip from the DVD is shown below.
Upcoming New England performances of A Christmas Carol by Al LePage:
Longfellow’s Wayside Inn – Sudbury
Two Shows: Friday, December 16 and Saturday, December 17, 2011
Both Shows are SOLD OUT
Omni Parker House – Boston
Sunday, December 18, 2011 – Abbreviated Afternoon Matinee (2-4 pm)
Video link: “A Christmas Carol” – Dramatic Reading by “Thomas Hutchinson” (embedded above)
Video produced by Active Communications
Resources & Links
- David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page
- Dickens Original Handwritten Manuscript
- On Stage with Charles Dickens
- The Letters of Charles Dickens
- The New York Public Library – Charles Dickens: The Life of the Author
- Uncovering the Real Dickens DVD. Purchase from Amazon.com
Shortcut to this post: AChristmasCarol.com
Promoting this post: Teach History presents