|A DICKENS OF AN EVENT IN NEWPORT
Britain's best loved and most famous novelist Charles Dickens began giving public readings of his works, first for charity, and beginning in 1858, for profit. Before this time no great author had performed their works in public, but Dickens' works were uniquely suited for performance. It was felt that Dickens' theatrical training contributed to the success of public readings of his works. He carried on regular reading tours throughout the latter part of his life and even ventured to America earning 19,000 pounds for his performances.
He only came to Wales twice, firstly at Swansea on 4 April 1867 and then at Newport on 21 January 1869, the latter just over 12 months before he died. The Newport reading formed part of a farewell tour of Britain starting in October 1868. This tour included a new addition, a very passionate and dramatic performance of the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist. Many believe that the energy expended in this performance, which he insisted on including even as his health worsened, hastened his early death.
The Guardian stated in a 2004 article written by Matt Shinn "What Dickens's public got for their money was something of a spectacle. Like a Victorian magician, Dickens performed against simple but striking stage architecture, with a vivid maroon backdrop and a red reading stand that he had designed himself, with "a fringe around the little desk for the book"."
In Newport as with all of Dickens' readings there was a huge crowd at the Victoria Hall from all social classes; those who could not obtain tickets for the performance peered in through the windows and doors.
A newspaper report in the Monmouthshire Merlin from January 23 of that year recently quoted by the Argus said the audience experienced a “grateful thrill” to listen to the author speak at the Hall (which later became the Lyceum). It said: “The audience comprised all grades of society, the affluent and those in humbler walks, the cultivated and those who boast of but little learning and was thus illustrative of the universality of the power wielded by the great novelist, for it is the rare characteristic of his productions that in their influence they overlap all class distinctions, appealing to humanity, as such, whether luxuriating in ducal splendour, or tenanting the peasant’s cot. The selections which comprised his programme on Thursday were The Christmas Carol and The Trial from Pickwick. Probably there were few, if any, present who were unfamiliar with the Carol, yet throughout, the reading was listened to with almost breathless silence, and the feeling of suspense which was occasionally excited as the narrative proceeded, waxed well-nigh painful. At the close, as indeed frequently throughout the evening, Mr Dickens was hailed with loud acclamation.”
Dickens completed his tour on March 15 1870 and died on June 9 of the same year.