The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 2002
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 15. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 23
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 108

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby


When it appeared on the London stage in 1980, David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby became the longest play ever produced, and when it moved to a lavish production in New York for the eight-and-one-half hour theater endurance test (viewed either in one marathon sitting or in two long evenings), it boasted the most expensive theatre ticket price ever set, at $100 each. Edgar found himself identifying more and more with the Dickensian spirit of being “generously angry” as he worked on Nicholas Nickleby. This is a play that takes the social consciousness of the original Dickens novel to new dimensions, where audiences can be reminded of the need for social reform, as well as uplifted by the play’s message. Edgar sees three avenues of success in his production: “First, it looks at adaptations in a new way. It says that a group of people with a strong view about the world can take a work of art and frame it and transform it in a way that makes the adaptation one not of the original work of art but about the original work of art. Point two... it’s accessible; it’s not obscure.... [And] the third point is that it was... on the side of the underdog for the entirety of its not inconsiderable length.” The play combines Dickensian social realism with modern theatrical spectacle and genuine heart.

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David Edgar was born in Birmingham, England, on February 26, 1948. His father, Barrie Edgar, was a television producer, and his mother had been an actress. Birmingham’s proximity to Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon meant that David saw numerous productions of Shakespeare plays as he grew up. He attended Oundle School, a liberal private school north of London, where he acted in and directed plays and discovered his passion for socialist politics. He went on to earn his bachelor of arts in drama from Manchester University, in 1969. Edgar briefly held a position as a journalist while beginning his career as a playwright. During and after college, he wrote and acted in numerous plays, and by 1973 he had produced his first television play, The Eagle Has Landed. As Edgar’s socialist sentiments grew, he helped to found the Theatre Writer’s Union (1975) and produced primarily agitprop plays, simple pieces with a socialist agenda. These plays most often ran in small theaters to little notice, and ultimately Edgar decided, as he explained in an interview with biographer Elizabeth Swain, that he needed the arena of the larger theater with its capacity for spectacle in order to convey complex “political questions which concern the relationship between historical events and the perceptions of the people who are passing through them.” His chance came when his antifascist, antiracist play Destiny moved to the Aldwych Theatre in the fashionable West End theater district of London. Edgar’s political insight was recognized, and he was courted by left-wing newspapers to write political essays.

Edgar soon established a parallel career as a political essayist and speaker, one that he continues to nourish alongside his prolific career as a playwright. Contacts with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company and a commission to produce Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, led to the 1980 production of his most successful work to date, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Before beginning to write his adaptation of the Dickens novel, Edgar met with directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird and a group of forty-five of the main actors over a period of five weeks, reading the Dickens novel together and discussing how to stage the play. The resulting eight-and-a-half-hour production fulfilled Edgar’s goal for theatrical spectacle with a political message. Edgar was especially pleased when a reviewer likened him to Balzac, a French novelist known for epic novels that portrayed nineteenth-century society with all of its

David Edgar David Edgar

problems. Like Balzac, the reviewer said, Edgar “seems to be a secretary for our times.” Edgar responded, “That defined rather more precisely than I’d ever defined before, what I’d like to be. I’d like to be a secretary for the times through which I am living. I’m an unreconstructed social realist, nineteenth-century social realist—or becoming one.” David Edgar currently chairs the masters program in play writing at Birmingham University.


Part 1, Act 1

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby briefly outlines the reasons that Nicholas Nickleby, his sister Kate, and their mother travel to London—because of the father’s death—and then portrays a town meeting wherein a large muffin company ousts private “muffin boys” through a ruse of guaranteeing lower muffin prices to help the poor. Surveying the selling of the new company’s stock is Nicholas’s parsimonious uncle, Ralph Nickleby, to whom the now-destitute relatives turn for assistance. Ralph places Nicholas as an assistant in Dotheboys Hall, a Yorkshire boarding school, and Page 110  |  Top of ArticleKate in a milliner’s shop, coldly splitting them apart. Kate and Mrs. Nickleby move out of their temporary lodgings with the kind portrait artist, Miss La Creevy, and into one of Ralph’s sparsely furnished rental homes. Nicholas is skeptical of the one-eyed schoolmaster, Mr. Wackford Squeers, with his appalling lack of knowledge and his gruff treatment of the charges, most of whom are illegitimate or disfigured. Nevertheless, Nicholas dares not question his employer until Squeers starts to beat Smike, a severely limited student whom Nicholas has befriended. In a fit of rage, Nicholas strikes Squeers, and Smike is able to make a getaway. Then Nicholas, too, departs, and Mrs. Squeers tends to her husband. Nicholas runs into John Browdie, a neighbor engaged to a friend of Squeers’s daughter Fanny. John gives Nicholas a bear hug for beating the schoolmaster. Smike and Nicholas take the road back to London. Fanny writes a letter to Ralph Nickleby condemning Nicholas as having ruthlessly attacked both of her parents. In the meantime, Kate has been taken in by Madame Mantalini and her crew of milliners. Because she is young and pretty, Kate works with Miss Knag in the shop itself, awkwardly helping rich, spoiled, young women try on hats. Miss Knag befriends the young newcomer.

Part 1, Act 2

Newman Noggs, secretary to Ralph Nickleby, reads Fanny’s letter and then goes to visit his downstairs neighbors, the Kenwigs. This family has three daughters and an infant named Lillyvick, named after Mrs. Kenwigs’ uncle, a water-rate collector. Mrs. Kenwigs is obviously expecting another child. The family panders to Uncle Lillyvick, for he holds the key to their salvation, if he chooses to leave his inheritance to their girls, which will provide them with a reliable means of subsistence. Nicholas visits Noggs and tells him about his encounter with Squeers and then searches for new employment, temporarily acting as French tutor to the Kenwigs children. His mother does not know whether to believe her son or Ralph about Nicholas’s attack of Squeers. However, Kate, who has by now replaced Miss Knag in the milliner’s shop and incited her jealousy, has complete faith in her brother. He and his sister embrace, and he leaves with Smike for Portsmouth to find some means of supporting them all. Along the road, they meet the Crummles theatrical family, headed by Mr. Vincent Crummles and featuring the Crummles sons and daughter, otherwise known as the Infant Phenomenon, a girl of fifteen who has been playing a ten-year-old for at least five years. Nicholas signs on to write a new piece for the company, for a weekly rate of one pound, and ends up playing Romeo, while Smike joins the troupe as the Apothecary. In the audience, Uncle Lillyvick falls in love with the actress Miss Petowker, and they marry, leaving the Kenwigs without a benefactor.

Madame Mantalini’s business is about to be foreclosed, due to her husband’s profligate ways. When she visits Ralph Nickleby for help, she discovers her husband trying to cash in some outstanding accounts he has stolen from her. She announces her intention to separate from him and says that she has taken steps to put the shop into Miss Knag’s hands, a clever way to keep the shop from devolving to her husband, since a married woman cannot own property. Miss Knag now employs Madame as manager, and Mr. Mantolini is left in the cold. It is revealed that Ralph Nickleby had engineered the foreclosure and then stood ready to advance the money to salvage the shop, at a profitable rate of interest. With Miss Knag in charge, however, Nickleby’s backing will no longer be needed, but Kate is fired.

The poisoning scene of Romeo and Juliet, beginning with the line, “Who calls so loud?” is played in tandem with the revelation that Ralph has arranged to have Kate act as hostess for a party at his house, where he will entertain several gentlemen with whom he does business. Smike’s line, “My poverty and not my will consents” takes on added significance when applied to the juxtaposed scene of Kate having to fulfill her uncle’s request despite her misgivings. She soon discovers that she is the evening’s entertainment, when Sir Mulberry Hawk tries to seduce her. Ralph sees her to a carriage and realizes the terrible mistake he has made. He admonishes Hawk, but the latter aptly points out that Nickleby would have turned a blind eye had Lord Frederick Verisopht fancied the girl. In the meantime, Nicholas and Smike participate in a fantastically modified happy ending to Romeo and Juliet, in which, miraculously, almost everyone survives.

Part 2, Act 1

The second half of the play begins with a brief summary through narration of the events of part I and introduces a new plot line: a love interest for Nicholas. First, however, Kate briefly holds a position as a lady’s companion and once again has to fight off the unwelcome advances of Hawk, as she accompanies her mistress to the opera. When Kate Page 111  |  Top of Articletakes her complaint to her uncle, he asks her to endure the advances a little longer, until they find “another entertainment,” in order not to spoil his relationship with them. She is horrified, but Noggs gives her the empathy she needs and sends for Nicholas. Nicholas heads for London the moment he gets the news, bringing Smike. Coincidentally, the pair arrives in a London coffeehouse only to overhear Hawk and Verisopht talking about Kate. A fight ensues, and Nicholas nearly kills Hawk with a horsewhip. The next day, Nicholas meets the charitable Mr. Charles and Mr. Ned Cheeryble, who enlist Nicholas to help a young, destitute girl, Madeline Bray, whose ailing father has squandered the family fortune. Nicholas has already met her when he goes to confront Nickleby for mistreating his sister, and he is in love. In the meantime, Smike has been caught by Squeers, while wandering around London. Squeers locks him up, but John Browdie, in town on his wedding trip, frees the hapless boy.

Part 2, Act 2

In a coffee room, Nicholas thanks Browdie for saving Smike and meets the Cheeryble’s amiable nephew, Frank Cheeryble, who will fall in love with Kate. Nicholas then visits the Kenwigs, whose latest child has arrived. Nicholas breaks the “good” news that Uncle Lillyvick has married an actress, which prompts resentment from Mr. Kenwigs for his “defrauded, swindled infants.” Nicholas tells Noggs of his love for Madeline Bray, and Noggs very soon discovers a way to help both Nicholas and Madeline, when he overhears Ralph Nickleby plotting with Arthur Gride, an avaricious old moneylender, to forgive Bray’s debts if he gives up his daughter to marry Gride. Nickleby stands to profit in the transaction because Gride has promised to leave his inheritance to Ralph. Noggs urges Nicholas to marry Madeline quickly, to save her from this fate, and Nicholas manages to do so, in the typical boy-gets-girl subplot, with an eleventh-hour appearance at her wedding. Things are looking up for everyone, as Kate and Frank fall in love and the Kenwigs welcome Uncle Lillyvick back to the fold, his erstwhile wife having eloped once again, this time with an itinerant actor. Everyone’s fortune seems secure now, although Smike dies, seemingly of his unrequited love for Kate, in a heart-wrenching reprise of his apothecary scene. The bad guys get their due, too, for Squeers is arrested, Hawk shoots his former friend Verisopht and runs off to France, and Ralph commits suicide after learning that Smike is the son he thought he had sent away to the country years ago. Everyone is celebrating Christmas in the usual Dickens fashion, but Edgar adds a somber note to the story in the form of a new Smike, who shivers outside of their warm circle. As the curtain falls, Nicholas picks up and holds the boy in his arms.


Madeline Bray

Madeline Bray, the beautiful, proud, and intelligent daughter of Walter Bray, nearly submits to her father’s request to marry the much older, lecherous Arthur Gride so that her ailing father might have the peace of mind of knowing his daughter will have a home after he dies. She had sought the help of the Cheeryble brothers and does not know it is they who have sent Nicholas Nickleby to her to make the small purchases that are keeping her finances afloat. Madeline keeps her attraction to Nicholas Nickleby to herself, hoping that by accepting the arranged marriage to Gride, she can ensure that her father dies happy. He dies before the wedding’s conclusion, which is interrupted by Nicholas, whom she eventually marries. In the meantime, she inherits twelve thousand pounds upon her marriage.

Walter Bray

At the end of a dissolute life and hopelessly in debt to Ralph Nickleby, Walter arranges to marry his daughter off to a lecherous old miser, Arthur Gride, in a deal orchestrated by Ralph. Tyrannical and miserable, Walter, at the last moment of his life, regrets his betrayal of his only daughter and closes his eyes so that he will not see the wedding, which does not take place, due to Nicholas Nickleby’s interference.

John Browdie

John is a simple Yorkshireman with a thick brogue, whom Nicholas meets during his brief stay at Dotheboys Hall. John assists Nicholas’s escape, after the latter strikes Mr. Squeers for his mistreatment of the boys at Dotheboys. John marries Tilda Price, and they travel together to London on their honeymoon, where John once again helps Nicholas, this time to free Smike from Mr. Squeers.

Charles Cheeryble

A philanthropist whose “kindheartedness” and “good-humour” “light up his jolly old face,” Charles and his brother act as benefactors to Madeline Bray, and they leave their business to Nicholas after

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • The Royal Shakespeare Company production was filmed for television in 1982 and is available on video tape in a boxed set consisting of nine 60-minute tapes.
  • Two BBC productions of Dickens’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby have been produced, one by Vincent Tilsey in 1957 and one in 1968 by Hugh Leonard. Saxon Lucas and D. Corr produced a “pop opera” called Smike for BBC television in 1973. None of these came close to the power and spectacle of the David Edgar production.
  • Also available on video is the 1947 film directed by Alberto Cavalcanti for Ealing Studios (screenplay by John Dighton), starring Cedric Hardwicke, but it, too, is not as powerful as the televised Royal Shakespeare Company production.

they retire, just in time to set him up financially for his marriage to Madeline. Of the two brothers, Charles is more confident and outgoing; he does the planning of their benevolent enterprises.

Edwin Cheeryble

Brother to Charles, Ned participates in their secret dealings to raise people out of poverty and misery and to spread good will. Ned is eager and agreeable, and he willingly implements the generous plans Charles devises.

Frank Cheeryble

The nephew to the Cheeryble brothers, Frank comes to London from Wales, just in time to fall in love with and marry Kate Nickleby. Frank is as good-natured and kindhearted as his generous uncles.

Mrs. Crummles

The boisterous and good-natured wife of Vincent Crummles, Mrs. Crummles welcomes Nicholas to the world of the itinerant theatrical troupe. She embraces the world of illusions of the stage and of life.

Ninetta Crummles

See Infant Phenomenon

Mr. Vincent Crummles

The father and manager of the theatrical Crummles family and parent of The Infant Phenomenon, Vincent hires Nicholas to play the part of Romeo in a much-revised version of that play, in which the two lovers miraculously survive their suicide attempts. He also pays Nicholas to produce other lighthearted theatrical fare.

Arthur Gride

A lecherous old miser, about seventy-five years old, who works out a deal with Ralph Nickleby in return for an arranged marriage to Madeline Bray, many years his junior. The basis of his scheme is his illicitly gained knowledge that Madeline will inherit a small fortune upon her marriage. His deaf maid, Peg Sliderskew, steals a document that proves his guilt, in retribution for his intention to marry and leave her (Peg) without a means of living.

Mrs. Grudden

A kindly old soul, Mrs. Grudden is the piano player and extra player with the Crummles theatrical troupe.

Sir Mulberry Hawk

An aristocratic young man, he spends his time gambling and drinking with Lord Verisopht. They meet Kate Nickleby at the home of Mrs. Witterly, where Kate serves as the lady’s companion. Hawk tries to seduce Kate, and when she rebuffs him, he tries to take her by force. When Nicholas hears Hawk making rude remarks about Kate and then refusing to identify himself, he beats Hawk nearly senseless with a horsewhip. Hawk swears vengeance. Hawk is thoroughly bad; he and Verisopht have been taking advantage of other gamblers, but their alliance does not prevent Hawk from trying to cheat Verisopht as well. He shoots Verisopht in a duel and escapes to France.

The Infant Phenomenon

This is the stage name of Ninetta Crummles, a child of about fifteen who has been playing the part of a ten-year-old for five years. She is the hope and pride of the theatrical Crummles family.

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Morleena Kenwigs

Morleena fawns over her uncle Lillyvick, hoping to encourage his willingness to act as her family’s benefactor. She screams in horror when she learns that he has married and then fawns over him again when he announces that his marriage has failed.

Mr. Kenwigs

Mr. Kenwigs is the head of the family downstairs from Newman Noggs. His is a generous family who frequently invites the bachelor to dine with them. He has a rather large family—his seventh child, Lillyvick, is born during the play—but he hopes for a marriage between his wife’s rich uncle, Mr. Lillyvick, and his daughter Morleena to cement their livelihood. When Kenwigs learns that the uncle has eloped with an actress, he despairs and expresses his distaste for the older man, but all is repaired when the uncle announces that his marriage has fallen apart because the actress eloped again with an actor.

Mrs. Susan Kenwigs

Mrs. Kenwigs is a hearty woman from a “genteel family,” who takes things in stride better than her husband does.

Miss Knag

Miss Knag presides over the milliner’s shop belonging to Madame Mantalini. At first, she shows Kate Nicholas the ropes when the latter comes to work for them. But when it becomes apparent that Kate’s youth and beauty make her a more attractive storekeeper, she hates her rival. When Mr. Mantalini’s spendthrift ways cause the business to go bankrupt, Miss Knag buys it from Ralph Nickleby.

Miss La Creevy

Miss La Creevy is a self-proclaimed artist, a painter of miniatures, with whom Kate and Mrs. Nickleby take lodgings when they arrive in London. Her optimism helps them overcome their fears, but Ralph Nickleby quickly forces the pair to move to more humble lodgings.

Mr. Lillyvick

Uncle to Susan Kenwigs, Mr. Lillyvick has saved up a small fortune as a “collector of water rates.” He falls in love with the actress Miss Petowker, follows her to Portsmouth, and marries her. However, she runs off with another actor, and he returns to London, to the great relief of the Kenwigs family, who hopes to inherit his money when he dies.

Mr. Alfred Mantalini

Mr. Mantalini is an oily profligate and womanizer, who embezzles money from his wife’s milliner’s shop to support his spendthrift lifestyle. His catchphrase “demned” and its various interpretations reveals his attempt at sounding like an aristocrat. He calls himself the “demdest villain ever lived” when his wife discovers he has taken several unpaid bills to Ralph Nickleby to cash in.

Madam Mantalini

The owner of a fashionable milliner’s shop in London, Mrs. Mantalini fails to see through her husband’s fawning flattery, even when she catches him stealing money from her store. After he has driven her to bankruptcy with his wasteful spending, she surprises him by throwing him out and announcing that she has had the foresight to sell the business to Miss Knag and will serve as manager of the shop instead of owner.


See See Edwin Cheeyble

Kate Nickleby

Nicholas’s sweet and demure seventeen-year-old sister innocently takes on one menial job after another, in hopes of earning enough to keep herself and her mother out of the poorhouse and away from the clutches of her avaricious uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Kate first works in Mrs. Mantalini’s millinery and then serves as hostess at a dinner party for her uncle, where Sir Mulberry Hawk makes unwelcome advances. Kate inspires love from the socially damaged Smike, but he never reveals his feelings to her. She never loses faith that her brother eventually will save her from destitution. She and Nicholas vow never to marry for money, but when Frank Cheeryble insists that he loves her, she demurs happily.

Mrs. Nickleby

Mrs. Nickleby is based loosely on Charles Dickens’s own mother. She is a garrulous woman whose talk meanders in a desultory manner, and she clings to an illusory gentility, despite her bleak surroundings, for she has never had a knack for recognizing reality. When an insane neighbor tosses vegetables into her garden as a form of courtship, she takes his advances seriously and never realizes his limitations. Her disconnection with reality makes Page 114  |  Top of Articleit possible for her to sail through her family’s misery with no ill effect on herself.

Nicholas Nickleby

The spirited hero of the story, Nicholas fights villainy and corruption with a ferocity that seems out of character with the mild-mannered hero often found in Victorian novels. Dickens defended his characterization of Nicholas as a natural, not an idealized, young man, saying in the Preface to his 1848 edition, “If Nicholas be not always found to be blameless or agreeable, he is not always intended to appear so. He is a young man of an impetuous temper and of little or no experience; and I saw no reason why such a hero should be lifted out of nature.”

He accepts a position as tutor at Dotheboys Hall, even though it requires separating from his mother and sister, so that he can begin to earn his way in the world. At first he ignores the mistreatment of the young, deformed, and unwanted charges, but eventually he rebels and strikes Mr. Squeers, the schoolmaster, and leaves, taking young Smike, a mentally retarded child, with him. Nicholas then begins his adventure in earnest, taking a position in the theatre as an actor and playwright and returning to London when he hears that his sister needs him to defend her honor against Sir Mulberry Hawk.

The benevolent Cheeryble brothers take him in, and with their guidance he is able to save his mother and sister, as well as Smike, and to discredit his uncle Ralph and his cohorts. After falling in love with Madeline Bray, who has sought the financial help of the Cheerybles, he frets over how to win her and only succeeds in doing so after Newman Noggs, Ralph’s disgruntled assistant, encourages him and gives him information about her upcoming marriage to Gride. Nicholas often seems unable to act decisively without the guidance of older, wiser characters such as Noggs, the Cheerybles, and John Browdie. Eventually, he marries Madeline and plans to raise a big family in the country near his old family home.

Ralph Nickleby

Ralph Nickleby is a conniving and avaricious Scrooge type of character. He does not welcome his sister-in-law, niece, and nephew when they come to him for aid after his brother dies. To get Nicholas out of the way, he sends him to Dotheboys Hall, to work for his erstwhile partner in crime, Mr. Squeers. Rather than truly help his relatives to find their way in the city, a setting in which they feel unsure and out of place, Ralph only pushes them into situations that are dangerous for them and potentially profitable for him. Thus, he parades his niece to a profligate aristocrat, Sir Mulberry Hawk, simply to cement a business relationship. However, he does not account for the spirit that Nicholas shows in saving Smike and rescuing both Kate and Madeline. Through Nicholas’s efforts, Smike is revealed to be Ralph’s son from a distant love relationship that withered long ago in Ralph’s past. When Ralph learns of this, he hangs himself in remorse, thus demonstrating that he had a heart after all.

Newman Noggs

Noggs is Ralph’s clerk, a middle-aged man with the face and habits of an alcoholic. Noggs was from a good family, but through a dissolute lifestyle, he had lost his money when Ralph took him in. Watching Nickleby’s criminal schemes has driven him to continued drinking, and he wrings his hands constantly in frustration. On one occasion he punches an imaginary Ralph Nickleby in the air to vent his anger. Noggs hides in a closet and overhears Ralph and Gride plotting to trade Madeline for releasing Mr. Bray’s debts. Even through his drunken state, Noggs is horrified, and this latest act of villainy on Ralph Nickleby’s part pushes him to action. Noggs becomes a kind of father to Nicholas as he girds the young man to overturn the plan and marry Madeline himself.

Miss Petowker

Miss Petowker is an itinerant actress who entices Mr. Lillyvick to marry her and then runs off with another man.

Tilda Price

Tilda (short for Matilda) Price is a friend of Fanny Squeers. Tilda tries to push Nicholas and Fanny together, but Nicholas takes no interest in her. Tilda marries John Browdie, and Fanny accompanies them on their wedding trip to London.

Peg Sliderskew

The ugly, deaf maidservant of Arthur Gride, Peg steals the documents about Madeline’s inheritance so that Gride will not marry Madeline and thus leave Peg out in the cold. She gets caught, but the satisfaction of having spoiled Gride’s plans compensates for her misery.

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Smike is the son of Ralph Nickleby from an early marriage whom he has all but forgotten. Ralph had put the child into the care of Brooker, who dropped the boy off at Dotheboys Hall. Ironically, then, Ralph contributes to the mistreatment of his own child, through his dealings with the schoolmaster, Mr. Squeers. Smike is badly fed, badly treated, and badly clothed, and years of neglect and abuse have stunted his mental and physical health. Nicholas takes Smike away from Dotheboys Hall and cares for him until Squeers recaptures the boy, simply to cause harm to Nicholas. John Browdie helps Nicholas get Smike back. Smike silently worships Kate, and he dies of pining for her. Kate and Nicholas attend him in his last moments and bury him under a tree in their old homestead.

Mr. Snawley

Snawley is an associate of Ralph Nickleby who poses as Smike’s father but confesses.

Fanny Squeers

The daughter of Mr. Squeers, Fanny has hopes of wooing Nicholas Nickleby, but these are quickly squelched, and she spends the rest of the play hating him.

Mrs. Squeers

Mrs. Squeers collaborates with her husband to keep the Dotheboys Hall schoolboys too weak to complain about their care or education. She administers a weekly dose of “brimstone” to dull their appetites. She riffles through the children’s mail, removing anything of value, and she skimps on Nicholas’s portions of food, as she does the children’s. Despite their sordid surroundings, she laughs and flirts gaily with her “Squeery dearie.”

Mr. Wackford Squeers

A one-eyed, ugly ogre, Mr. Squeers is the hateful master of Dotheboys Hall. Dickens based him on an actual schoolmaster who had been sued for his mistreatment of school children. He cares more about the well-being of his cows and pigs than that of the children, whose fevers and illnesses he punishes as acts of insubordination. Squeers dishes out stingy and inadequate meals and beats the children for minor and imagined misdemeanors, seeming to enjoy hurting them. When he tries to beat the hapless Smike, Nicholas beats Squeers instead and runs off with the boy. Squeers is one of Ralph Nickleby’s partners, so he comes to London to help retrieve the papers stolen by Peg Sliderskew. There he chances upon Smike and locks the boy in a closet. When all is exposed, Squeers goes to prison.

Young Wackford Squeers

The fat, spoiled son of Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, the young Squeers eats well while the rest of the boys are nearly starved.

Lord Frederick Verisopht

A dashing and dissolute young aristocrat who whiles away idle hours gambling and drinking with Sir Mulberry Hawk. Verisopht, too, is smitten with Kate, but he has the good breeding to withdraw when she does not encourage him. In fact, Verisopht attempts to foil Hawk’s designs on her, thus instigating a duel, in which he is shot and killed by his former friend.



Ralph Nickleby is a prototype for Ebeneezer Scrooge, the covetous miser of A Christmas Carol. Having himself lived the life of a poor child forced to work in a shoe blackening company at a young age, Dickens was fascinated by the power and influence of money, with its potential to push bad men to the point of irretrievable corruption and evil. The nineteenth century was a period obsessed with money and ways to make it, as capitalism hit its stride. Investment opportunities existed throughout the burgeoning British Empire—both legitimate and not. Dickens’s novel appealed to a wide public, fascinated with the amassing of wealth that bought status and power. And, regardless of their own financial status, they could join in approbation of his avaricious villains and their rapacious manner of swindling their fellow citizens. Money concerns lie at the heart of almost every problem in Nicholas Nickleby, from the break-up of the Mantalinis to Kate’s vulnerability to Sir Mulberry Hawk. Daughters and unwanted children are particularly at risk when a family cannot provide for them, and avaricious people like Ralph profit from the innocence of others. Dickens seems to be saying that families

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby ends happily, with the siblings’ marriages. Why does Edgar change the ending to show a second Smike?
  • How did the fact that, in nineteenth-century Britain, married women could not own property affect their life choices?
  • Does Nicholas’s fractious personality detract from his character? Explain your point of view.
  • What is the role of money in this play?

must overcome the obstacle of poverty in order for the society to be a moral one.

School Reform

Dickens, a reformist who targeted many of the social inequities of Victorian England, originally intended his serially published novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby(1838-1839) to attract attention to the abuses being committed in schools for cast-off children in the Yorkshire area. He had gathered information about the problem by interviewing several Yorkshire schools, in the guise of someone wanting to board his children at one of them. He was appalled by the conditions of the children and of the license taken by their schoolmasters. Dickens said that Squeers and Dotheboys Hall were, as Dickens reported in his 1848 Preface, “faint and feeble pictures of an existing reality, purposely subdued and kept down lest they should be deemed impossible.” With no government funding, the schools relied on collecting school fees from the neglecting parents themselves and on contributions from the few benefactors who might have some interest in the well-being of unwanted children, many of whom were illegitimate or physically deformed. It was a cottage industry that attracted the worst sort, those willing to line their pockets by skimming the tuition of unfortunate and unsponsored children. Ten years after its original publication in monthly serial form, Dickens took credit for reducing the number of Yorkshire schools in the Preface to the 1848 edition of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Some sort of education was needed for poor children, so Dickens also worked toward establishing a public school system for this purpose. His efforts were gratified with the establishment in 1844 of the Ragged School Union, a program for running schools for poor children in London and other crowded cities. Dickens later praised this program in several issues of his weekly news magazine, Household Words.

The Change of Heart

The change of heart is a common theme in the novels of Charles Dickens. In fact, the moment of climax usually involves the complete transformation of a formerly wicked character who has had a sudden epiphany about his own evil actions. The stages of this transformation are symbolically outlined in his work A Christmas Carol. Ebeneezer Scrooge undergoes three realizations: 1) that he has lost his connection to other people, 2) that he is causing suffering to others, and 3) that his heart will be assessed after his death. In A Christmas Carol, the three stages are marshalled in by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. His connections to his deceased sister and to his fiancée remind him of the power of love, seeing the suffering he has caused the Marley family reminds him of his mistakes, and seeing his own gravestone causes him to reflect upon his day of reckoning. With these three crucial stages accomplished, Scrooge experiences a transformation from an embittered and selfish miser to a paragon of generosity and kindness. In The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, written five years before A Christmas Carol, Ralph Nickleby undergoes the same three realizations, although his transformation is temporary and aborted by suicide. First, Ralph Nickleby feels an echo of human connection when he looks into Kate’s eyes and sees her resemblance to his dead brother. This connection allows him to see the pain he has caused her through exposing her to Hawk’s unwelcome advances. He gets a second dose of guilt when he learns that Smike is the son he had sent away years ago; this knowledge puts a new face on his abuse of Smike as a means to punish his nephew Nicholas. With these two realizations, Ralph can no longer distance himself from the suffering he has caused to others. In a soliloquy, Ralph weighs his life decisions in the scales of judgment and finds himself wanting. He muses about the man he might have become, had he raised Smike himself, and then realizes that the boy Page 117  |  Top of Articlehas been taught to hate his very name instead. Because he feels condemned by the hatred of his son, he cannot imagine redemption, and so he kills himself.

Edgar retains the first two aspects of the change of heart in his adaptation of the Dickens novel, although he leaves out Dickens’s episode of Ralph taking a walk through a cemetery, which reminds him of a man who committed suicide. This episode contains the seeds of the graveyard scene conducted by the Ghost of Christmas Future in A Christmas Carol. In the original Dickens story, Ralph, calling on the Devil for help, commits suicide as a final act of violence against Nicholas and his friends, as a way to “spurn their mercy and compassion.” Edgar’s version is closer to the redemptive change of heart that would become the hallmark of Dickens’s novels. In Edgar’s play, Ralph experiences his judgment day as he envisions the father he might have become and realizes that he has caused his son to hate his very name. Despairing of redemption, even though the angelic brothers Cheeryble are trying to contact him, Ralph mutters, “Cast out. And homeless. Me,” and hangs himself. In Edgar’s adaptation, the audience is painfully aware of the change of heart that Ralph is unable to experience.


Filmic Staging

Edgar perfected several forms of theatrical presentation that resemble filmic methods, such as the “zoom lens” effect, scenic cuts, and superimposed scenes. Through a combination of stage arrangement, lighting, and juxtaposition, Nicholas Nickleby simulates film, as when separate episodes are displayed simultaneously, indicating that actions are occurring in separate parts of London at the same time. Often, these juxtapositions underscore a thematic connection as well. For example, in one scene Noggs overhears Ralph plotting with Arthur Gride to split Madeline’s inheritance in return for arranging her to marry Gride, while Mr. Charles and Mr. Ned Cheeryble arrange for Nicholas to help extract the same girl from poverty. In this case, the benevolence of the Cheerbyles, who seek to give their money away, is contrasted with Ralph’s grasping for money that he obtains through the most nefarious means. A shift in lighting and sound transfers attention from one group to the other, while keeping both situations in the mind and eye of the audience. The contrast becomes more intense and obvious because of this juxtaposition. In another scene, Nicholas and Smike practice their lines from Romeo and Juliet while Ralph ruthlessly withdraws his investment from two businessmen, ruining their business, and Mrs. Nickleby informs Kate that she must dine with her uncle that night. Smike’s line, “My poverty and not my will consents,” referring to the starving apothecary’s decision to sell poison to Romeo, takes on added significance when applied to Kate’s necessity to follow her uncle’s command to dine with him, again, out of destitution. David Edgar termed this kind of double entendre “referential irony,” which is a form of dramatic irony in that the audience understands more than the characters do, such that words expressed innocently take on a secondary importance. Any double entendre refers to a second meaning, but in Edgar’s juxtapositions, the second context involves a deeper meaning expressly because of its application to that other context, which is enhanced by the interweaving effect of the two story lines.

The Influence of Epic Theater

Following Bertold Brecht’s concept of “epic theater,” theater designed to disrupt the spell of theatrical illusion and turn the spectator into a judge who retains the sense of watching a dramatic performance, Edgar draws attention to the play as a play. One of these methods is self-referential narration, in which an actor steps out of character to deliver an aside to the audience, commenting on the action. This happens frequently in Nicholas Nickleby. Various characters step “out front” to present summary narration, an effect that reminds the audience that the original source of the work was a novel, since the narration comprises segments of Dickens’s own writing. In addition, some of the characters, especially Nicholas himself, speak of themselves in the third person, again drawing attention to the artificial construct of the play. The purpose of such disruption for Brecht was to awaken the audience to the social ills portrayed by the play by discouraging the passivity of watching for entertainment, generating instead a kind of “complex seeing” so that, while following the action of the plot, the viewer also judges how and why the playwright is presenting this spectacle. David Edgar acknowledged the influence that Brechtian theater has had on his works, calling Brecht’s legacy “part of the air we breathe.” Before undertaking Nicholas Nickleby, Edgar had written a number of “agitprop” plays, social reformist plays that were produced in small theaters. But, recognizing the limitations Page 118  |  Top of Articleof agitprop, he decided to stage theatrical “spectacles” that would more aptly portray the workings of society itself and then present complex social issues to a wider audience. Nicholas Nickleby portrays a number of important social themes. In an interview with theater critic Elizabeth Swain, Edgar identifies some of them, calling the play a “show which is highly ambivalent about riches, highly antagonistic towards moneymaking, in favor of schoolboys against schoolmasters, in favor of employees against employers, in many respects, in favor of actors against directors, in favor of women against men, and servants against masters.” Many of these themes appear in the Dickens original, yet Edgar wants to cast some doubt on Dickens’s moralizing. Edgar uses the art of “disillusion” to problematize the hopefulness of Dickens’s story. Edgar explains, “One of the absolute reasons that we wanted to preserve the distance between the adaptation and the original work is to say, actually we think Dickens is being a bit optimistic.” By using Brechtian theatrical methods, disrupting the viewer’s engagement in the plot so that the themes are portrayed in bold relief, Nickleby becomes both entertainment and instruction. Unlike Brecht, however, whose works attracted only a small coterie of Brecht fans, Edgar sought and found a larger audience, which he accomplished by producing an epic play, a spectacle consisting of over one hundred and thirty parts, with hundreds of costumes and wigs, a lavish and costly production. Edgar considered this break from Brechtian tradition worth it, discovering that his work could be “popular and serious and social at the same time.”


Industrial Revolution

During what is commonly termed the “Industrial Revolution,” England witnessed the explosion of capitalism in the economy of the British Empire. Adam Smith had published his Wealth of Nations in 1776, but it took nearly a hundred years for what he called the “invisible hand” of individuals pursuing their own self-interest for their accumulating wealth to have an appreciable effect on the British economy and thus on the everyday lives of individual Britons. By the time Dickens was writing, mills, factories, and workshops had sprung into being in every major city, attracting menial laborers from the agricultural environs to the cities, where they hoped to earn a better livelihood. As Dickens chronicled, for the majority of workers, such hopes went most dismally unmet. It was the factory owners and managers who profited from Smith’s capitalist ideas, while the average working man, woman, and child suffered in ways they could not have suffered on the farm. Social reformists such as Dickens promoted schools and workhouses to aid workers in bettering their lives, while the parliament attempted to legislate humanitarian conditions. Gradually, conditions improved, and women gained a measure of autonomy when they were able to earn wages as an alternative to marrying.

Women in Victorian England

The women’s suffrage movement, attempting to gain the right to vote for women, had its beginnings in the Victorian era, specifically after 1867. However, the prevalent image of the “Home Goddess” (Dickens’s term) prevailed; the “Home Goddess” was the dainty woman of the house, who through compliant sweetness managed the household and did not interfere with her husband’s world. This image coexisted with the predominant ideology that women were intellectually inferior to men. They were valued not for their intellect but for their efficiency in the “separate sphere” of the household and for maintaining decorum under any circumstance. Thus Kate Nickleby cannot assertively confront Sir Mulberry Hawk for accosting her but must plead with her uncle to protect her, and she serves as an idealized mother figure and angelic supporter for both Smike and her brother Nicholas. Women had few political or economic rights: a woman could not vote or initiate a divorce or get a formal education; and property and children belonged to the husband. It would not be until after World War I, when women were needed to fill the gap left by men fighting and dying in the trenches, that they would win the vote (1918), and another ten years would pass before they achieved full political equality.

Social Reform

The nineteenth century saw a series of legislation aimed at ameliorating social problems resulting from the Industrial Revolution and its accompanying migration of low-wage workers to the cities. The Poor Law of 1834 canceled the government dole for the poor and relegated them to separate workhouses for men, women, and children. The intention was to force poor people to become independent and for the father of a family to provide for

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  • Early Nineteenth Century: It is nearly impossible for people born into poverty to escape it, although the growth of cities and factory jobs lures many to attempt to work their way out of destitution. The lack of employment regulations puts men, women, and children into dangerous jobs, where they literally risk life and limb. The Poor Law of 1834 cancels a policy of governmental handouts to the poor, so they are forced into unhealthy and inhumane workhouses run by the state.

    1980: The social consciousness of Great Britain has resulted in a substantially socialist government that subsidizes business and provides social services. However, the recent election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister (1979) introduces an era of increased privatization of social services, thus returning England to a more capitalistic economy.

    Today: Despite the movement away from socialism of the 1980s, Britain continues to offer comprehensive social services to the poor, although this system is being challenged by a tremendous influx of low-income immigrants seeking the safety of England’s egalitarian political climate.

  • Early Nineteenth Century: Only boys from wealthy families can count on getting an advanced education that will open the door to economic independence. Women cannot obtain the education they need to achieve economic independence, for only a handful of schools cater to them, and even in those schools the curricula does not teach them what they need to learn to find practical careers. Women and young girls are educated in the home in the art of household management, and only occasionally in classic literature.

    1980: After the feminist movement of the 1960s, the number of women nearly equals the number of men in universities, which had remained predominantly male despite the fact that women had achieved political equality after World War I and had been allowed to enter the universities to obtain an education equal to that available to men.

    Today: Equitable public education is available for children of all socioeconomic groups. However, the growing number of non-English-speaking immigrants presents challenges to school systems to offer this group equal access to society through equal education.

  • Early Nineteenth Century: Illegitimate children are looked upon as bearing the sins of the parents who conceive them. Unwanted by society, these individuals are usually unable to extricate themselves from poverty and either enter a life of crime or of wandering from one place to another. The Yorkshire schools take advantage of parents of illegitimate children by offering an out-of-the-way location with “no vacations” to embarrass the parents as they attempt to get on with their lives.

    1980: The stamp of illegitimacy no longer carries the stigma it did in the nineteenth century, and the number of unwanted children is diminishing, thanks to the birth control pill.

    Today: A child’s legitimacy is no longer an issue of social condemnation in most liberal, first world nations. However, fundamentalist groups in second and third world nations continue to punish offenders and their offspring.

his wife and children, but conditions in the workhouses bred disease, fatigue, and accidents, and the law required wives, too, to enter the workhouse when their husbands could not provide for them; thus poor families usually were unable to break out of the poverty cycle. The Marriage Act of 1836 made it easier for the poor to acquire legal married status, another measure aimed at fostering responsibility Page 120  |  Top of Articlein poor families. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 made divorce easier (it had been a “privilege” of the rich), but although a man could divorce his wife for adultery, women could only initiate a divorce under the most heinous of conditions—adultery was not enough. Two Factory Acts (1842, 1847) reduced working hours and prevented women and children from working in mines. The Matrimonial Property Acts (1870, 1882) conferred a woman’s right to control her own property. Two Reform Bills (1833, 1867) expanded the electorate to include wider representation in the House of Commons.

Charles Dickens was a parliamentary reporter during a time of considerable transformation in the spirit of social responsibility in Britain. He also wrote for the newspapers that sprang into being to feed a public hungry for information about the changing policies of the government. Caught up in the general movement toward greater social responsibility, Dickens both recorded and inspired social reform in England.


The original story of Nicholas Nickleby was produced in serial form and printed in twenty monthly parts. It was so popular that Dickens had to issue a proclamation threatening “summary and terrible reprisal” for those who might publish the story under another name. It was his most popular novel to date, and it sold 50,000 copies in short order. When Dickens became even more popular, he performed readings from Nickleby, to audiences that “roared” with approval.

Edgar was by no means the first playwright to stage an adaptation of the Dickens novel. In fact, Dickens himself attended the first dramatization, adapted by Edward Stirling and produced by Frederick Yates in London at the Adelphi Theatre in 1838. The production ran for over one hundred performances, and Dickens deemed it “admirably done in every respect.” Another production, by William Moncrieff in 1839, did not earn his approval because it revealed information that had not yet come out in Dickens’s serialized story of Nicholas—that Smike was Ralph’s son. For this breach, Dickens retaliated in a subsequent serial issue: in chapter 48, Dickens attacks dramatists who transcribe a work from one medium or language to another with little change and then take credit (and profit) for the result. David Edgar, adapting the Dickens piece a century and a half later, himself felt criticized for taking the “easy way” of adaptation. In a 1980 article for the Times(as quoted in Plays from the Contemporary British Theater), Edgar wrote, “I met the full force of the prejudice that has always existed against the transformation of literature from one medium to another. My work, I was told, had ceased to be ’original.’ It was assumed that I was only doing it for the money, or that I was ’marking time’ while I developed a ’proper idea.”’ Edgar wants his work to be judged as a real play, and his contemporary critics have done just that.

David Edgar worked closely with two talented directors, Trevor Nunn and John Caird, as well as forty-five members of the cast of the original Royal Shakespeare Company production in developing the script for the dramatic version of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The group read the novel together and then rehearsed it scene by scene, with Edgar writing and rewriting the play as the ideas evolved among a rather disparate group of talented artists, including actors, directors, and writer. As Edgar acknowledged, it was a collaborative effort: “It’s not a personal statement; it’s Dickens having been passed through a filter of 45 people and written down by me.” The production ran at the Aldwych Theatre for six weeks, followed in 1981 with two equally successful runs of six weeks each, with audiences often giving fifteen-minute standing ovations. The play won the Society of West End Theatres award for best play, even though the London reviews generally were mixed. Michael Billington of the Guardian questioned the judiciousness of adapting a Dickens novel, commenting, “the RSC has come up with a perverse and needless triumph: a great deal of skill and imagination has been expended on the creation of something that gains only marginally, if at all, from being seen rather than read. Undeniably this Nicholas Nickleby has been done well. My question is: should it have been done at all?” Some reviewers found the play desultory and over-long, while Bernard Levin of the Sunday Times proclaimed that London had never seen anything “so richly joyous.... life-enhancing, yea-saying and fecund, so.... Dickensian.” The New York Broadway production ran for fourteen weeks and won the Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle

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A scene from the 1980 theatrical production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, written by Charles Dickens and adapted by David Edgar A scene from the 1980 theatrical production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, written by Charles Dickens and adapted by David Edgar

award for best play in 1982. The production was filmed for television in 1983 by director Jim Goddard and produced by Colin Callender. This made-for-television version boasts Peter Ustinov as host, but Time reviewer Richard Corliss complained that the filming left the viewer feeling as though he has just seen “a pageant through a peephole” because television cannot reproduce the spectacle of the stage. Nevertheless, the televised version of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby won an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1983. Although the Edgar version seemed to “belong” to the Royal Shakespeare Company of London, the Great Lakes Shakespeare Company of Cleveland, Ohio, produced a very successful show in 1982. A 1985 revival by the Royal Shakespeare Company (with a different cast) once again demanded top ticket prices of one hundred dollars and once again convinced audiences, according to a Time review by William A. Henry III in 1986, that “Nickleby may be the most jubilant and thrilling experience to be had in a theater.” Expensive and exhausting both to produce and to watch, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby nonetheless stands as a triumph of socially uplifting theater.


Carole Hamilton

Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private college preparatory school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay, Hamilton examines the effect of financial difficulties on Victorian families as represented in Edgar’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Charles Dickens grew up in a family with eight children, a family that continually struggled to make ends meet. At the age of twelve, he had to work in a shoe blacking factory while his father served time in debtor’s prison. Not surprisingly, Charles Dickens shared the Victorian fascination with money: with ways of getting it and how money problems affected family relationships. The original title of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby emphasizes these two concerns, for it continued, “Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family, edited by ’Boz.’” The inclusion of the word “family” is significant, as is the pun of the family name that

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  • The original Dickens novel, a meandering behemoth, follows the pattern of the picaresque tale and seems to be based on Tobias Smollett’s picaresque novels, The Adventures of Roderick Random(1748) and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle(1751), both of which Dickens read during his childhood. All of Dickens’s novels discuss social reform of one kind or another, but two of them in particular consider the plight of poor children: Hard Times(1845) and Oliver Twist(1837-1839).
  • Like Dickens, David Edgar writes plays of social reform. Notable among his works are Mary Barnes(1977), about an unusual experimental psychiatric treatment of a schizophrenic woman, and The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs(1966), the story of a Jewish South African lawyer imprisoned for defending opponents of apartheid.

suggests that the family sought their living “nickel by nickel.” Furthermore, the title words such as “uprisings” and “downfallings” cast the family history in the terms of a financial stock. Clearly, Dickens equated family fortune with financial fortune, and his readers enthusiastically followed the ups and downs of the Nickleby family fortune as each of the twenty serialized chapters appeared in monthly installments. Although the novel was not one of his best-structured works, being a rambling series of disconnected episodes, its desultoriness suits the theme of financial ups and downs. Like stock investments, the fad of Victorian financiers, the Nickleby family quest for fortune takes many twists and turns and often succeeds by mere chance. Dickens records a society alas it makes a transition from the clarity and predictability of inherited fortune to becoming a society in which fortunes can be made but with little or no predictability other than that the blind pursuit of fortune destroys families. He does this by portraying a series of families and the various harms that come to them as they put financial gain above the sanctity of the family.

One of the worst effects of the pursuit of money on the family unit portrayed by The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is separation. When Nicholas departs from his mother and sister for remote Yorkshire to take a post as assistant at a boys’ school, he leaves them unprotected, and Kate becomes vulnerable to the unwanted attentions of Sir Mulberry Hawk. Nicholas himself moves from a healthy, natural family situation to the hodge-podge of miserable, unwanted children and their cruel guardians that constitute the “family” of Dotheboys Hall. The contrast lies at the heart of the Victorian social problem—that the nuclear family was being threatened and could not be replaced. In addition, Nicholas’s peregrinations do not bring him the wealth he seeks. He never obtains financial security until he returns to his family, takes up again his role of protector of the women, and generates another family tie, that of marrying the heiress Madeline Bray.

The Kenwigs family demonstrates the interpersonal strains that financial worries cause in families. The Kenwigs are a warm, loving family, with the virtue of hospitality that they naturally extend to Nicholas. They rejoice at the birth of a fifth child, even though it means another mouth to feed. However, their worries about their daughters preoccupy them so much that it distorts their relationship with the one relative who might offer them a secure future. The Kenwigs patronize Uncle Lillyvick in the hope that he will confer his inheritance on their daughters. They urge their pretty daughter Morleena to kiss him and jump to attention at his frequent criticisms. Instead of Uncle Lillyvick enjoying the respect due to him as an elderly relation, the family bends to mollify his every whim. In effect, their obsequiousness has turned him into a peevish and miserable person. Through the portrayal of the Kenwigs, Dickens demonstrates how family power relationships are distorted by need. They experience Page 123  |  Top of Articlethe height of family betrayal, in Victorian terms, when he elopes with an actress. And they enjoy the classic Victorian happy ending—a reunited, financially secure family—when he returns and promises, “I shall settle on your children all these moneys I once planned to leave them in my will.”

The Bray family demonstrates the worst-case family scenario, in which a father “sells” his daughter into marriage. Walter Bray has squandered his fortune through his dissolute lifestyle, yet his innocent daughter Madeline still reveres him, true to the Victorian ideal of the all-suffering daughter and woman. She willingly goes along with his arrangement to marry Arthur Gride, a lecherous old man of seventy-five. Nicholas identifies her decision as a contest between family and money, and he warns her that “the most degraded poverty is better than the misery you’d undergo as wife to such a man as this.” Her misguided resolve stems from the hope that her act will release her father “not from this place, but from the jaws of death,” for poverty is killing his will to live. Like the impoverished apothecary who is forced by his own poverty to consent to sell poison to Romeo, Madeline is forced by poverty to consent to an unhappy marriage. She fails to realize that money alone cannot repair the damage that poverty has caused, and she fails to realize that her desperation would have desecrated her new “family,” thus extending the cycle of misery, had Nicholas not saved her.

Dickens also portrays families that manage to evade the effects of financial insolvency, at least for a time. The theatrical Crummles family is, as Lillyvick exclaims at the wedding they host for him, “chock full of blessings and phenomena.” The Crummleses are generous to Nicholas, paying him one pound a week to act and write scripts for them, and welcoming to anyone who joins their path. Their instant acceptance of Smike is one of the most heartwarming events in the play. They feed, clothe, and employ a child who had been undernourished, beaten, and misused by the Squeers. In more ways than this, the Crummles family is the antithesis of the Squeer “family.” The Crummles family, too, is a hodge-podge: the Crummles entourage includes a myriad of actors they have picked up during their travels. But in the Crummles “family,” each member has his or her own skill or talent, and each is welcome at the expansive dinner table, even though the Crummleses live hand-to-mouth as they travel from one theatrical engagement to another. But, like the revised happy endings they tack onto every dramatic piece they perform, they are living in a

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fantasy world that has little relevancy to real life. It is they who seal the vows between Lillyvick and Miss Petowker, and it is they who harbor the actor she runs away with, leaving Lillyvick hurt and alone. They flaunt the rules of conventional social institutions. They cannot even accept the maturation of their “infant phenomenon,” a girl of fifteen who has been playing the role of a ten-year-old for more than five years. Nicholas finds solace for a time at the breast of this family, but while he acts the part of Romeo, his sister is being stalked by the vile Sir Mulberry Hawk. Her situation is compared to that of Juliet, when her parents announce her arranged marriage, while she is secretly in love with Romeo.

Edgar emphasizes the parallels by having the players enact the Romeo and Juliet scene all around Kate, and the lines meant for Juliet take on an ironic double meaning when applied to Kate. The apothecary’s line, “Who calls so loud?” initiates the only moment in the play that Ralph exhibits true familial concern, for it is spoken just as he looks at Kate’s hair, rumpled during her escape from Hawk. Noggs narrates, “And Ralph Nickleby, who was proof against all appeals of blood and kindred—who was steeled against every tale of sorrow and distress—staggered while he looked, and reeled back into the house, as a man who had seen a spirit from a world beyond the grave.” The line from Romeo and Juliet, “who calls so loud?” seems to imply a calling to conscience for Ralph, who momentarily experiences a family bond. It also calls to Nicholas, who has been living in a fantasy world, separated from his sister, who clearly needs his presence to protect her. In the beginning of Act 2, Mr. Crummles admits that he thinks his family should settle down, for, as he points out, “we’re not immortal.” His words lead Nicholas to feel a pang of worry about his mother and sister. He has been brought back down to earth, and, as he tells Smike, he rues “the time we have spent dallying here.” Perhaps Dickens is expressing Page 124  |  Top of Articlehis own guilt for having indulged himself in playwriting while he was at Wellington House Academy, soon after his father’s release from debtor’s prison. He was to be forced to leave school when his family once again fell on hard times. Autobiographical connections aside, including the Crummles family in Nicholas Nickleby demonstrates that the idealized family is little more than a fantasy, one that Nicholas ultimately rejects in favor of taking responsibility for his mother and sister.

To further emphasize the mistake of delusional fantasy, Dickens presents the mismatched couple of Mr. and Mrs. Mantalini. Mr. Mantalini hides his peccadilloes behind a mask of insincerity that reaches comic proportions as he calls his wife everything from a “rose in a demd flowerpot” to “juice of pine-apple.” For years he has been frittering away the money his wife earns from her milliner’s shop, as the workers and Miss Knag all realize. However, Mrs. Mantalini continually forgives him, taken in by his ridiculous remonstrances of undying love and his lame, staged “attempts” to kill himself. It is only when creditors begin the process of foreclosure—when money problems prevail—that she assesses the situation realistically and separates from him. However, Mrs. Mantalini shows great financial astuteness; she has taken the precaution of signing over the shop to Miss Knag so that it will not revert to him, since the Victorian marriage laws proscribed married women from owning property themselves. Through the portrayal of the Mantalinis, Dickens condemns this policy and demonstrates that granting too much power to dissolute husbands licenses profligacy and destroys the foundation of a marriage. A better model is one that evenhandedly distributes power and does not impinge the woman’s freedom to find a new mate when her husband proves unsuitable.

Ironically, the proper familial spirit is portrayed in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby not by a family but by a pair of brothers, the Cheerybles. The need for true “Brotherhood” is underscored by the fact that the book opens and closes with two very different sets of brothers. Dickens suggests that the antithetical Nickleby brothers, Ralph and Godfrey, who pursue separate life paths, should have behaved like Ned and Charles Cheeryble, who act like twins and who cooperate to earn money and also care enough about others to share their riches. The brothers Cheeryble “adopt” Madeline and rescue her, with the assistance of Nicholas as a go-between. Like the Crummles, the brothers accept their fellow humans as they are and offer brotherly love and fatherly help. They even produce a husband for Kate, in the form of their nephew Frank. In contrast, Ralph Nickleby fails in every familial role: he refuses aid to his brother’s family and attempts to destroy Nicholas for defying him, which essentially is to say that Ralph hates Nicholas for valuing family above money. Ralph’s worst anti-family acts are to “sell” his niece to cement a business relationship and to give up his own child without a moment of remorse until after the child is dead. All of his failed family relationships stem from avarice, for money holds the place in his values system that family should hold. Nicholas, through the “Uprisings and Downfallings” of his “life and adventures,” discovers that his family means more to him than fortune, and he feels unable to marry Madeline, for fear that she might think her wealth attracted him. Of course, his virtue is rewarded both with marriage and money. The play also demonstrates that when families break apart to pursue financial security at the price of family stability, these fissures form cracks in the larger family of society, but that upholding family and brotherly love brings its own form of prosperity.

Source: Carole Hamilton, Critical Essay on The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Melodie Monahan

Monahan operates The Inkwell Works, an editorial service, and teaches English literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. In this essay, Monahan places David Edgar’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel in its historical context and explains its stage success in terms of production techniques Edgar devised to translate the novel’s Victorian insights to the 1970s English stage.

The first inkling of an English stage production of Dickens occurred to director Trevor Nunn when he visited the Soviet Union in 1977 and realized the Gorky Theater was engaged in transforming The Pickwick Papers into drama. Nunn discovered, in fact, that stage productions of Dickens were commonly done in the Soviet Union. Two years later, in England, Nunn, along with codirector John Caird, began to pool ideas for a similar venture. The hope was to create a play that presented on stage the whole of a Charles Dickens novel. The novel of choice was The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. There was only one choice for the playwright: the socialist, activist, and extraordinarily prolific David Edgar, who had just completed two adaptations, Mary Barnes and The Jail Diary of Page 125  |  Top of ArticleAlbie Sachs(both written in 1978). These works, along with Edgar’s known fascination for agitprop technique, suggested that his approach would resonate naturally with the social justice theme in Charles Dickens’s novel.

Staging Dickens’s work was not a new idea, however. In fact, during the novelist’s life, many adaptations of his plays were produced, and existing copyright laws did not protect his work from these truncated reproductions. What made the present idea unique was the aspiration to present the entire novel on the stage, to leave out nothing. The play was ultimately performed in two parts by The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre in London in 1980, entailing thirty-nine actors playing 123 speaking parts in ninety-five scenes, lasting eight and a half hours. Reviewing the play for the London Sunday Times, Bernard Levin wrote:

This production... is a tribute to England’s greatest writer of prose and of the teeming world he conjured up... It is a celebration of love and justice that is true to the spirit of Dickens’ belief that those are the fulcrums on which the universe is moved.

This essay introduces readers to some of the bridge-making strategies David Edgar used to bring Dickens to the stage and connect his nineteenth-century text to the 1970s world of English theatergoers.

If not immediately upon its opening, then immediately after Levin’s positive review, Edgar’s play was an extraordinary success. It had two more runs in England, from November 13, 1980, to January 3, 1981, and again from April 23 to June 20, 1981, and then the play had a fourteen-week run in New York City, opening September 23, 1981. It played in Cleveland, in Chicago, and then, on December 10, 1983, it opened in Sidney, Australia. David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby was a phenomenon, a unique stage experience, both contemporary and Victorian, both socialistic and sentimental. The play won awards both in England and in the United States. It was, moreover, a perfect vehicle for some of the deeply held dramatic and ethical convictions of the man who reconceived it.

In his interview with Elizabeth Swain, included in her book David Edgar: Playwright and Politician(1986), Edgar pointed out that his parents conceived him just two doors up the street from the address at which Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote Nicholas Nickleby. This coincidence seemed in line with other affinities between the playwright and novelist. Born 112 years after the novel’s composition and

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coming of age in the turbulent protest-driven 1960s, Edgar developed his own brand of Dickensian outrage at human cruelty, and as of 2001 he has written over sixty pieces, many of which were carefully researched and designed to foreground individuals caught in historical events. Like Dickens, Edgar wrote in social protest, casting a spotlight on injustice, abuse, and oppression. Like Dickens in Victorian England, Edgar in the England of the 1970s and 1980s tried to change public consciousness by exposing what people may well not have seen on their own. The two adaptations Edgar wrote for the stage immediately preceding Nicholas Nickleby are examples.

The play Mary Barnes is a stage adaptation of the psychological case history, Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness, which was co-authored by the schizophrenic and successful painter, Mary Barnes, and her doctor, Joseph Berke. The play, like the book, dramatizes the apparent cure of Barnes who was treated at Kingsley Hall (1965-1970), following the nurturing guidelines of R. D. Laing, while it criticizes conventional shock treatment therapy. The second adaptation by Edgar brought to the stage Albie Sachs’s account of his imprisonment in South Africa, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs. A Jewish lawyer who defended opponents of apartheid, Sachs was held in solitary confinement for three years without ever being charged with a crime. In each of these cases, Edgar turned the spotlight on an important individual and social issue.

As a socialist, Edgar also brought to the production of Nicholas Nickleby his fascination with the early 1970s technique called agitprop. The term itself, according to Swain, derives from the Soviet idea that agitation and propaganda are effective forms of shaping public opinion. Agitprop technique Page 126  |  Top of Articlecan be used in various ways, but the part Edgar used entails presenting a significant problem to an audience and inviting the audience to participate. The point is to engage the audience in protest, to reveal a social evil, an oppression, or injustice, and to invite viewers to react. One scene in Nicholas Nickleby illustrates this technique.

In Edgar’s play, an early scene shows a meeting of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company. In the production of the Edgar’s play, some actors integrate the audience, object loudly to the on-stage action, and encourage members of the audience to join them as they throw muffins onto the stage in protest. The top hats on stage are capitalists, moneymakers, who exploit their workers and the starving street people. By inference, the people in the audience become the exploited ones who protest the meeting. Thus, the play begins with this dramatic display of an idea, economic exploitation, and it invites an interaction of challenge and protest by aligning the audience with the underdogs.

Another important topic for the novel and the play is the abusive proprietary schools in nineteenth-century Yorkshire. Like Edgar, Dickens researched his subjects before he dramatized them in his writings. Charles Dickens began as a journalist, and like a journalist preparing a story, he investigated the Yorkshire boys’ schools, the originals upon which his Dotheboys Hall is based. In the Author’s Preface to the novel, Dickens explains how he pretended to be a gentleman looking for such a school in order to get a firsthand impression of what they were like. The Preface also explains that while Dickens was intent on “calling public attention to the system” that perpetrated “atrocities” far worse than any depicted in the novel, he also acknowledges that these schools had been severely reduced by lawsuits brought against them.

The character of Smike, the handicapped, supposedly mentally retarded boy whom Nicholas befriends at the school and later discovers to be his cousin, the abandoned son of Ralph Nickleby, has a crucial role in arousing sympathy for the dispossessed and rejected and for asserting the human connection and social responsibility that these writers valued. Smike is the one who clarifies for Dickens’s readers and for Edgar’s audience the poignancy of the outcast. In part 1, act 1, scene 13, Smike says he was with his friend Dorker when Dorker died. Smike says: “I was with him at the end, he asked for me. Who will I ask for? Who?” While Nicholas does not yet understand the magnitude of Smike’s isolation, Smike is drawing attention to the fact that when he dies, he will have no one in the world to ask for. As if to explain further to Nicholas, Smike continues: “O-U-T-C-A-S-T. A noun. Substantive. Person cast out or rejected. Abject. And forsaken. Homeless. Me.”

For much of the play, Nicholas’s main concern is making enough money to support himself, his widowed mother, and his unmarried sister Kate. But he takes upon himself Smike, takes up his cause immediately in his decision to beat the sadistic Squeers who runs the school, and in the staging, Nicholas literally carries Smike on his back as they escape. That Smike turns out to be the cousin of Nicholas fulfills, on the literal level, an important thematic point: across class and other hierarchies, human beings are connected, are related, are responsible for one another. Additionally, the central refusal of Uncle Ralph to help Nicholas is seriously qualified when it becomes clear that Ralph earlier refused to care for his own son. In all, the revelation of abuse and injustice is intended to call readers and playgoers to a higher vision, one of brotherhood and shared responsibility.

The production uses two devices that allow Edgar to compress large amounts of text and emphasize meaning through juxtaposition: one is narration, either imbedded in the dialogue or delivered like a chorus refrain, and the other is a manner of open staging that allows one scene to melt into another without conventional breaks. The play’s dialogue includes narrative passages rendered in the third person. These summarize action and intention, much as Dickens might have written them. Then, too, Edgar devised a platform for moving furniture up or down stage; thus, scenes could “fade out” without really ending, since, as the room withdraws to the back of the stage space, actors may continue to appear to play out the scene that space defines. Similarly, actors could by their costumes and actions create a sense of place, which can envelope and then be superimposed upon a previous scene. These two techniques, narration and what might be called scene blending, allowed Edgar to compress quickly and highlight meaning in the meandering epic plot of Dickens’s novel. In each of these techniques, Edgar takes the opportunity to render new interpretation through rearrangement and juxtaposition. One example may serve as illustration.

The Crummles theatrical troupe’s production of Romeo and Juliet, a happy-ending adaptation by Page 127  |  Top of ArticleNicholas, employs Smike in the role of the apothecary. Dickens and Edgar manipulate the Elizabethan play-within-the-play device for thematic purposes. Smike’s lines include the question, “Who calls so loud?” (part 1, act 2, scene 16), which echoes his earlier question to Nicholas when they are still at Dotheboys Hall. Moreover, Edgar has the presentation of the tragedy alternate with a London scene in which Ralph Nickleby experiences a rare sense of human feeling while he hands his niece, Kate, into her carriage. The Crummles actors engulf Ralph and Kate, act around them. So as Ralph is pondering Kate, Edgar’s audience watches Smike (Ralph’s abandoned son) call out. The juxtaposition of the scenes extends the idea of tragedy from the Shakespeare play to the Nickleby plot, as it parallels Smike’s vulnerability with Kate’s. The ideas that money can disrupt familial ties, that love can connect people across barriers, and that disconnection or connecting across those barriers can extract great cost are thematic for Shakespeare’s play, for Dickens, for Edgar. In Edgar’s play, these thematic issues are underscored again when Smike dies, a scene in which the apothecary lines are used another way, this time to suggest that Smike hears a call from Heaven.

Narration summarizes and interprets. In the London scene with Ralph and Kate, which cooccurs with the Shakespeare production, Edgar has Ralph’s secretary, Newman Noggs, step forward to describe Ralph’s reaction to having these human feelings. Noggs states: “And Ralph Nickleby, who was proof against all appeals of blood and kindred—who was steeled against every tale of sorrow and distress—staggered while he looked, and reeled back into the house, as a man who had seen a spirit from a world beyond the grave.” Like scene directions in a play, like the prose description a novelist uses, Noggs’s words suggest that Ralph has seen a ghost, and they also point to an important, albeit sentimental, idea: even the most hardened person can feel, is capable of moments when point of view shifts and the previously sustained balance with which he holds himself erect becomes precariously endangered.

In his interview with Swain, David Edgar said the novel Nicholas Nickleby is about “a time in which industrialization is breaking down old hierarchies and barriers but is leaving people open and naked and uncertain about how they relate one to another.” Edgar conveys this uncertainty at the end of the play in which, amid a generally happy conclusion, Nicholas spies another child abandoned in the snow, a new Smike. Against the backdrop of family singing, Nicholas picks up the boy and walks toward the audience with a piercing look in his eye. It is as though in the staging David Edgar has allowed for a happy ending (although it may be “pasted on,” as Nicholas’s ending of Romeo and Juliet is), while at the same moment he arranges the happy ending to be upstaged by a challenge about human responsibility in the face of continued suffering. In an effort to describe his role as playwright, David Edgar told Swain, “I’d like to be a secretary for the times through which I’m living.” In doing so, he purposefully joins hands with Dickens, across genres and across the centuries.

Source: Melodie Monahan, Critical Essay on The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Christopher Innes

In the following essay excerpt, Innes examines a contemporary staging of Nicholas Nickleby by David Edgar to identify challenges that the play poses for modern theater, and Edgar’s solutions to those challenges.

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Source: Christopher Innes, “Adapting Dickens to the Modern Eye: Nicholas Nickleby and Little Dorrit,” in Novel Images: Literature in Performance, edited by Peter Reynolds, Routledge, Inc., 1993, pp. 64-79.


Asquith, Ros, “A Dickens of a Play,” Review, in Time Out, June 20, 1980.

Billington, Michael, “A Triumph of Perversity,” Review, in Guardian, June 23, 1980.

Corliss, Richard, “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” Review of the televised production, in Time, Vol. 121, January 10, 1983, p. 62.

Davis, Paul, Charles Dickens A to Z, Facts on File, Inc., 1998, p. 265.

Dickens, Charles. “Author’s Preface,” in Nicholas Nickleby, Everyman’s Library, 1970, p. xvii.

_______, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,1839, reprint, Oxford University Press, 1957, pp. xviii & xix.

Edgar, David, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, in Plays from the Contemporary British Theater, edited by Brooks McNamara, Penguin, 1992.

Henry, William A., III, “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” Review, in Time, Vol. 128, July 14, 1986, p. 68.

Levin, Bernard, “The Truth about Dickens in Nine Joyous Hours,” in Sunday Times(London), July 8, 1980, p. 40.

Schlicke, Paul, “Nicholas Nickleby,” in the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 404.

Swain, Elizabeth, David Edgar: Playwright and Politician, Peter Lang Publishing, 1986, pp. 65, 145, 221, 263, 268, 277, 330-31, 335, 336.


Brockett, Oscar Gross, Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama Since the Late Nineteenth Century, Allyn and Bacon, 1991.

This book provides a thematic overview of theatrical movements that have shaped modern theater.

Dickens, Charles, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,1839, reprint, Oxford University Press, 1957.

This is the original Nicholas Nickleby novel by Dickens.

Edgar, David, ed., Playwrights on Playwriting, State of Play Series, Faber and Faber Limited, 1999.

This anthology of essays on playwriting contains an introduction by the volume editor, David Edgar.

Matthew, Colin, ed., The Nineteenth Century: The British Isles: 1815-1901, Oxford University Press, 2000.

This book of essays by leading historians covers the economy, politics, society, gender, religious, and artistic world of nineteenth-century Britain.

Painter, Susan, Edgar, The Playwright, Methuen, 1996.

A study of Edgar’s works, this book includes a chronology of his life and production dates as well as some photos.

Price, Martin, ed., Dickens: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1967.

This collection of essays, mostly focusing on one or another of Dickens’s novels, includes an essay by Dickens Scholar Barbara Hardy entitled “Change of Heart in Dickens’ Novels.”

Rubin, Leon, The Nicholas Nickleby Story: The Making of the Historic Royal Shakespeare Company Production, Heinemann, 1981.

This book is a documentary of the first production of the play, including photos.

Swain, Elizabeth, David Edgar, Playwright and Politician, Peter Lang Publishing, 1986.

Swain examines the way in which, as she sees it, Edgar’s political plays of the 1970s portray British history, post-World War II.

Tucker, Herbert, ed., A Companion to Victorian Literature, Polity Press, 1999.

The book is comprised of a collection of essays by recent Victorian scholars.

Williams, Raymond, Culture and Society 1780-1851,1958, reprint, Columbia University Press, 1983.

This readable scholarly work on the literary and social history of industrialized Britain poses the hypothesis that culture became a commodity during this time.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2694000017