Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Chimes

Charles Dickens is inevitably associated with Christmas, but one of his books, The Chimes, takes place on New Year's, and a display at the New York Public Library pays tribute to a theatrical production of this tale of the New Year.

The full title of Dickens's 1844 novella was The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. It followed one year after the publication of A Christmas Carol, and though it actually takes place on New Year's, it was the second of five so-called "Christmas Books" Dickens published, the others being The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man.

In "A Dickens Christmas," the exhibit showing on the top floor of the NYPL's Main Branch on Fifth Avenue, there's a playbill for a stage production of The Chimes performed "by the special permission of Charles Dickens, Esq." The production went up right after the book was published. It was performed at the Theatre Royal, Adelphi, which had recently been freed up to present "legitimate" drama after the passage of the Theatres Act in 1843.

The Adelphi began its life as the Sans Pareil Theatre run by Jane Scott, who staged Gothic melodramas like The Old Oak Chest. After Scott retired from the stage in 1819, her father sold the theatre, and the new owners named it the Adelphi. It became known as a house of melodramas--sometimes called "Adelphi Screamers"--and continued to perform lush productions with ample amounts of music, even after the Theatres Act meant that it was no longer required to minimize dialogue in order to stay in business.

By the time The Chimes premiered at the Adelphi, the theatre's management had been taken over by Céline Céleste-Elliott, better known as Madame Céleste. A dancer and actress who specialized in mute roles in melodramas, Madame Céleste was also a capable manager, frequently producing the plays of John Baldwin Buckstone. For The Chimes, she commissioned scenery based on the book's original illustrations, which had been done by Daniel Maclise, John Leech, Richard Doyle, and Clarkson Stanfield, the last of whom had actually gotten his start as a stage scenery painter.

Music was also bound to be an important part of the production, and Madame Céleste got James Howard Tully to compose an original score for The Chimes. Dickens's friend Mark Lemon co-wrote the adaptation. Lemon, who was a founding editor of the popular magazine Punch, wrote a number of plays, including The Little Gypsy, Hearts are Trumps, and The Silver Thimble.

To see the original playbill, and some other choice objects of Dickensiana, make sure to get over the the library by Twelfth Night, as the exhibit ends on January 5th!