Monthly Archives: December 2017
The RSC are giving Shakespeare a rest this Christmas. While the main theatre has its usual family-friendly show with David Edgar’s adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’, the Swan Theatre hosts Imperium – Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’s Cicero novels. At over 6 hours of theatre, spread over two shows, this one is perhaps a little less family-friendly. But it has three long books to cover, not just a slim volume of Dickens.
‘A Christmas Carol’ is of course a treat, and particularly a visual treat, although not because of lavish scenery. At times it needs only a top hat and a dress coat here, a couple of doors there, to summon up Victorian London, or perhaps more specifically Dickensian London. The scene with Mr. Fezziwig in Scrooge’s youth is probably not really Victorian, but captured so perfectly the Dickensian image of a slightly earlier period that it seemed to bring the original book illustration to life.
Phil Davis is well cast as Scrooge, surely partly on the basis of his earlier role as Smallweed in the TV adaptation of Bleak House. I didn’t find his personal journey to greater empathy and happiness entirely convincing though. There’s neither a gradual process of understanding, nor a sudden epiphany – more just a feeling of well yes, of course I see that, which is difficult to square with his earlier attitudes.
But the bigger difficulty I have with this production is the role of Dickens, who wanders in and out of the action with his friend, and later biographer, John Forster. David Edgar and the Director, Rachel Kavanaugh, seem to have decided that the story doesn’t stand well enough on its own. It risks being seen as – well, a feel-good family-friendly Christmas show. So they rather ram down our throats the message that Dickens was not just writing a Christmas ghost story – he was a campaigner trying to draw attention to some of the social evils of the time. Slightly bizarrely they show Forster having to convince Dickens, the great storyteller, that a story might be the best way to get his political and social message across.
But in doing so they seem to be denying this very premise. They don’t trust the storyteller to get his message across through the story – they have to give him a second chance to air his views by talking directly to the audience as well. Dickens didn’t have to do that – he could just publish the story and let it stand on its own – and the RSC shouldn’t need to either.
‘Imperium’ too has a narrator, who both takes part in the action and stands back from it to pass comment on it, but at least here it’s a device that comes directly from the book. Joseph Kloska plays Tiro, Cicero’s secretary and biographer. He’s very likeable in the role, although it’s slightly odd that he seems not to age, while his master does. The role works much better than with Dickens in a Christmas Carol, and partly because it’s treated a little less earnestly and more tongue in cheek.
There’s still a feeling though that the RSC isn’t quite prepared to trust its audience to draw their own conclusions. As one example, at a key point in the first play they plant in the audience’s mind the idea that perhaps it was Cicero himself who wrote some forged letters. They then reinforce the idea with muttering from one of his slaves about the role he had to play in the affair. But that’s not enough – at the end of the play, as though delivering the final coup, they reveal that, surprise surprise, Cicero wrote the letters.
It felt similar in the second play when Mark Anthony’s continual drunken staggering seemed mainly designed to reinforce the point, repeated several times, that his wife was the real power behind the throne. A few lines of carefully crafted dialogue, or perhaps even a single raised finger, could have made the point far more effectively. Or given that the plays were very light on female roles, we could perhaps have heard more directly from Fulvia herself, with less focus on her alleged puppet (compare Shakespeare’s treatment of Lady Macbeth for example). As it is, the women in the play are little more than caricatures, there for sentimentality or for cheap jokes about licentiousness or avarice.
And what on earth was going on with the apparent appearance of Julius Caesar’s ghost, screaming ‘Avenge me’, at his state funeral? Were Mark Anthony’s words not enough indication that were those who would be seeking revenge? I don’t recall Shakespeare having to make the point quite so unsubtly. Subtlety was not really the strong point of this version, certainly not when it came to a perma-tanned, bouffant-haired Pompey declaring “I’m a Republican”.
Perhaps I protest too much. No-one is claiming that this is Shakespeare. For all the lack of subtlety, these were two wonderfully enjoyable evenings of theatre. Richard McCabe held them together with a strong performance as Cicero and impressive stamina, channelling his inner Tony Hancock into moments of world-weary cynicism inbetween his oratorical triumphs and disasters. I enjoyed too the performance of Peter de Jersey as Julius Caesar, convincing both as a military leader and as a smooth politician, where you could always sense the steel hand beneath his velvet glove.
I’ve looked in earlier posts at the first publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Tauchnitz in December 1843 (possibly the first printing worldwide of the book), and also at the Schools Edition of the story that followed in 1847. Both editions are scarce today in first printing or even in early printings, although the book continued to sell for so long that later printings are not too difficult to find.
The individual issue of ‘A Christmas Carol’ remained in print with Tauchnitz for many decades, but it was also combined with the next two Christmas stories by Dickens, ‘The chimes’ and ‘The cricket on the hearth’, to form volume 91 of the Tauchnitz main series in 1846. That volume too remained in print right up until the Second World War.
As the Schools Edition was also sold over a long period, Tauchnitz had three different editions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ for sale simultaneously. The Schools Edition was probably sold right through until the 1880s, when Tauchnitz expanded the concept into the ‘Students Series’. Not surprisingly ‘A Christmas Carol’ appeared again in this series, as volume 25 in 1888 and remained in print in this format at least through until the First World War in 1914.
During the war, the firm was unable to publish much new material, but instead raided its back catalogue for shorter works or excerpts that could be published in a new series of slim paperbacks. The series started life as ‘English Text-books’ and was later renamed as the ‘Tauchnitz Pocket Library’. And sure enough, there was ‘A Christmas Carol’ again, as volume 45 in the series.
I have no idea how many copies of the story Tauchnitz sold in total between 1843 and 1943, but it must have been an enormous number by the standards of the company. A more normal Tauchnitz novel might only have sold 2,000 copies, but it seems possible that sales of ‘A Christmas Carol’ could have been a hundred times that figure, or more.
It’s worth remembering that Tauchnitz did not pay royalties. He typically paid a fixed lump sum for the continental rights to a novel, a practice he followed right from the start, when there was no international copyright agreement. As there was no obligation on him to pay anything at that time, his offer of a lump sum payment was gratefully received, and he was able to define the terms of business for the future.
The gesture certainly bought him a lot of goodwill with Dickens, who forever after regarded him as a friend and as a trustworthy business partner. It also gave Tauchnitz privileged early access to new work by Dickens, so that his editions were sometimes published ahead of the UK editions. And the terms of the deals were determined by Tauchnitz, not only in terms of the price paid, which Dickens always allowed him to propose, but also in terms of the structure.
A lump sum payment left Tauchnitz open to the risk of lower than expected sales, but with Dickens that was hardly a risk at all. If on the other hand, sales were higher, Tauchnitz would make additional payments, at his discretion. In this way he was able to extend his reputation for fair dealing and for generosity, while still managing his costs and his profits.
In the case of ‘A Christmas Carol’, he could certainly afford to be generous. He had a very valuable property on his hands, particularly after copyright treaties restricted the issue by any other European publishers. So he made the most of it. There’s no record, so far as I know, of what Tauchnitz paid for the initial right to publish ‘A Christmas Carol’, or what later payments he may have made, but for a full length work by Dickens some 20 years later, he offered £35. On that basis, the initial payment for ‘A Christmas Carol’ could possibly have been £20 or less. If so, it must surely have been one of the best bits of business ever done. I feel sure that Tauchnitz would have made regular additional payments to reflect its success, at least over the rest of Dickens’ lifetime. Whether he continued to be as generous to Dickens’ estate after his death may be a little more doubtful.