By the Express Permission of the Author: Intellectual Property and the Authorized Adaptations of Charles Dickens Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Cohen, Marc Dana
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Charles Dickens, who believed in the concept of literary property, considered the theatrical adapters who legally appropriated his work without permission to be thieves. These thieves produced four types of adaptation based on Dickens's The Bloomsbury Christening and The Pickwick Papers for which I have given the following labels: the Seed Adaptation, the Potboiler Adaptation, the Reverential Adaptation, and the Embellished Adaptation. Powerless to stop such plays, Dickens adopted a never-before-identified extra-legal defense strategy that can be broken up into phases: During the first phase Dickens created an authorized adaptation commodity that he would grant to one theater in exchange for a play characterized by fidelity to the book. During the second phase Dickens established, with his award of authorization, a pattern of alternating back and forth between two theaters every time a new book was to be published. This allowed him to exert control over two productions per book. The third phase was to write a play-disguised-as-a-tale that, based on its design, almost forced the adapters to write a play characterized by fidelity to the book. This third-phase strategy and the resulting plays were so successful--Dickens plays took over the London theaters and ten to seventeen were characterized by fidelity--that critics who considered themselves to be defenders of the British drama took umbrage and, during that season, made Dickens, in their criticism, the symbol of the drama's decline. For each of the authorized adaptations, Dickens superintended at least one rehearsal in which he illustrated for the actors how to read their parts. Dickens authorized plays based on seven of his works: A Christmas Carol (1844), Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), The Haunted Man (1848), and A Tale of Two Cities (1860). Although there exists little if any record of a Victorian theory of adaptation, inferences based on dramatic criticism of these authorized adaptations reveal a coherent theory that critics both promulgated and policed, as well as a vivid picture of what it was to sit in the audience and see a typical theatrical adaptation.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • McGowan, John
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Graduation year
  • 2011

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