The stage technique of "realizing" the "pictures" from the novel in tableaux vivants that had begun with the staging of Pickwick Papers very much continued and developed with stagings of Oliver Twist. Barnett's version at the Pavilion in May 1838 had one such imitation of Cruikshank's plates, for example. Almar's version at the Surrey in 1838 and 1839 especially featured "scenery either from Designs made upon the spot by Mr. Brunning, or from the Etchings which so richly illustrate the Work, by the talented George Cruikshank." [V & A bill, cited in Bolton, 108]
As the final, impressive tableau of Sikes's dying by his own hand suggests, the enormous popularity of Oliver Twist on the Victorian stage may owe more than a little to the tendency of adapters to move their scenes towards tableaux vivants derived directly from Cruikshank's serial illustrations. Although Charles Zachary Barnett probably invented the practice by realising Cruikshank's The Burglary (January 1838 in Bentley's Miscellany) — the brew-house or scullery being a conflation of Mr. Brownlow's north London and the Maylies' Surrey mansions for the sake of economy — George Almar exploited the notion more thoroughly, moving the action of his thirty-three scenes towards a culminating realisation of Cruikshank's The Last Chance. Although Richard Bentley had published the triple-decker just ten days before the play's opening night, on 19 November 1838 at the Surrey Theatre Almar demonstrated that he had completely assimilated the action of the novel in thirty-three distinct scenes, which do not include the workhouse sequence, but which do emphasize the Cruikshank illustrations wherever possible. However, Almar decided to bring the story to a conclusion with Sikes's death and does not feature Oliver and Rose in the country church, contemplating Agnes Fleming's memorial. Moreover, Almar decided to build up the characters of Monks, whom the dramatist introduces early, and Nancy, who protects Oliver from being beaten, eavesdrops on Monks and Fagin, meets Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie on the steps of New London Bridge, discloses the plans of the boy's evil half-brother, and finally pleads for her life before Sikes murders her in their garret. Remarked Actors by Daylight:
Almar has shown great skill in the adaptation, and . . . the piece itself is produced with care . . . with a judicious curtailment we think "Oliver Twist" is destined to a long and pleasing journey' (24 November 1838, p. 310). [cited in Fulkerson, 86-87]
By 25 February 1839 the play had run for eighty nights at The Surrey in an era when many plays closed after less than a week. Although Almar had added music by J. M. Jolly and detailed sets, based on Cruikshank, by Brunning, and featured the talents of Master Owen (a highly sympathetic Oliver), Cooper as Brownlow, W. Smith as Bumble, E. F. Saville as Sikes, Heslop as Fagin, Ross as The Artful Dodger, and Miss Martin as Nancy, Dickens was so upset by the production that from the middle of Act One, Scene One, until the final curtain he lay on the floor of his box, refusing to witness the performance. In Dickens Dramatized, Bolton breaks down the thirty-three scenes by act, but does not mention the play's the opening in The Three Cripples. Also glaringly absent is the scene in the ruined factory in which Monks disposes of the evidence just given him by the Bumbles, and the scene in the Central Criminal Court in which The Dodger challenges the authority of the magistrates.
Act III: An Anti-Hall in the house of Mrs. Maylie; [sc. 2] Sykes's garret; [sc. 3] The House of Mr. Brownlow; [sc. 4] The Suburbs of London; [sc. 5] London Bridge and the River Thames; [sc. 6] The Garret of Sykes; [sc. 7] Mr. Brownlow's House — The Confession; [sc. 8] The Banks of Folly Ditch; The Desperado's Death; the Denouement. Between each listing of a major scene, as above, appear 25 to 200 words from the novel. [Bolton 110-111]
For example, the third act begins with a quotation strongly suggestive of a Cruikshank illustration, Oliver Twist at Mrs. Maylie's door (Part 13, April 1838):
Act III. An Anti-Hall in the house of Mrs. Maylie. "Brittles obeyed; and the group, peeping timorously over each other's shoulders, beheld poor little Oliver speechless and exhausted, who raised his heavy eyes, and mutely solicited their compassion." [Almar, p. 7; based on p. 156, Ch. 28, 1846 edition]
This quotation, matching as it does the pertinent Cruikshank plate, suggests that here, instead of leading up to a tableau, Almar begins the scene with a living picture that then dissolves into action. The synopsis of Act Three, scene by scene, in the Almar text is accompanied initially by three pages of descriptive passages such as this taken directly from the novel — a textual feature that suggests that these cheap publications by such firms as John Dicks functioned as "poor man's" versions of novels that were priced (even in individual numbers) beyond the purchasing power of the literate members of the working classes. Act Three begins in the anti-hall of Mrs. Maylie's house, just after Sikes has escaped with an apparently lifeless Oliver at the end of Act Two, the act concluding with the "picture" of Cruikshank's The Burglary (Part 12, March 1838).
Almar's "streamlining" of the novel's action includes eliminating Rose and Oliver's contemplation of Agnes's monument — and "sensationalizing" in that the action culminates in a spectacular scene on the rooftop of the gang's hideout and the nemesis visited upon Bill Sikes. Bolton notes from these earliest adaptations by Barnet and Almar to adaptations at the end of the century, the streamlining process continued, so that thirty-three scenes were reduced to just ten in a 1909 production, thereby limiting the possibilities for tableaux vivants or "living pictures" derived from the original serial illustrations of George Cruikshank.
Act Four, Scene Eight: The Finalé
— At the back, a view of Jacob's Island, with the Thames by moonlight. An old house open to the Audience [Title-page of "Oliver Twist: Serio-comic Burletta in Three Acts" (Dicks' Standard Plays 293]. The tops of the houses with chimney pots cross the stage. — (See plate in the novel.) [The Last Chance, Part 22, February 1839]
TOBY and DODGER discovered in room playing at cards, R. C.
Toby. That's mine — so Fagin's nailed, eh?
Dodger. Yes; they nabbed him at dinner time. I cut my lucky up the chimney — Charley got into the water butt, but they se'ed his legs sticking out at top and nailed him. [One of the inconveniences of having long legs]
Toby. Well, I wish you'd picked out another crib rather than this.
Dodger. Why I thought you'd like to see an old pal.
Toby. Not when he's as likely to be nailed as you are!
Music — Enter SIKES, L. door 2 E.; he takes a seat in silence; they both turn away from him.
Sikes. I hear Fagin's taken; is that true?
Toby. Yes. (a pause)
Sikes. Well, why don't you speak to me? — have you nothing to say to me? — Do you mean to sell me, or let me stay here until the hunt is over.
Toby. Stay here if you think you're safe.
Sikes. Is the — the — body buried? (they shake their heads) No! then why don't they? Why do they keep such things above ground for? — hark! what's that! (starts)
Toby. What's that?
Sikes. That knocking.
Toby. There's no knocking.
Sikes. But look at those eyes! — see — see — see — how they follow me! Dodger, let me set aside of you!
Dodger. Toby, let's go in the other room.
Sikes. What, don't you know an old pal?
Dodger. Oh yes, I know you — but don't you come near me. You murdered poor Nance, and if they come here I'll give you up; aye, and I'll do it now. Murder! — help! down with him! (Music — springs on SIKES)
Sikes. Ha! you hell-cub, I'll strangle you!
Toby. (interposing) Don't hurt the boy! Don't hurt the boy! Don't hurt the boy! (Don't hurt the boy!knocking without, L. U.)
Dodger. He's here — he's here! Murder! — help!
Sikes. Show me some place where I can put this devil's bird. (TOBY opens R. D.; SIKES throws DODGER in who continues to cry, "Help!" "Murder" — murmurs without)
Mr. Brownlow. (without, L. U. E.) Open, in the king's name.
Toby. Do you hear, Bill?
Sikes. Is the door down stairs fast?
Toby. Double locked and chained, and the panels lined with sheet iron.
Sikes. (shaking his fist over the wall, L. C.) Then damn you all, do your worst &mdasah; I'll cheat you yet.
Mr. Brownlow. (without) Twenty guineas to the man who brings a ladder.
Toby. Quick, Bill, or you'll be nabbed! Exit into room, R.
Sikes. Ah! here's a coil of rope! (takes one up) By the window I can lower myself down to the ditch, and then may the devil aid me (music — gets out of window to the roof of house — loud yells, when he is seen by the mob, L. — SIKES shakes his fist at them, is seen to fasten one end of rope round chimney, and form a noose at the other) I can let myself down to within a [46/47] few feet of the ground, and — then damn ye! catch me if ye can! — stay; let me put this noose under my arms — Ah!, that's Nancy! keep your hands off — away, curse you, keep off! keep off! — Ah!
Loses his footing and falls from roof, loud cheers and clapping of hands when he falls — at the same moment the door, L. 2 E. is burst open, OFFICERS enter, with BROWNLOW, OLIVER, ROSE MAYLIE, MR. GRIMWIG, &c.
[The Lacy version of the text adds the following directions, and an epilogue spoken by Brownlow, acting as a chorus to articulate the workings of poetic justice.]
Loses his footing and falls from roof, loud cheers and clapping of hands when he falls—at the same moment the door, L. 2 E. is burst open, OFFICERS enter, with BROWNLOW, OLIVER, ROSE MAYIE, MR. GRIMWIG, &c.
MR. B. The murderer has met his death, hung by his own bloodthirsty hands, and poor Nancy is avenged. Oliver, dear son of my only brother, your trials are over; your enemies vanquished, and a happy life is opening before you.
Oliver. How can I thank you, sir? Words cannot convey to you the gratitude I feel towards you, and the kind friends who have befriended the poor orphan Parish Boy — Oliver Twist!
In Almar's final scene in the American four-act (Samuel French) edition, the dramatist realizes the Cruikshank illustration The Last Chance, published in the November 1838 Richard Bentley triple-decker (and therefore available to Almar for his initial script) as the culmination of the violent Sikes-Nancy plot in Act Four, Scene Six.
Sik. Then damn you, do your worst — I'll cheat you yet!
[Rushes off R. H., followed by others.
SCENE LAST. — The roofs of houses. — One very tall one L. C. — All the characters in piece discovered. — SIKES appears on roof. — At his appearance yells and groans are heard to welcome him. — He sets his foot against a stack of chimneys, fastens one end of the rope firmly round it, and in the other makes a strong running noose by the aid of his hands and teeth. — SIKES then shakes his fist at them in defiance, draws his knife and places it between his teeth.
Sik. I can let myself down to within a few feet of the ground, and then cut the rope — stop! I will put it for a moment round my neck till I fasten it under my armpits. [He puts loop over his head.] Now Nancy! Ah, those eyes again! Hell! I have fallen!
[In turning his head he staggers and is precipitated from roof, the rope tightens and he is left hanging, the mob belowshouting He has hanged himself! — Others overcome TOBY. — Picture. [alluding to the George Cruikshank illustration The Last Chance (Part 22, February 1839)]
Although the text announced that this script was "First performed at the Pavilion Theatre, May, 1838" (2), the story was not nearly complete enough at that point to have included anything beyond Oliver's being questioned by the Bow Street Runners at the Maylies' Surrey mansion (Chapter 31, Part 14). And, indeed, Philip Bolton in Dickens Dramatized notes that this script, the basis for published texts in French, Duncombe, and Lacy, ends in the third act with the shooting not of Sikes, but of Monks, the playwright having conflated Brownlow's Pentonville mansion with the Maylies' in Surrey:
Act III: The Discovery; Sikes's Dwelling; Scullery in Brownlows's House; The Burglary; A Street; Apartment in Brownlow's House; Oliver Twist's Revenge — Death of Monks, with which the play ends. [Bolton 109]
Bolton further speculates that this early adaptation is the work of C. Z. Barnett rather than George Almar, who was the author of the third stage adaptation — the first after the novel appeared in volume form (well ahead of the end of the serial run). The second page of this anonymously authored script continues: "— at the Royal Surrey Theatre, on Monday, November 19th, 1838. 
Richard P. Fulkerson describes the production at the Royal Pavilion Theatre (21 May 1838) as involving C. Z. Barnett's script, whereas the prolegomena in the Lacy script describes scenes in the third act, beginning with "An Anti-Hall in the House of Mrs. Maylie" (p. 7), that take the story well beyond the burglary at Chertsey. Fulkerson notes that the May 1838 (Barnett) text ends with a struggle in Oliver's bedroom at Brownlow's "in which Oliver seizes Fagin's gun and shoots Monks, just as Bumble enters with the police" (85). Fulkerson describes the Almar play in Dicks' Standard Drama, No. 293, as opening with Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble and concluding with the "sensational action" (86) of Sikes's death, although the faithful canine Bull's-Eye is nowhere in the picture which shows the production's cutaway set. One may conclude from an examination of the production details and scripts of early adaptations that several versions of Almar's play were published, and that the 21-scene Barnett script was gradually augmented with scenes from Almar's script.
Whereas the three-act script published as French's No. 128, Duncombe's No. 29, and Lacy's waits until the third act to bring Monks into the action, when he induces the Bumbles to destroy the evidence of Oliver's origins, the adaptor (Almar, in all likelihood) in this final scene on Jacob's Island ends Sikes's life in much the same manner as the novel, having already disposed of Monks but using a flashback by the surviving members of the gang to narrate Fagin's apprehension by the authorities. Significantly, probably for the sake of continuity, the dramatist brings The Artful Dodger into this concluding scene, even though in the novel the Central Criminal Court has already committed The Dodger to Australian transportation. Despite its tendency to narrate crucial strands of the plot, this third adaptation, "produced at the Surrey on November 189th of the same year , was the most successful of its time" (Morley, 77), and was, moreover, the first to stage both the murder of Nancy and the death by misadventure of her paramour, the bully boy Bill Sikes, abandoned by his mates as the murderer of Nancy.
Related material, including portions of the 1838 adaptation of Oliver Twist, possibly by George Almar
- Oliver Twist (homepage)
- Early dramatic adaptation
- Early dramatic adaptations of Oliver Twist, 1838-42
- Transcription of Act One, Scene One, of Oliver Twist by George Almar (?)
- Transcription of Act Three, Scenes Six and Seven of Oliver Twist by George Almar (?)
Last Modified 8 March 2016