December 9, 2012

When Charles Dickens came to Portland

And why he left town feeling a bit like Scrooge.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

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Charles Dickens drew more than 1,200 people to Portland's old City Hall Auditorium to hear him read from his “A Christmas Carol” in March 1868.

Courtesy photo

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Mark Honan, left, stars as Bob Cratchit and Tom Ford is Scrooge in Portland Stage Company’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Darren Setlow photo courtesy of Portland Stage Companyt

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Several versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" are on stage:

Portland Stage Company presents a fully staged production through Dec. 23, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and noon and 5 p.m. Sunday, with additional final-week performances at 7 p.m. Dec. 18, 2 p.m. Dec. 20, and noon Dec. 21. Ticket prices range from $15 for children to $44. Call 774-0465 or visit

The Public Theatre in Lewiston wraps up its adaption of "A Christmas Carol" at 2 p.m. Sunday. The Public Theatre's version features six actors and a fiddler; $18 adults, $5 for kids. Call 782-3200 or visit

Freeport Factory Stage, 5 Depot St., presents "A Christmas Carol" at 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets cost $15, $10 for seniors and students. Call 370-5340 or visit

At Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland, Shoestring Theater presents "A Christmas Carol" at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22. This show is performed by kids, with puppets and the odd politician and features a cranky movie, live music and a ghost on stilts. Tickets for the 3 p.m. performance cost $8 adults, $4 for kids at The evening show is pay-what-you-can.

One wonders if he were alive today what Charles Dickens would think of Portland.

Certainly, his views were mixed when he visited the city in March 1868 to read from his novel "A Christmas Carol." The monumental English writer complained of the cold climate, the bland food and the general inhospitable nature of his accommodations at the Preble House.

On the other hand, he enjoyed a walk along the Eastern Promenade and was impressed with the "astonishing energy" of the 1,250 or so people who heard him read on the evening of March 30, 1868, at the old City Hall Auditorium.

Dickens and his celebrated Christmas story have returned to Portland Stage Company after a hiatus last year. The Portland Stage production is one of several versions of Dickens' story on stages across the region this season.

Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart has slightly recast the play, adding musical elements and a few fresh faces. But its core message remains taut and focused: It is a story of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge and of giving dignity to the poor. It is a story of the true spirit of Christmas, and one "that needs to be told," Stewart said.

Dickens wrote the novella in 1843, and it was instantly popular, both in print and on stage. Several stage adaptations were quickly readied.

Dickens, who fancied himself as much an actor as writer, toured frequently to read from the book. One of those tours brought him to Portland in the waning years of his life. He died at age 58 in March 1870.

This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Although the Victorian novelist may be best known in America for "A Christmas Carol," scholars and critics generally cite "A Tale of Two Cities," "The Pickwick Papers" or "David Copperfield" as greater literary accomplishments. He was very much a social critic, who used his novels as a way to advance his views and agenda.

He arrived in Boston in November 1867, facing the prospect of 80 readings over five months. The itinerary presented logistical challenges, as that winter brought piles of snow and deep cold. He used Boston as a base, and traveled mostly by rail to regional cities.

His agents scheduled trips as far south as Washington, D.C., and west to Chicago. But his schedule was truncated because of the weather, and Dickens never made it west of Buffalo. With the cancellations, Portland was added to his itinerary late in the tour.

He did not have a great time in Portland. Because of restrictive train schedules, he had to leave Boston on Saturday night for his Monday reading. There was no rail service on Sunday.

He arrived late on Saturday night, and walked from the train depot at the foot of State Street to his lodgings at the Preble House at Congress and Preble.

His first night in town was miserable. He complained of coughing from "two or three in the morning until five or six, and have been absolutely sleepless. I have no appetite besides, and no taste."

He observed that "the life in this climate is so very hard" and talked of depression and fatigue. To a travel companion, he said the next day, "I am nearly used up."

He found the food at the Preble House "bad and disgusting."

HIS FIRST FULL DAY in town, on Sunday, he kept mostly to himself, venturing out of his room only for a short walk. Monday, the day of his reading, was a better day. He took a long walk by the sea, presumably to the Eastern Promenade based on his description of Casco Bay. He also noted that Portland was rebuilding after a devastating fire two years before. He mentioned seeing charred trees and much evidence of reconstruction.

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Additional Photos

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Joel Leffert as Scrooge and Maddy Leslie as Tiny Tim in The Public Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol.”

Courtesy photo

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Daniel Noel as Marley's ghost in the Portland Stage Company version.


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