Well, he's made it. 200 years and... well okay he is dead, but people still know who he is, that's pretty good. Now, I've come to Dickens fairly late, only really working through the canon over the last few years, (I know, I've been busy with the English Renaissance, okay!) and over the last few months limbering up to performing an almost complete reading of one of his books. Limbering up is a good term for the tongue has to get round some pretty robust speech. I remember when I started working on the Sherlock Holmes stories finding them, at first, to be very difficult work. Dickens, being another fifty years or so earlier, presents another verbal gap to jump. My tongue is getting used to the longer sentences, the sentences that are sometimes so long that halfway through you lose a sense to where you started, and the structure of English used. Once my tongue has wrapped its way round the idiom then I can really start cooking with gas.
I originally planned to do a reading of The Pickwick Papers - had even started to edit the text, and did a poster - but gave up after a couple of weeks. The Pickwick Papers - episodic, jovial and humorous seemed the perfect text, but I found I couldn't structure the episodes into satisfying chunks for the audience. Even assuming that the audience will return for all 20 parts (some will, many won't), each evening has to work as a one off, to be perfectly satisfying and complete and Pickwick just didn't fit. It is, to be frank, a bit patchy. (Sorry Dickens... what was that? Oh, you're dead so don't care. Fair enough.)
Nicholas Nickleby, on the other hand, is a perfect fit. Of similar length, the plot for NN is very simple, but it does have one. In a sentence, young Nicholas tries to make his way in the world, supported by friends and hampered by his wicked Uncle Ralph. In a second - he prevails, his uncle fails and he (and his sister Kate) succeed in finding positions in the world, marry and live happily ever after - after meeting dozens of glorious characters good and bad. Each episode (with occasional reshuffles of material) fits a neat hour plus segment and works on its own merits. Having struggled for weeks with Pickwick, I have segmented NN into 20 episodes and have nearly finished editing the first 5 in but a few days.
There are edits made - but they are very minor. Each episode needs to be around 12,000 words long, and when carved up NN tends to be 15,000+ words long per part. Now 3,000 words an episode sounds a lot, but it really isn't. For a reading I will remove, as a matter of course, extraneous 'he said, she saids' from the text and any description of voice or manner that will be obvious in my performance. This usually amounts to a good 2000 words each episode. After that I remove anything that isn't quite brilliant. Some of the descriptions of the city of London tend to go on longer than the ear will bare, and often beyond that the tongue can make clear. A sentence on a page, grammatically correct, can be utterly bamboozling to the hearer, regardless of skill or intention. Minor trims here make these much clearer. After that, if I haven't reached my limit, I will make harder choices, but so far this hasn't been necessary.
There is one exception of this hands off rule to the editing. It's the coach crash in the early chapters of the book - written in, presumably, to create a good cliffhanger for the next instalment. I have removed the whole event (an entire chapter) because it is quite frankly utterly boring. Sorry Dickens, but I'm convinced you were hitting a deadline and recycled some old material to fill in that months copy. The passengers, following the crash, retire to an inn and tell each other two not very good stories - very similar to the stories that punctuate Pickwick, but wholly unwelcome.
That aside, and having cut it it is very much aside, I love Nicholas Nickleby, it is a delight from the start to finish and I'm going to have so much fun performing it this Christmas. I hope you will come and enjoy it also. Tickets will be on sale soon.
[Since writing this blog entry all plans to do the above were changed. For details as to why this happens to the best laid plans view the blog post: The Seldom Plan.]