Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1812–1870) was first published in serial parts in the periodical Bentley’s Miscellany, from 1837–39. It was an instant success. Sensationally exposing the workhouse, criminality and the poverty of London’s slums, it made its way onto the stage the same year, in many different adaptations.
This playbill from May 1838 proudly proclaims one of these adaptations at the Royal Pavilion Theatre, East London, ‘never before acted’. Dickens was at this point still better known by his pen name ‘Boz’. There was no copyright protection at this time, so dramatists were free to seize on the work of novelists, turn them into plays and put them on the stage.
The plays proved popular, especially in the north of England. However, because of the criminality of the characters, productions were often – ineffectively – banned by the Lord Chamberlain (whose office censored stage productions in Britain from 1824 to 1968). By 1850, over 40 productions had been staged.
Eventually, in April 1868, a specially licensed adaptation by the writer and critic John Oxenford (1812–1877) was passed for performance.