‘A low born labourer like you’: Audience and Victorian Working-Class Melodrama



J.P. Burnett’s Jo, a stage adaptation of Dickens’s Bleak House, proved one of the great successes of London’s 1876 theatre season. This first West End production of Bleak House inspired numerous versions in the West End that year and ensured the reputation of its young lead, Jennie Lee. Lee became synonymous with the role of Jo, playing the street-sweeper in revival after revival as late as 1921, and enjoying equal success in Europe, America and Australasia.1 More striking than the play’s success, though, is the lateness of its success. Profitable West End versions of Dickens’s earlier novels had followed closely the final number of serial publication, or predated the final number, sometimes even by several months. Yet Burnett’s adaptation of Bleak House and the numerous other West End versions of the mid-1870s appeared twenty years after the novel. Jo had appeared on stage earlier, however, outside the fashionable West End — that is, outside the area in which theatres gathered together the most socially diverse audiences. Differences in tone between these early productions of Bleak House at theatres in working-class areas and Burnett’s West End production highlight the necessity of considering audience composition when characterising Victorian melodrama.


British Library Diverse Audience Family Circle Young Lead London Theatre 
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    E Dubrez Fawcett, Dickens the Dramatist (London: W. H. Allen, 1952), p. 231.Google Scholar
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    John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. J. W. T. Ley (London: Cecil Palmer, 1928), p. 563.Google Scholar
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    Michael R. Booth, Theatre in the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 5.Google Scholar
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    Charles Dickens, Bleak House, eds. George Ford and Sylvère Monod (London and New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 564.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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