Primary – Using Charles Dickens in Drama

Activity One – Speaking and Listening
Year 4 to Year 6

The works of Dickens can seem inaccessible to many, adults included, but by taking them bit by bit, children can get an understanding of the characters and the plot. Select some passages from Dickens’ novels and discuss what is happening in them with the children. Talk about the feelings of the characters and where appropriate, how they interact with each other.

You can find many passages to choose from in the free download at:

Passage 1

Joe bought a roll and reduced his purse to the condition (with a difference) of that celebrated purse of Fortunatus, which, whatever were its favoured owner’s necessities, had one unvarying amount in it. In these real times, when all the fairies are dead and buried, there are still a great many purses which possess that quality. The sum total they contain is expressed in arithmetic by a circle and whether it be added to or multiplied by its own amount, the result of the problem is more easily stated than any known figures.

Passage 2

She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but once shoe on – the other was on the table near her hand – her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking glass.

It was not in the first few moments as I saw these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments that might be supposed. But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could. (Great Expectations. Ch.8. p.67)

Passage 3

Before Oliver had time to look round, Sikes had caught him under the arms; and in three or four seconds he and Toby lay on the grass on the other side. Sikes followed directly. And they stole cautiously towards the house.

And now for the first time, Oliver, well-nigh mad with grief and terror, saw that housebreaking and robbery, if not murder, where the objects of the expedition. He clasped his hands together, and involuntarily uttered a subdued exclamation of horror. A mist came before his eyes; the cold sweat stood upon his ashy face; on his limbs failed him; and he sank upon his knees.

‘Get up!’ murmured Sikes, trembling with rage, and drawing the pistol from his pocket; ‘Get up or I’ll strew your brains upon the grass.’

‘Oh! For God’s sake let me go!’ cried Oliver; ‘let me run away and die in the fields. I will never come near London; never, never! Oh! pray have mercy on me, and do not make me steal. For the love of all the bright Angels that rest in Heaven, have mercy upon me!’

The man to whom this appeal was made, swore a dreadful oath, and had cocked the pistol, when Toby, striking it from his grasp, placed his hand upon the boy’s mouth, and dragged him to the house. (Oliver Twist Ch.22. p.211)

Passage 4

“Lay your arm out on the back of the sofa, my dear boy, and I’ll sit down here, and get the bandage off so gradually that you shall not know when it comes. I was speaking of Provis. Do you know, Handel, he improves?”

“I said to you I thought he was softened when I last saw him.”
“So you did. And so he is. He was very communicative last night, and told me more of his life. You remember his breaking off here about some woman that he had had great trouble with. Did I hurt you?”
I had started, but not under his touch. His words had given me a start.
“I had forgotten that, Herbert, but I remember it now you speak of it.”
“Well! He went into that part of his life, and a dark wild part it is. Shall I tell you? Or would it worry you just now?”
“Tell me by all means. Every word.” . . .
. . . “It seems,” said Herbert, “- there’s a bandage off most charmingly, and now comes the cool one – makes you shrink at first, my poor dear fellow, don’t it. But it will be comfortable presently – it seems that the woman was a young woman, and a jealous woman, and a revengeful woman; revengeful, Handel, to the last degree.”
“To what last degree?”
“Murder – does it strike too cold on that sensitive place?”
“I don’t feel it. How did she murder? Whom did she murder?”
“Why, the deed may not have merited quite so terrible a name,” said Herbert, “but she was tried for it, and Mr Jaggers defended her, and the reputation of that defence first made his name known to Provis. It was another and a stronger woman who was the victim, and there had been a struggle – in a barn. Who began it, or how fair it was, or how unfair, may be doubtful, but how it ended is certainly not doubtful, for the victim was found throttled.”
“Was the woman brought in guilty?”
“No, she was acquitted. My poor Handel, I hurt you!”
“It is impossible to be gentler, Herbert. Yes? What else?”
(Great Expectations Ch.50. p.435-6)
Dickens was not only a great author but also a great performer and he was regularly asked to give readings of his work. Now you can ask the children how the passages should be read and encourage them to have a go. You can set a passage for homework for the children to practise and then perform to the class or in assembly.

Activity Two – Performance
Year 3 to Year 6

This year, many schools, like us, will be tempted to perform a play by Dickens. We’re looking at doing Oliver, mainly because the script of the musical by Lionel Bart has been available to schools for some time in a simpler format. Other plays are available such as Great Expectations and David Copperfield as well as more topical ones such as The Chimes and A Christmas Carol.

Doing a whole play is a little daunting so why not consider doing a series of vignettes from several Dickens’ plays. Choose excerpts from around four plays, you can choose more than one extract from each. The benefits of choosing this route are that you can select the well-known parts, adding interest for your audience as well as having the chance that the children will be familiar with them. It also won’t matter so much that you may be performing a part of A Christmas Carol in July!

Activity Three – Characterisation
Year 4 to Year 6

Dickens’ is celebrated for the characterisation in his novels. Not only are they fully painted but they are historically and socially accurate portraits of characters that fit into their roles in the stories.

This activity is similar to the first except that the pupils need to read the descriptions of the characters in the novels or passages from them and decide how the character should be played.

Using video of performances from adaptations is useful here so that the pupils can see characters such as Pip, Oliver, Fagin etc. and how they are portrayed according to their character.

Give the children a character that they need to perform. Ask them to research from the internet who these characters were and what they were like under the headings as follows:


This should give them a good idea of the personality of the character and inform their performance.
Now give them an extract of dialogue for their character, playing the other character in the piece yourself and encourage them to get into role. Good characters to use are Miss Haversham, Scrooge, Abel Magwitch, Fagin and Bob Cratchit amongst others.

An extension to this would be to look at the names of the more unusually christened characters from Dickens as suggested in the literacy activities and devise their own characterisation based on their names. What would Anne Chickenstalker be like or Edwin Drood?

Ask the children to write their own monologue or dialogue expressing their views on what the character may be like.

Activity Four – Where next?
Year 6

We have all read a book and either predicted how it might end or had hopes for how we want it to end and this activity tries to develop the skill in children.

I like this activity and have used it several times with different authors. It encourages children to think about the story they’ve read so far and how they think the story may continue or end.
Read passages from Dickens’ books, you can use the ones I’ve suggested earlier. Talk to the children about what may have led up to the extract and then encourage them to think of a way it would continue.
This time ask them to write the continuation as a play script and after reading out the passage they’ve worked with, continue it as a performance piece using their own work.

After they’ve all performed their work, tell them how Charles Dickens continued his version and discuss which was the better idea and why.

Dave Lewis
Primary teacher

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