8+ Hours of Classic Charles Dickens Stories Dramatized, Starring Orson Welles, Boris Karloff, Richard Burton & More

Do you know who would have under­stood our cur­rent polit­i­cal moment? Who would have known how to make sense of the naked avarice, wide­spread bul­ly­ing, dem­a­goguery, and preda­to­ry pol­i­tick­ing? Charles Dick­ens, that’s who.

The vil­lainy in Oliv­er Twist alone suf­fices to show just how well Dick­ens under­stood misog­y­ny, crim­i­nal exploita­tion, and the ways seduc­tive insin­cer­i­ty works to ensnare the vul­ner­a­ble.

As we approach the inter­minable hol­i­day sea­son, many of us will reflect on Dick­ens’ scathing indict­ment of greed in A Christ­mas Car­ol. Near­ly every­one wants a piece of Dick­ens’ pre­sumed polit­i­cal views. The Social­ist Review pro­claims “he would have been only too famil­iar with the shame­less pil­ing up of wealth, the poor strug­gling to sur­vive, the pen­ny pinch­ing of wel­fare, and the lofty con­tempt of our rulers” in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

But Dick­ens was no rev­o­lu­tion­ary. His for­eign pol­i­cy ideas “antic­i­pate Kipling’s pro­le­tar­i­an defend­ers of empire,” and he might have fit right in with the most star­ry-eyed of neo­con­ser­v­a­tives.

Was he a defend­er of free mar­ket ideals, as some allege? The idea seems implau­si­ble. Char­ac­ters like pre-redemp­tion Scrooge and Ralph Nickleby—who in, say, Ayn Rand’s hands might be cham­pi­ons of indi­vid­u­al­ism and self­ish­ness as a virtue—become in Dick­ens’ nov­els exam­ples of fright­en­ing­ly trun­cat­ed human­i­ty. Take this descrip­tion of Nick­le­by, uncle of the orphaned Nicholas:

He wore a sprin­kling of pow­der upon his head, as if to make him­self look benev­o­lent; but if that were his pur­pose, he would per­haps have done bet­ter to pow­der his coun­te­nance also, for there was some­thing in its very wrin­kles, and in his cold rest­less eye, which seemed to tell of cun­ning that would announce itself in spite of him.

This is the look of the deceit­ful, schem­ing busi­ness­man in Dick­ens: the cold eyes, the bare­ly-con­cealed mal­ice. In nov­els like Oliv­er Twist and Hard Times, Dick­ens “pro­vides a damn­ing cri­tique of indus­tri­al Eng­land of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry” and “an indict­ment of glob­al lais­sez faire cap­i­tal­ism of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry.” So argues The Cop­per­field Review, in any case.

But when we read Dick­ens, we don’t do so fore­most to have our polit­i­cal views bol­stered or chal­lenged, but to expe­ri­ence the immense­ly mov­ing and enter­tain­ing plots, with their vivid­ly delin­eat­ed char­ac­ters like Ralph Nick­le­by above. These qual­i­ties have always made Dick­ens’ work trans­late beau­ti­ful­ly to the stage and screen, and also to the radio waves, where Dick­ens appeared in dra­mat­ic adap­ta­tions dur­ing the medium’s gold­en age and beyond, often in star-stud­ded pro­duc­tions.

For exam­ple, at the top of the post, you can hear a 1950 radio play of David Cop­per­field with Richard Bur­ton in the title role and Boris Karloff as “the smarmi­est creep in Dick­ens,” Uri­ah Heep. The lat­ter char­ac­ter may be one of the most obses­sive­ly described in all of the author’s works, to the point of car­i­ca­ture. And yet, writes Sam Jordi­son at The Guardian, “just as Satan gets the best lines in Par­adise Lost, Heep gets some of the best moments in David Cop­per­field.”

Fur­ther up, you can hear Orson Welles star in a 1938 pro­duc­tion of A Tale of Two Cities. This play is the third in Welles and John Houseman’s series The Mer­cury The­atre on the Air, which fea­tured Welles’ hand­picked com­pa­ny of actors. Soon spon­sored by Campbell’s Soup, the pro­gram was renamed The Camp­bell Play­house by the time Welles pro­duced an adap­ta­tion of A Christ­mas Car­ol with Lionel Bar­ry­more as Scrooge.

In the Spo­ti­fy playlist above, hear that pro­duc­tion as well as a sec­ond Welles-star­ring ver­sion of A Tale of Two Cities record­ed in 1945 for the leg­endary Lux Radio The­ater. You’ll also find Richard Burton’s David Cop­per­field and clas­sic pro­duc­tions of Great Expec­ta­tions, Oliv­er Twist, The Pick­wick Papers, The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, and short sto­ries like “The Queer Client,” “The Sig­nal­man,” and “The Tri­al for Mur­der.” If you need Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, down­load it here.

Vis­it­ing, or revis­it­ing, the Dick­en­sian world through radio plays fits in per­fect­ly with the author’s own mode of dis­sem­i­nat­ing his fic­tion: he was a show­man who loved to give read­ings of  his work “with full histri­on­ic bril­liance,” writes Simon Cal­low, “and stage-man­aged to a point of high the­atri­cal­i­ty.” And through such enter­tain­ment, he believed, he might move read­ers and audi­ences with his cri­tiques of the exploita­tive sys­tems of his day.

The playlist above will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free. Copies of Dick­ens’ works can be found in our col­lec­tion, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Life & Lit­er­ary Works of Charles Dick­ens

Hear Charles Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Car­ol Read by His Great-Grand­daugh­ter in His Pre­ferred Style

Charles Dick­ens’ Hand-Edit­ed Copy of His Clas­sic Hol­i­day Tale, A Christ­mas Car­ol

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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