J.P. Burnett’s Bleak House: A Drama in Three Acts

By Julianne Smith, Pepperdine University

J.P. Burnett’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House was a global sensation in the late Victorian period. The play makes Jo the central character in the story and comes to be more commonly billed as Jo, or Bleak House or alternately as Poor Jo.[1] Victorian actress Jennie Lee, also the wifeJo image of the playwright, popularized the eponymous character through her evocative performance of Dickens’s waif at his melodramatic and pathetic finest. Drawing on Dickens’s most affecting scenes of extreme poverty and death, Lee made a career playing Jo in repertoire in such far-flung locations as New Zealand and America as well as repeating her performance in provincial theatres across Britain.

Burnett’s adaptation had its genesis in America. Both he and Jennie Lee were in San Francisco in 1875 when tragedienne Fanny Janauschek brought her version of Bleak House, adapted by Henry Rendle sometime in 1871, to the California Theatre. This version featured Lady Dedlock as the central character, and its claim to fame was that Janauschek played the roles of both Lady Dedlock and Hortense. Jennie Lee was cast in the part of Jo, and she quickly stole the show from Janauschek with her emotional performance. Burnett then adapted Bleak House to make Jo the center of the story. The couple returned to England and premiered their version the following year.

Burnett’s adaptation was never published nor has it been digitized, making it currently inaccessible as a classroom text. As well, scholarship on this play is scarce, but what follows here is a brief description of the play that may help situate it within a larger discussion of Bleak House themes, such as treatment of the poor and working classes, or other Dickens adaptations. The play’s dialogue is both a loose paraphrase of Dickens’s original text and wording directly copied from Dickens, though not always very carefully. Burnett often combines and compresses scenes from the novel in a way that roughly follows Dickens’s chronology but necessarily leaves out many characters and events. Dickens’s plotline featuring the Dedlocks, Hortense and Tulkinghorn has been preserved in abbreviated form; however, the play opens and closes with an emphasis on Jo (spelled J-o-e in the manuscript); the first scene features Jo at the “inkwich,” and the final two scenes draw out his death in great detail. One interesting historical feature related to Jo’s death at the play’s end is the truncation of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jo repeats as he dies in the novel. In Burnett’s play, Jo’s last words are “I’m movin on,” where as Dickens kills off Jo mid-prayer as he utters the words “Hallowed be—thy—.” As is evident in crossed out lines in the manuscript, Burnett had to make some changes to the scene because the Lord Chamberlain forbade scripture references on stage as irreverent use of sacred text. So in adapting the novel for the stage, other forces were at work that at times prevented a more faithful representation of Dickens.

Burnett also adds other elements to justify Jo as the tragic hero of the story. For example, just before he dies, the Snagsby’s epileptic maid Guster kisses him, and the two become star-crossed lovers destined to part. Inspector Bucket (instead of Mr. Woodcourt) attends Jo as he dies, and the final tableau features Bucket mourning over Jo’s dead body. Burnett himself sometimes played the role of Bucket to his wife’s performance of Jo, so the play showcased the talents of husband and wife at the same time it moved the tragic climax away from the Dedlocks, whose denouement occurs at the beginning of the last act and mostly in line with Dickens’s plot. Once the Dedlocks are resolved, the play’s last two scenes feature Jo as he dwindles toward death.

Questions for Discussion:

Dickens’s novel Bleak House features more than a hundred characters, but its title does not identify a main character as some of his other novels, such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, do. What cultural or literary elements might a playwright be responding to when Jo or Lady Dedlock become the focus of the storyline? Why is Esther, who is one of the novel’s narrators, not a central character in this stage adaptation of Bleak House? What does the treatment of Esther tell us about the difference between fiction and theatre?

When a playwright adapts a novel with so many characters and events for the theatre, what are some considerations of time, place and action that go into staging it? Since the entire novel cannot be staged, is an adaptation that leaves things out inauthentic?

How do actors’ strengths affect the script of a play? Can you think of a modern actor who has played a minor role in a film that ended up making him or her famous? Or one who perhaps ended up playing a more memorable role than the film’s major stars?

Further Reading:

Burnett, J. P. Bleak House: A Drama in Three Acts. February 1876. Lord Chamberlain’s   Collection, British Library. Add MS 53162 B.

Bolton, “Bleak House and the Playhouse.” Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 81-116.

—-. Dickens Dramatized. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.

Fitzgerald, Percy. “On Some of the Old Actors.” The Gentleman’s Magazine 276 (February          1894): 170-181.

Shaw, George Bernard. Our Theatre in the Nineties. Vol. 2. London: Constable, 1932.

Sherson, Erroll. London’s Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century. London: John Lane, 1925.

Sample Reviews:

“Footlight Flashes: The Record of a Week of Triumph.” The San Francisco Chronicle 13 June      1875: 5.

“Jennie Lee.” The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) 18 March 1892: 2.8.

“The Drama: Globe Theatre.” The London Reader 18 March 1876: 472.

Wedmore, Frederick. “The Stage: Bleak House at The Globe.” The Academy 26 February 1876:    203-204.

[1] Licensed 16 February 1876
London premiere at The Globe, 21 February 1876
Last known performance at The Lyric Theatre, 7 February 1921