Dossier Pédagogique

La Pièce

Synopsis Anglais

Synopsis Français


Charles Dickens


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Script [ En Anglais ]

La Pièce

Oliver Twist was written by Dickens at the tender age of twenty five’: it is an extraordinary achievement.

Its major characters and sceneshave passed into myth and one could argue that it is the most popular novel of all time. However, few would claim that is the best of Dickens’ novels. Bleak House and Great Expectations are far more accomplished.


The first hundred pages of Oliver Twist are flawless as the child progresses from the workhouse to the London underworld and the epic characters of the Beadle, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes and Fagin are introduced. When Oliver asks for more, writes one critic, history would never be the same again. But as soon as Oliver is captured at the burglary of his own half-sister’s house, the book descends into slow sentimentality which is redeemed in the last quarter when the story returns to the London underworld.


Our production follows the lead given by David Lean in his classic film version and cuts the entire Maylie family sub-plot. Research has shown that Dickens’ obsession with the angelic and frail Rose Maylie was the result of his own cousin’s serious illness. This is an interesting example of the potential danger of writing a novel in weekly installments’; the young Dickens was over influenced by his current emotional state.


The flaws of the construction are perhaps not as serious as the inherent contradiction in the central argument of the book, already mentioned in the section on Dickens’ art.

If the Workhouse is a murderous institution for the degradation and even destruction of the poorest and most vunerable members of society, then what alternative have the destitute except crime’’ Oliver would die of neglect and starvation upon the highway if the Artful Dodger did not rescue him and take him to the warmth and hot sausages of Fagin’s den. But the food and comfort that revive him are the product of crime.


Dickens punishes his criminals’; Bill, Nancy and Fagin are all dead by the end of the book and the Dodger transported for life to the penal colony in Australia. And their fates are presented as good and proper punishment. When Oliver is beaten unconcious and dragged before the cruel and drunken Judge Fang (a policeman in this adaptation) the entire legal system is exposed as a corrupt part of the same vicious state machinery that runs the workhouse.


Two hundred pages later the court which tries Fagin and sentences him to death is presented as a model of fairness. It is impossible to reconcile the two court scenes and the contradictions within the wider novel.

Dickens’ own solution is to demonise Fagin, the Jew becomes the almost supernatural source of evil. But although this may work aesthetically it is morally repugnant, especially in the light of the Holocaust.


It has been said that had Shakespeare been writing today he would never have created Shylock and perhaps the same can be said of Dickens and Fagin. Any modern adaptation has to deal with the problem of the anti-semitism in Oliver Twist. The David Lean film and the Lionel Bart musical both ‘solve’ the problem by avoiding it and Fagin is not executed. The anti-Semitism of the book can either be played down or exposed as part of the system of repression. It has seemed to us more challenging to expose rarther than to avoid the problem. It is interesting that even Dickens himself toned down the language in later editions, substituting the name Fagin for the more frequent use of ‘the Jew’ in the first edition.


Once Fagin ceases to be a supernatural force for evil it is possible to continue the social analysis of the first hundred pages into the second half of the story. This has basically been our approach.


Brownlow, for example, is made to bear the responsibility for rejecting his own daughter and causing her death and Oliver’s unhappy childhood. Once Fagin is recognised as a flawed scapegoat rather than a demon, Brownlow’s hand in his downfall becomes less than honorable. However, the play follows the book in not romanticising crime.


Crime may be the only alternative to starvation for Fagin’s gang but it is no substitute for a proper place in society. The violence and suspicion with which the criminals must live corrupts and destroys them. The book (and play) end with Oliver stating ‘‘I am truly happy’’ but the reader has the impression of tragedy.


OLIVER TWIST is a marvellous ressource for those who would adapt it for the stage. It is dramatic, comic and tragic. The famous Polish director Grotowski said that a production of a classic play or novel only justifies itself if it confronts the original. We have tried to confront the contradictions in OLIVER TWIST and concentrate on the sense of injustice that lies at the book’s core. We also aim to capture the theatricality and showmanship that makes OLIVER TWIST one of the most popular stories ever told.


Paul Stebbings and Phil Smith.



Synopsis Anglais

The gallows:


Fagin the Jew is about to be hung. Lord Brownlow asks him whether he has anything to say in his defense. Fagin claims he is innocent, that Lord Brownlow is as guilty as he. Fagin tells the story ‘


Lord Brownlow’s house, ten years earlier.

Agnes, Lord Brownlow’s daughter, is pregnant but unmarried. Her father throws her out of the house, disowning her. She manages to walk as far as the workhouse where she is taken in by Mrs Corney and her maid Old Sally. The baby is born but Agnes dies before she can reveal her father’s name. The beadle, Mr Bumble, is called to register the child. He gives the boy a name, Oliver Twist.


Oliver grows up and is put to work building coffins in the workhouse’; he is nine years old. The boys suffer terribly, they are cold and underfed. When one boy dies, Oliver finds the courage to ask for more to eat. He is beaten and locked up. That night Old Sally helps him to escape. She tells him that his mother’s name was Agnes.


On the road to London.

Oliver, exhausted, falls asleep. The Artful Dodger sees him and picks his pocket. Oliver wakes up. They become friends and the Dodger takes Oliver to London.



The Dodger and Oliver witness the hanging of little Joe, one of Fagin’s boys. They then go ‘‘home’’ to Fagin’s den. Fagin, The Artful Dodger and Charlie Bates teach Oliver how to theive ; they take him out and together pick the pockets of a rich gentleman that happens to be Lord Brownlow while Oliver watches. Lord Brownlow realises that he is being robbed, the Dodger and Charlie escape but Oliver ‘ who is innocent - is caught by the police. Brownlow feels sorry for Oliver and takes him home with him.


Back at Fagin’s.

Fagin tries to make Bill Sikes go and ‘‘rescue’’ Oliver. Nancy says that Bill is too drunk and offers to go in his place with the Dodger.


Lord Brownlow, in an attempt to show his confidence in Oliver’s trustworthiness, sends him on an errand with a large sum of money and a valuable book. But while Oliver is out Nancy and the Dodger catch him and drag him back to Fagin’s. Fagin wants to beat Oliver, but Nancy defends the boy. Fagin, distrusting Nancy, asks the Dodger to follow her.


That night, Nancy creeps out and goes to Lord Brownlow’s house. She tells Lord Brownlow that Oliver’s mother was called Agnes and he realises that Oliver is his own grandson. She tells him to meet her the next evening on London Bridge and she will bring Oliver with her. She makes Brownlow promise that in return he will not turn the gang over to the police.


The Dodger tells Fagin that Nancy has betrayed them and Fagin tells Bill Sikes, knowing the likely violent reaction that Sikes will have. Sikes kills Nancy. The police, alerted by Lord Borwnlow, raid Fagin’s den. They kill Sikes as he tries to escape. The gang is arrested.


Fagin is hanged for his crimes.



Synopsis Français

Le Gibet : Fagin le juif attend son exécution. Lord Brownlow lui demande s’il a quelque chose à dire pour sa défense. Fagin dit être innocent et que Brownlow est aussi coupable que lui.


Fagin raconte son histoire.


Chez Lord Brownlow, il y a dix ans.


La fille de Lord Brownlow est fille-mère. Son père la met dehors en la déshéritant. Elle atteint l’asile de pauvres où elle est accueillie par Mrs Corney et sa bonne, Old Sally. Elle accouche d’un garçon, mais meurt avant de lui avoir dit le nom de son père. On appelle Mr Bumble, le bedeau, qui donne à l’enfant un nom, Oliver Twist.


Oliver grandit, il a neuf ans et travaille à l’asile à la construction des cercueils sous la surveillance de Mrs Corney et Mr Bumble. Les garçons sont mal nourris et souffrent du froid. La mort d’un garçon donne à Oliver le courage de demander plus à manger. On le bat et l’enferme dans la cave. Old Sally l’aide à s’évader et lui dit que sa mère s’appelait Agnes.


Oliver s’enfuit pour Londres. épuisé, il s’endort au bord de la route. Artful Dodger le découvre et le vole, mais le réveille. Ils deviennent amis et Dodger emmène Oliver à Londres.




Oliver et Dodger arrivent au moment de l’exécution de Little Joe, un ami de Dodger. Ils rentrent à ‘‘ la maison’’ chez Fagin. Fagin, Dodger et Charlie Bates apprennent à Oliver comment voler’; ils l’emmènent dans la rue et vole un ‘‘monsieur’’ riche : Lord Brownlow pendant qu’Oliver regarde. Brownlow appelle la police, les garçons s’enfuient, mais Oliver, qui est innocent, est pris. Brownlow est touché par la jeunesse d’Oliver et décide de l’accueillir chez lui.


Chez Fagin.


Fagin veut convaincre Bill Sikes d’aller reprendre Oliver. Nancy, l’amie de Bill, propose d’aller à sa place avec Dodger, car Bill est trop ivre.


Lord Brownlow, pour montrer à quel point il a confiance en Oliver, l’envoie faire une course pour lui avec de l’argent et un livre d’une grande valeur. Mais Nancy et Dodger attrapent Oliver et le ramènent de force chez Fagin. Fagin est furieux contre Oliver et il essaie de le battre. Nancy prend la défense d’Oliver. Fagin soupçonne Nancy et demande à Dodger de la surveiller.


La même nuit, Nancy va chez Brownlow. Elle lui dit que la mère d’Oliver s’appelait Agnes. Brownlow se rend compte qu’Oliver est son propre petit-fils. Nancy donne rendez-vous à Brownlow à London Bridge ; elle emmènera Oliver avec elle. En retour, Brownlow promet de ne pas dénoncer Fagin et les autres à la police.


Dodger raconte la trahison de Nancy à Fagin, qui la dénonce à Bill Sikes. Bill tue Nancy.


La police, prévenue par Brownlow, prend d’assaut le repaire de Fagin. Sikes s’évade mais la police lui tire dessus et le tue. Les autres sont arrêtés.


Fagin est pendu.





Lord Brownlow

A wealthy London aristocrat and collector of old books


Mrs Grimwig

His servant and house keeper


Agnes Brownlow

Daughter of Lord Brownlow, expelled from her home by her father when she becomes pregnant: finally revealed as Oliver’s mother.


Oliver Twist

Son of Agnes Brownlow but born and brought up in poverty at the Parish Workhouse (an institution to keep the poor off the streets).


Mr Bumble

The Beadle, an official of the Workhouse responsible for putting into to practice the policy of straving the poor to encourage them to work harder and controlling their numbers. He profits from the virtuel slave-labour system at the workhouse.


Mrs Corney

the widowed matron of the workhouse, responsible for the preparation of the starvation diet fed to the poor. Mr Bumble is in love with Mrs Corney, but perhaps is more interested in her silverware than in her.


Old Sally

a poor alcoholic old woman with no family forced to live in the Workhouse. She earns her keep by delivering babies and laying out the dead at the workhouse.



A middle-aged Jewish Londoner, the organiser of a gang of child thieves.


The Artful Dodger

the leading member of Fagin’s gang of child criminals.


Charlie Bates

another member of Fagin’s gang.


Bill Sikes

a brutal London thief and alcoholic. Fagin sells his stolen goods.



a prostitute and petty thief, partner of Bill Sikes.



Charles Dickens

Charles John Huffham Dickens, 1812 - 1870


Charles Dickens was born at Landport, near the city of Portsmouth on the south coast on England on Febuary 7, 1812.


He was the second son of eight children. His father, John Dickens, was at the time of his birth, working as a clerk at the Naval Pay office in Portsmouth.


The Dickens family suffered a series of financial crises. The family moved to London in 1823, facing total ruin. John Dickens was arrested for non-payment of his debts and imprisoned in Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. He was joined there by the rest of the family, except young Charles.


With his parents in prison, Charles was sent to work at the age of twelve at a blacking warehourse in London. He received the miserable sum of six shillings a week for sticking labels on bottles. Prison, the courts, cheap and dirty rooms, and soul-destroying work were all to figure in Dickens’ writings. However, the experience of Dickens’ childhood were so painful that he would speak of them only with his closest friends.


After attending school only to the age of fifteen, Charles Dickens went to work as a clerk for a legal firm in Gray’s Inn, London. There he taught himself shorthand notation and begun to write freelance journalism. He did well and was soon employed reporting debates in Parliament.

Dickens’ writing developed from short journalistic sketches to articles commissioned to accompany popular illustrations of sporting events. His major breakthrough came when he started to write fiction in popular magazines with a large readership.


His stories were written in weekly installments and the sequence begun in 1836 with PICKWICK PAPERS. The pattern of weekly episodes continued all through his later publications and had an important influence on his literary style. OLIVER TWIST was begun while PICKWICK PAPERS was in first editions and Dickens was frequently working on two novels simultaneously. GREAT EXPECTATIONS was only written because another author’s serial was failing to win a readership and the publishers of the magazine turned desperately to Dickens. He then begun writing episodes without knowing how the story would end. The characterizations and descriptions which diverge from the main storylines of Dickens’ novels set him apart from other writers and allowed him to open doors and shed light on many of the darker corners of Victorian life.


Dickens proceeded to write a series of highly popular novels that combined liberal social criticism of the abuse of the poor and the hypocrisy of the official bureaucracy in a gothic and sentimental style that appealed to Victorian tastes.


In the 1840’s Dickens wrote a series of Christmas novellas starting with the highly successful A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1843). In the 1850’s he established a weekly publication of social comment HOUSEHOLD WORDS which sold tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of copies. His success in Britain was repeated in the USA.


He had a large family, many friends, worked with philanthropic enterprises. He was also interested in amateur theatrics, and via the theatre met Ellen Ternan, a young actress, for whom he left his wife Catherine Hogarth.


In 1858 Dickens began to perform public readings of his work in England and America. Biographers have suggested that it was the strain of these tours and performances which caused Dickens’ sudden physical decline in 1860’s. At his death on June 8th 1870 he left a novel unfinished’ THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD.




Cockney dialect comes from a certain part of London, officially from where you can hear the bells of Bow. Probably born with the industrial revolution, cockney accents can still be heard in much of London.

It is one of the hardest of all accents to understand (English films with Cockney actors were often dubbed when released in America). It would have been the language of Bill Sikes and Nancy.


More so than in French, English accents and dialects place people both geograpically and socially (see Bernard Shaw’s ‘‘Pygmalion’’).


A few general rules’

•  Words beginning with a ‘H’ drop the first letter’: ‘‘Horse’’ becomes ‘‘‘orse’’

•  Words beginning with a vowel have an ‘H’ added’: ‘‘Envelope’’ becomes ‘‘Henverlope’’

•  Negatives are often doubled’: ‘‘I have no money’’ becomes ‘‘I ain’t got no money’’.

•  Many vowel sounds are lengthened : ‘‘piano’’ is pronouced ‘‘pianner’’

•  Verbs are often used in the third person, whatever the subject’: ‘‘I am’’ becomes ‘‘I is’’ ‘‘You come’’ becomes ‘‘you comes’’

•  My becomes me’: ‘‘My hands’’ becomes ‘‘me ‘ands’’

•  Are not / aren’t becomes aint’:

The Doctor says it ain’t safe to deliver unless I scrubs me hands with alcohol.


Rhyming Slang

As all dialects, Cockney has it’s own ‘‘secret’’ vocabulary.

Based on rhymes, often long winded and humourous, Cockney Rhyming Slang was often a way of using obscene language without being offensive. To take a butcher’s, or to wear a titfer have passed into everyday usage.


‘‘Minces’’ = mince pies = eyes

‘‘Butcher’s’’ = butcher’s hook = look

‘‘titfer’’ = tit for tat = hat

‘‘richard’’ = Richard the Third = bird

‘‘Apples and Pears’’’= stairs

‘‘Trouble and strife’’ = wife

‘‘Joanna’’ = pianner = piano

‘‘Bristol’’ = Bristol City (the football club) = titty

‘‘Khyber’’ = Khyber Pass = arse



The classic English alphabet (A for Apple, B for Bear etc.) exists in Cockney. Say the alphabet out loud using the correct East End pronouciation and the meaning will appear. It is a typical example of Cockney humour, poking fun at the ‘‘educated classes’’.


A for ‘orses  (H)ay for (h)orses

B for Mutton  Beef or mutton

C for Yourself  See for yourself

D for ‘ential  Defferential

E for brick  (H)eave a brick

F for vescent  Effervescent

G for Police  Chief of Police

H for Consent  (H)age for Consent

I for Novello  Ivor Novello*

J for Cakes  Jaffa cakes*

K for Dressing  Cave for Undressing

L for Leather  (H)ell for Leather*

M for Size  Emphasize

N for Lope  Envelope

O for the Top  Over The Top*

P for a Whistle  Pea for a whistle

Q for Lavatory  Queue for the lavatory

R for mo’  (H)alf a mo’*

S for you  As for you

T for Two  Tea for Two

U for Me  You for me

V for la France  Vive la France’!

W for Quits  Double you or quits

X for Breakfast  Eggs for breakfast

Y for Husband  Wife or husband

Z for Breezes  Zephyr breezes



* Ivor Novello was a succesful actor and singer/songwriter in the 30’s

* Jaffa cakes are famous orange and chocolate biscuits

* To go Hell for Leather means to go very fast

* Over the top (also O.T.T.) meant to climb out of the trenches in the First World War. Today it means doing more than is necessary, more than your duty.

* Half a mo’ = half a minute’: dans une seconde

* Double you or quits = Quit ou double