"AS SAM WELLER SAID, WHEN FINDING
HIMSELF ON THE STAGE": WELLERISMS IN DRAMATIZATIONS OF
CHARLES DICKENS' PICKWICK PAPERS
The proverbial locution called a "wellerism" is derived
from the characteristic diction of "Sam
Weller," the irrepressible "boots" at the White Hart Inn, and his
loquacious father, "Tony," in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37) by Charles Dickens (1812-70). Serialized in
the Monthly Magazine, the novel did not capture the
imagination of the reading public until the introduction of
"Sam Weller" in Chapter 10; thereafter, the popularity of
the book almost ensured that it would be adapted for the
stage and seen by thousands of playgoers on two
continents. In its narrative and dramatic incarnations, directly and
indirectly, Dickens' work provided both a name and numerous
examples of a form of proverb in existence from the time of
Theocritus (3rd century B. C.): the
When his attention was called to the most recent,
unauthorized dramatization of The Pickwick Papers, as the book is commonly
denominated, Dickens was magnanimous in his disdain. "Well,"
he observed, "[I]f the Pickwick has been the
means of putting a few shillings in the vermin-eaten pockets
of so miserable a creature, and has saved him from a
workhouse or a jail, let him empty out his little pot of
filth and welcome. I am quite content to have been the means
of releasing him." The "miserable creature" is William George Thomas Moncrieff
(1794-1857), a playwright and sometime theatrical manager;
the dramatization in question is Sam Weller, or; Tlle
Pickwickians, which was presented at the Strand Theatre in London on 10
July 1837 with William James Hammond (1797-1848) in the
In a lengthy, heated apologia for his adaptation,
Moncrieff claimed that he had not "departed from the spirit
oi [his] proto-type, however greatly [he]
may have been compelled [by dramatic necessity] to
vary from their [sic] form and
bearing..." The playwright was sufficiently keen to realize that the
laws of the drama and those of the novel are not identical;
he also saw that the incidents and characters of The
Pickwick Papers are too diverse to be molded into a
single, unified dramatic action. His failure stems from
failing to exercise the playwright's cardinal function: to select and arrange details. Sam Weller as a
play is weakened by its superfluity of character and
incident. The character of Sam Weller lacks the Dickensian
multi-dimensionality, and even his diction is an awkward
conglomeration of Dickens' own words and Moncrieff's often
clumsy "improvements." Moncrieff, preferring to invent his
own wellerisms, employed only four of Dickens forty-one
examples of this proverb genre.
Dickens eventually wreaked a none-too-subtle vengeance on
Moncrieff, to whom he alluded in his slightly later novel Nicholas Nickleby (1839):
It was upon the whole a very distinguished
party, for independently of the lesser theatrical lights
who clustered on this occasion round Mr. Snittle
Timberry, there was a literary gentleman present who had
dramatised in his time two hundred and forty-seven novels
as fast as they had come out--some of them faster than
they had come out--and who was a literary
gentleman in consequence.
What follows is an index of the sixty-seven different
wellerisms which have been extracted from Dickens and the
adaptations by Stirling and Moncrieff. They are arranged
chronologically (i.e., Dickens followed by Stirling and
Moncrieff) and consecutively as they appear throughout the
particular works. References to the Dictionary of
Wellerisms are indicated by the letters MK
(Mieder/Kingsbury) and a number identifying the texts in
this published collection:
Dickens: "No, no; reg'lar rotation, as Jack
Ketch said, wen he tied the men up." (p. 138) - MK
1059 Stirling: "no--no--reg'lar rotation, as Jack Ketch
said, ven he tied the men up...." (p. 28) Moncrieff: "No--no, reg'lar rotation--as Jack
Ketch said, vhen he tied up the malefactors." (p. 2)
Dickens: ". . . what the devil do you want
with me, as the man said wen he see the ghost?" (p. 144)
- MK 301 Stirling: "The next? is, what the devil do you
want with me" as the man said ven he see'd the ghost."
Dickens: ". . . out vith it, as the father
said to the child, wen he swallowed a farden." (p. 177) -
MK 914 Moncrieff: ". . . out vith it--as the father said
to the child, vhen it swallowed the farden!--" (p. 8)
Dickens: "He wants you particklar; no one
else'll do, as the Devil's private secretary said ven he
fetched avay Doctor Faustus." (p. 220) - MK 1461 Moncrieff: "He vants you partick'ler--as the
devil's private secretary said vhen he fetch'd avay
Doctor Faustus." (p. 70)
Dickens: "Proud o' the title, as the Living
Skellinton said, ven they show'd him." (p. 235) - not in
Dickens: "There's nothin' so refreshin' as
sleep, sir, as the servant-girl said afore she drank the
egg-cupful o' laudanum." (p. 239) - MK 1198
Dickens: "If you walley my precious life don't
upset me, as the gentl'm'n said to the driver when they
was a carryin' him to Tyburn." (p. 288) - MK 710
Dickens: "Now, gen'l'm'n, 'fall on, as the
English said to the French when they fixed bagginets."
(p. 289) - MK 398
Dickens: ". . . I think he's the wictim o'
connubiality, as Blue Beard's domestic chaplain said,
with a tear of pity, ven he buried him." (p. 309) - MK
1449 Stirling: "I see that my father's a wictim of
connubiality, as Blue Beard's domestic chaplain said,
with a tear of pity, ven he buried him." (p. 47) Moncrieff: "You are a perfect wictim of
connubiality, father; as Blue Beard's domestic chaplain
said, vith a tear of pity, vhen he buried him." (p.
Dickens: "That's what I call a self-evident
proposition, as the dog's-meat man said, when the
housemaid told him he warn't a gentleman." (p. 338) - MK
Dickens: "You know what the counsel said,
Sammy, as defended the gen'l'm'n as beat his wife with a
poker, venever he got jolly. 'And arter all, my Lord,'
says he, 'it's a amable weakness."' (p. 355) - MK
Dickens: "It's over, and can't be helped, and
that's one consolation, as they alway say in Turkey, ven
they cuts the wrong man's head off." (p. 355) - MK
Dickens: "Business first, pleasure arterwards,
as King Richard the Third said wen he stabbed t'other
king in the Tower, afore he smothered the babbies." (p.
382) - MK 145 Stirling: ". . . business before pleasure, as the
chaps said when they smothered the two babies in the
Tower." (p. 29)
Dickens: "Werry glad to see you, indeed, and
hope our acquaintance may be a long 'un, as the gen'l'm'n
said to the fi' pun' note." (p. 394) MK 1107
Dickens: "Werry sorry to 'casion any personal
inconvenience, ma'am, as the house-breaker said to the
old lady when he put her on the fire...." (p. 405) - MK
Dickens "All good feelin', sir--the wery best
intentions, as the gen'l'm'n said ven he run away from
his wife 'cos she seemed unhappy with him." (p. 410) - MK
653 Stirling: No offence, sir; all good feelin'--the
wery best intention--as the gentleman said ven he run
away from his wife, 'cos she seemed unhappy with him."
Dickens: ". . . vether it's worth while goin'
through so much, to learn so little, as the charity-boy
said ven he got to the end of the alphabet, is a matter
o' taste." (p. 419) - MK 695 Stirling: "But neither it's worth while goin'
through so much to learn so little, as the charity boy
said ven he got to the end of the alphabet." (p. 48)
Dickens: ". . . now we look compact and
comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little
boy's head off, to cure him o' squintin'." (p. 433) - MK
232 Stirling: ". . . now look compact and comfortable,
as the father said ven he cut his little boy's head off,
to cure him o' squintin." (p. 56)
Dickens: "Fine time for them as is well
wropped up, as the Polar Bear said to himself, ven he was
practising his skating." (p. 457) - MK 1372
Dickens: ". . . I'm pretty tough, that's vun
consolation, as the wery old turkey remarked wen the
farmer said he was afeered he should be obliged to kill
him for the London market." (p. 509) - MK 240
Dickens: "Oh, quite enough to get, sir, as the
soldier said ven they ordered him three hundred and fifty
lashes." (p. 546) - MK 374
Dickens: "Hooroar for the principle, as the
money-lender said ven he vouldn't renew the bill." (p.
551) - MK 985
Moncrieff: ". . . you seem to have bin rayther
close pinch'd in your pantry, lately--as the valnut said
to the nut-crackers...." (p. 146)
Moncrieff: "Vell, vonders vill never cease--as
the old lady said, vhen she'd twvins...." (p. 146)
*Previously published in Proverbium, 11 (1994), pp. 57-76
For a discussion of the character in the novel, cf.
Gwenllian L. Williams, "Sam Weller," Trivium I
(1966): 88-101. Cf. also Archer Taylor's classic
discussion of the wellerism in The Proverb (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1931, rpt. Hatboro,
Penn.: Folklore Associates, 1962; rpt. with an
introduction and bibliography ed. by Wolfgang Mieder.
Bern: Peter Lang, 1985) 200-220.
For a discussion of "Tony Weller's" characteristic
speech, cf. William H. Bailey, "Wellerisms and Wit," The Dickensian I (1905): 31-34.
Like many of Dickens' novels, The Pickwick Papers has attracted numerous writers who have cast tbe
narrative work in a variety of dramatic forms. Although
this essay concentrates on the versions executed at the
time of the publication of the novel, several later
adaptations may be of interest: Pickwick, a
four-act drama by James Albery (1871); Bardell versus
Pickwick, a sketch by John Hollingshead (1871); Jingle, a farce by James Albery (1878); Bardell
versus Pickwick, a two-act operetta with book by T.H.
Gem and music by Frank Spinney (1881); The Great
Pickwick Case, an operetta with lyrics by Robert
Pollitt and music by Thomas Rawson (1884); Jingle: or,
The Pickwick Club, a three-act comedy by George E
Rowe (1887); Pickwick, a one-act dramatic cantata
with libretto by F. C. Burnand and music by Edward
Solomon (1889); Bardell versus Pickwick by J.W.
Bengough (1907); Monsieur Pickwick (in French), a
five-act comedy-burlesque by Georges Duval and Robert
Charvay (1911); Bardell v. Pickwick by Frank P.
Davis (1915); Mr Pickwick, a two-act musical with
libretto by Charles Klein, lyrics by Grant Stewart, and
music by Manuel Klein (1903); Pickwick, a
three-act comedy by Cosmo Hamilton and Frank C. Reilly
(1927); Mr Pickwick, a two-act comedy by Stanley
Young (1952); and Pickwick, a musical with
libretto by Wolf Mankowitz, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse,
and music by Cyril Ornadel (1965). Note is also taken of
Sgt. Buzfuz (1871) and Frank E. Emson's The Weller Family
Florence E. Baer, "Wellerisms in The Pickwick
Papers," Folklore (London) 94, 2 (1983)173-183; M.
Maass, "30 Odd Similes aus den Pickwick Papers von
Charles Dickens," Archiv für das Studium der
neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 41 (1867): 207-215.
For a full discussion of Dickens' interaction with
the dramatizers of his fictional works, cf. S. J. Adair
Fitz-Gerald, Dickens and the Drama (London:
Charles Scribner, 1910).
Charles Dickens to John Forster, 7 September 1837. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Madeline House
and Graham Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) I, 304.
Forster had written a scathing review of Sam Weller in
A Drama in Three Acts, as Perfomed at the New Strand
Theatre, with Unexampled Success (London: Privately
printed, 1837). Included in English andAmerican Drama
of the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Allardyce Nicoll and
George Freedley. New York: Readex Microprint, 1965-66.
Sam Weller, "Advertisement," iii.
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens (Oxford: Oxford UP,
1950) 632. The entire episode occupies pp. 632-634.
Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) XXVIII,
DNB 38, 173
Sam Weller, "Advertisement," v. ". . . I had
undoubted precedent, for what I did, in the instance of
the first dramatic writer of all time--SHAKESPEARE! who
has scarcely a play, that is not founded on some previous
drama, history, chronicle, popular tale, or story."
Nicholas Nickleby 633.
The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 granted a
monopoly on the performance of regular comedy and tragedy
to the theatres royal in Drury Lane and Covent Garden.
Canny managers of the so-called "minor theatres" avoided
prosecution by adding songs and spectacular scenes to
regular comedies and tragedies and calling the new
creations "burlettas." The necessity of such ruses was
obviated by the passage of the Theatre Regulation Act of
1843 that dissolved tne monopolies.
The Pickwick Club, or, The Age We Live In! Philadelphia: Frederick Turner, n. d. Included in
English and American Drama of the Nineteenth Century, Box
A Drama in Three Acts. London: W Strange, 1837.
Included in English and American Drama of the Nineteenth
Century, Box 42.
Weller, "Advertisement," iii. By way of
comparison, Rede's adaptation ran to thirty-two pages in
the cheap acting edition; Stirling's, to sixty; and
Moncrieff's, to thirty-nine.
All references from Dickens' novel come from The
Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Macdonald
Illustrated Classics, No. 2 (London: Macdonald, 1948). An
annotated list of the wellerisms included in Dickens,
Stirling, and Moncrieff appears at the end of this paper.
Charles Dickens to Frederick Yates, ?29 November
1838. The Letters of Charles Dickens I, 463.
George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York
Stage (New York: Columbia UP,
Odell IV, 550.
Charles Dickens to William Mitchell, 16 February
1842. The Leners of Charles Dickens III, 64-65.
There is no record of Dickens' having witnessed the
Arthur H. Wilson, A History of the Philadelphia
Theatre 1835 to 1855 (New York: Greenwood Press,
Cf. Bartlett Jere Whiting, "American Wellerisms of
the Golden Age," American Speech 20 (1945): 3-11;
and C. Grant Loomis, "Traditional American Wordplay:
Wellerisms or Yankeeisms." Western Folklore 8
For a discussion of the effect of the wellerisms in
Moncrieff's drama upon contemporary American writers, cf.
James M. Tidwell, "Wellerisms in Alexander's Weekly
Messenger, 1837-39," Western Folklore 9 (1950):
Quoted in Odell IV, 203
Quoted in Odell IV, 203-204.
Odell IV, 251
Nelle Smither, A History of the English Theatre in
New Orleans (rpt: New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967
): 358. Henry B. Hunt (c. 1794-1854) was
the "Sam Weller."
Reviews of this production are contained in Alexander's Weekly Messenger, 9 May 1838: 3, 5; 6
June 1838: 3, 5.
Cf. especially Williams (note 2) and Baer (note 4).
Cf. Wolfgang Mieder and Stewart A. Kingsbury, A Dictionary of Wellerisms (New York: Oxford UP,
1994) 27 (no. 251).
Cf. Mieder and Kingsbury (note 33), viii.
A few days before going to print the authors came across
the invaluable study by Marie Teresa McGowan, Pickwick
and the Pirates: A Study of Some Early Imitations,
Dramatisations and Plagiarisms of "Pickwick Papers" (Diss. University of London, 1975). For a discussion of
wellerisms see esp. pp. 284-296.