From the swashbuckling pirates of Treasure Island to Dickens' fable of revolution and redemption was a great leap to make in the space of a week. In Sydney Carton Dickens gave us one of his most troubled and intriguing characters and Welles tackles the part with relish, as well as playing the doctor for whom he makes the ultimate sacrifice. Houseman reduced the great, sprawling novel to focus sharply on the character of Carton, losing much of the novel's social criticism, yet maintaining its all-too-human heart.
The final scene ("It is a far, far better thing I do...") is genuinely moving, and Dickens is never more serious than in those closing pages. Welles's rich, solemn intonation seems ideally suited to its gravity. It feels like what Welles called an "Emile Zoladostoievsky" work, with its vast cast of characters and seriousness of purpose. Full disclosure: as a Londoner who moved to Paris, it is also one of my favourite novels of all time.
A Tale of Two Cities was one of three Dickens novels the Mercury Theatre adapted, more than any other author (The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist - believed lost - being the other two). It is a novel full of contrasts; the best of times, the worst of times, darkness, light, Heaven and Hell and of course, Paris and London. It is an unusual work, one of only two historical novels Dickens undertook. Carton's 'resurrection' mirrors the resurrection of France after the revolution, and in many ways mirrors the social changes Dickens felt to be so sorely needed in England. Though by no means a call for revolution, it serves as a warning to those in authority, a cautionary tale about the abuse of power and the abuse of those who serve under it. In a society as staggeringly unequal as today's, the novel's message is unlikely to lose its importance any time soon.
Orson Welles (Dr. Alexandre Manette, Sydney Carton), Mary Taylor (Lucie Manette), Eustace Wyatt (Clerk), Edgar Barrier (Charles Darnay), Martin Gabel (Mr. Jarvis Lorry), Frank Readick (Ernest Defarge), Betty Garde (Madame Defarge), Erskine Sanford (the President), Ray Collins (Prosecutor), Kenneth Delmar (Counsellor for the Defence)