Is the annual holiday production of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol a bad thing for the American theatre, a venal compromise of artistic standards, of merit for one thing only—its predictable box-office bonanza?
Or is the story a classic worthy of continuing production? According to TCG’s Theatre Profiles, some 32 theatres staged A Christmas Carol in their 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons. Only Shakespeare, Shaw and Molière enjoyed such prolific attention in the same period, and in their cases many different scripts contributed to the count. Is money the simple reason for A Christmas Carol‘s ubiquitous presence, or is there more to it than that? I believe there is.
There are many who would disagree—and their rejection of A Christmas Carol goes well beyond the usual arguments we all have over “commercial” versus “artistic” choices in planning a season of plays. Artistic directors Larry Arrick of the Pittsburgh Public Theater and Gregory Poggi of the Philadelphia Drama Guild, in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer interview, dismiss the Christmas show syndrome as having “nothing to do with art”—but Arrick, in the process, notes almost wistfully one reason such a practice might have some artistic merit: “I’m fascinated with theatre being part of a holiday, because that’s how theatre began—plays were written for celebrations of religious holidays.” Here Arrick recognizes the theatre’s opportunity to share in society’s larger ritual need for celebration at Christmas time.
Then with the next breath he denies Dickens’ story this role: “But Christmas is not really a Christian holiday anymore, and A Christmas Carol is not a Christian piece. Its message is that, if you come up with the bucks at the end of your life, everything is forgiven. That’s repulsive.” Ah, yes, and King Lear‘s message is that old fathers should not trust their married daughters, too.
Let’s take a closer look at Dickens’ biggest hit. Today we worry about the “commercialization” of Christmas, but in Dickens’ day the worry was that the commercial spirit of early capitalism might do away with the celebration of Christmas completely. We catch the climate accurately in Scrooge’s attitude toward Bob Cratchit’s request for time off on Christmas Day: “A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December!” There was “no time” for such nonsense as a holiday if you were serious about “business”—only money-making activities, in the emerging capitalist view, justified the use of time.
This idea came from the new technology of the industrial factory. There, huge machines set the pace for human workers and their managers. Time was machine-time. The biological sense of time, evolved over centuries with humans connected to their natural environment. was lost; seasonal time, by which all organic life on the planet lives, had no place in the factory. Holidays, therefore, such as the old Midwinter Festival of New Light or Christmas, were meaningless.
Dickens created a stark contrast between money and spirit, between greed and generosity, in Scrooge, his archetype of Economic Man. The form of the story recalls the medieval morality play. The supernatural devices of the morality play are present in the three Spirits who visit Scrooge and take him on the necessary pilgrimage through the hell of his fears to the heaven of his new birth. Dickens simply but vividly captured the Economic Man’s inner life: Scrooge lived as if only the “bottom line” mattered and all humans were only “rational actors in a market place.” Moreover, Dickens saw this narrowness in spirit as the loss of emotional life, a numbing of the sentiments. “If you gain the whole world, but lose your soul, you have gained nothing” could easily be the Biblical text for Dickens’ morality play.
Yet, there is also a movement in Dickens toward ideas and devices we now associate with modern literature and theatre. It is not Karl Marx’s work on class conflict, but Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis of sick souls that is the best model for Dickens’ process of character change. Scrooge is darkened by the repressed traumas of his past, by his paranoid isolation from family and friends in the present, and by the workaholic busyness by which he denies his fear of future death. Like Freud, Dickens uses dreams to force Scrooge to re-feel his life in order to re-think his way of living. In theatrical terms, the story works as if it were a Freudian dream play (much like those Strindberg would later develop). A Christmas Carol stands, as a classic from its time still relevant to us, because Dickens fused elements from the medieval past with intimations of the emergent modern.
Scrooge had a false sense of time, i.e. economic machine-time. Dickens’ Spirits of Christmas teach him to experience the “fullness of time” again (what the ancient Greeks called “kairos,” a propitious moment for decision, in contrast to “chronos,” or clock time). Toward the end of the story, when Scrooge falls to his knees to beg the Future for a chance to change, he swoons in despair, dying to his old life, to be reborn anew on Christmas morning, with the gift of a festive sense of time.
Dickens is, in effect, blending the Christian story of the birth of a Savior-Child, a new creation, with the Midwinter Festival of New Light to create a simple but profound myth for celebrating the movement of the human spirit through the darkness of lean times to the dawn of generous times. It is a perfect myth for a capitalist culture. Why? Because it is in the sharing of surplus by the “haves” with the “have-nots” that the human community remembers that “fat times” will come again. This is why gifts, extravagant feasting and ecstatic singing and dancing are all means of celebrating Christmas. It is a time of courageous exuberance even in the face of recognized harshness in society and in nature.
So this festive time gives a genuine security to the individual by binding each to others, to family, to community, even to the ecology of the universe itself. In the rituals of holy-day celebration, the perception of wholeness temporarily heals the anxiety of fragmented individual life. This healing is found in ritual and in theatre, beyond the reach of rational reflection. The activities of play, story, song and worship allow us to see for a while the greater context of Light which surrounds and enfolds everyday economic activity. The commonwealth of the human family is restored.
It therefore should not surprise us that this morality tale for capitalist times, this small story of Scrooge and his Spirits, has been credited by many cultural historians with breathing new life into the modern celebration of Christmas. Dickens translated the older forgotten truths of the medieval morality play and the even earlier traditions of the Midwinter Festival into terms the new capitalist middle class could feel. A Christmas Carol served a cultural regenerative function. It made Christmas possible again.
As long as it is read or told to a people for whom life is busy in trade-offs between the soul-felt self and economic security, then this innocent little story will tease them toward a fresh experience of Christmas.
It is for this that the people with their families flock into our theatres at Christmas time. They hope that we, as honest journeymen of an ancient medieval craft, the theatre, will serve up another miracle play. If we do not, it is not Dickens we should blame, but our own lack of imagination, our forgetfulness of the religious roots and possibilities of our work, and our willingness (like Scrooge) to choose isolation from the joys of family, friends, food, fantasy and festival at this holiday time. Instead, let us seize a popular opportunity and meet the challenge of helping to shape an American holiday celebration that overcomes the commercial nexus of our economy.
Let the people go forth from our Christmas Carol transfixed by the spell of festive time, freed by our work—like Scrooge was by Dickens—“to keep Christmas well.”
A. Theodore Kachel is scholar-in-residence at the American Theatre Company in Tulsa, Okla., where a new musical version of A Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 22.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!