Seven years after his death, Jacob Marley is given one of the best-known kiss-offs in English literature: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it…Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
The obituary declarations that open Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol announce what has become a Western institution, part of the fabric of our culture, albeit a piece of fabric many feel like wiping their feet on. Any director who has staged A Christmas Carol has probably faced the charge—if not the self-accusation—of pandering. Let’s face it: A Christmas Carol regularly ranks as the most-produced play among resident theatres for a reason, and it’s not because of any top-tier literary value. The show is the seasonal visit to our sickly sweet, rich old aunt; it’s the annual check in the bank.
As a theatre critic, I have seen dozens of Carols, a number of them marked by a degree of free-association bordering on science fiction. One touring production a number of years ago featured, at its climax, a flock of flying children. They weren’t portraying any of the ghosts; they were just London urchins who…flew. The enshrining of A Christmas Carol as a sentimental perennial certainly attracts, even merits, the campy treatments—like the Dallas show that had Gomez Addams portray Bob Cratchit, and Lucy Ricardo as Mrs. Cratchit. Unfortunately, the result wasn’t pop culture spoofery so much as lounge-act surrealism.
Theatres have been staging Dickens’s tale since it was published in 1843. Yet if so many companies produce it—if it has been musicalized and updated and re-Victorianized and turned into 13 film versions, 17 made-for-TV movies, dozens of sitcom spoofs and one Mr. Magoo cartoon—then if anything can be said about A Christmas Carol, it is this: We know it; we know it in our bones.
Of course, one reason it still draws people is that Dickens’s ideas of Christmas are very much our ideas—he gave them to us. Stephen Nissenbaum argues in his 1996 book, The Battle for Christmas, that the first half of the 19th century was a crucial turning point in the way we think of the holiday. Gone was the old, communal carnival for farmhands and servants, a near-riot of drink and food, a harvest feast that had served as a vent for class tensions since the Romans. In its place came the new religion of home and the bourgeois family—all the better for the merchants. Most of the yuletide folklore that we associate with a traditional Christmas was actually concocted by early Victorians like Clement Clarke Moore, long credited as the author of “The Night Before Christmas.”
And, of course, early Victorians liked Charles Dickens. The particular genius of Dickens’s Carol lies in its implication that family dinners and gift-giving with loved ones are the “true,” old-fashioned ways to celebrate the holiday, ways we need to revive, ways that help us redeem ourselves. Ever since, each holiday season, people talk of recapturing the real Christmas, finding its “traditional” spirit—and often turn gratefully to Dickens, not realizing his Victorian customs were as manufactured as any Martha Stewart crèche.
Paradoxically, our very familiarity with Dickens’s material is one of its strengths, claims Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, artistic director of the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y., and the author of a 1998 stage adaptation. “This is our equivalent to Greek theatre,” she says. “Everyone already knows the story. Everyone’s heard the dialogue—‘Bah, humbug’ and ‘Christmas? What’s Christmas to me?'” The tale practically tells itself; the challenge—and the opportunity, Mancinelli-Cahill believes—is to reconnect emotionally with it. “It has to be heartfelt,” she says. “It has to be real.”
While that’s the challenge with any classic, the surprise is how many of us don’t really know the material. Directors of Dickens’s novella would be well advised to take a look at those opening lines again, with Dickens hammering away at the fact of Marley’s death as if there were lingering doubts, as if Marley might rise up and stroll away. (Which, ironically, he does.) A Christmas Carol is a story of spiritual rebirth, so it begins with a death. But it’s also a story of guilt and human responsibility, so, like Hamlet, it’s full of ghosts, those spectral spokesmen of remorse and injustice.
As Adrian Hall says, “Overshadowing everything in the story is death,” which is why the former artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center begins his 1977 version with Marley’s funeral—grimly remembered by Scrooge as he works. The co-adaptation by Hall and Richard Cumming has been a favorite with many theatres, perhaps because, as Hall puts it, “A Christmas Carol doesn’t have to be pastel colors and cute chimney tops. It isn’t about quaintness. Many productions don’t really reach the emotional climax of the story because they don’t reach the depths. A Christmas Carol is about how you find joy in life after you’ve stared into your own grave.”
While those opening lines are important in establishing a slyly morbid tone—plus a dour background of death and economics—they also pose a problem: Who speaks them? For that matter, who speaks the entire book?
There’s this narrative voice that controls A Christmas Carol, this voice that everyone hears in their heads when they read it. To be sure, there are the famous tag lines spoken by individual characters, like Tiny Tim’s “God bless us all.” But what sets the tone is this confident, empathetic voice that no character speaks. It’s this voice that, if anything, is the real spirit of the book, the voice of the 31-year-old Dickens talking to us, his readers, drawing us in to the sooty old beloved London that he creates from memory and wish fulfillment.
“If you cut out the narrative,” claims Capital Rep’s Mancinelli-Cahill, “you’re left with Dickens’s characters lacking any detail or color. It’s his narration that provides us with that rich sense of humanity. In fact, I believe that it’s more powerful to hear that narrative voice in a theatre than it is to see anything on screen in a movie.” Mancinelli-Cahill’s solution was to create a Greek-like chorus who help relay the story. Hall, on the other hand, apportioned bits to Dickens’s own characters, each setting a scene, effecting transitions. Many adaptations follow one of these two paths, but the point is that all of these narrative and tonal dilemmas are raised just by the first paragraphs. Adapting A Christmas Carol with any care, with any sense of character or ear for Dickens’s language, is not as easy as it seems.
Several years ago, in collaboration with two actors, Ted Davey and Chamblee Ferguson, I wrote a new-vaudevillian, mime-clown adaptation called Dr. Hamm’s Traveling Christmas Carol. At one point, frustrated by our inability to translate some Dickensian imagery into physical action, we had a comedic epiphany: just shoot the damned thing. On stage, Ted and Chamblee become so incensed trying to mime one of Dickens’s sumptuous descriptions that Chamblee grabs the book from the narrator (played by Edmund Coulter), pulls out a gun and blasts the book dead. Of course, overcome with remorse, the two clowns immediately try to resuscitate it: pounding on the book’s “chest,” they try to puff some air into it. A little biblio-CPR. That response, I believe, is probably universal among theatre companies—both the frustration and the desire to breathe life into this shopworn tale. Just consider these other staging headaches presented by Dickens:
In full view of the audience, how do you make a doorknocker turn into Marley’s face?
Having ghosts fly around is easy enough, but an onstage transformation is another trick entirely. It’s like the Ghost in Hamlet; it requires the right jolt of gothic surprise. (Dickens even mentions Hamlet’s ghost—he knew the traditions on which he was drawing.) One solution—that of designer Douglas Schmidt at Houston’s Alley Theatre—is displayed on the cover of this issue.
How do you portray the Ghost of Christmas Past?
While often played by a child of indeterminate sex, many people have no firm image of the Ghost. He has no firm appearance. He’s a shape-shifter: “The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness, being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with 20 legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body.” Just try putting a “thing with 20 legs” on stage.
What does Scrooge do for a living?
We know that Bob Cratchit is a clerk—one of the hordes of working-class sorts who kept London’s offices filled with paperwork in the days before photocopiers. But what exactly does his boss do? We see him in a “counting-house,” but that’s just his back office where he safely adds up the proceeds of the business. What is that business? Come to think of it, what does Fezziwig do?
With that last question, you may wonder what difference knowing Scrooge’s career choice makes to an adaptation. Probably little, in terms of sets or acting. But the question highlights a central fact about Dickens’s story: As much as A Christmas Carol is about spiritual redemption, it’s about money and poverty and work. Indeed, for many theatregoers, A Christmas Carol is their chief exposure, however cursory, to Malthusian principles of political economy. (“If they would rather die,” Scrooge says of the starving poor, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”)
This may seem obvious—A Christmas Carol concerns Scrooge’s redemption, and that redemption is demonstrated by his newfound sense of charity. But it’s an issue of tone or emphasis that many stagings miss. If Dickens bequeathed us a consoling vision of Christmas, he also bequeathed us an image of urban poverty. When we think of the working poor in a city—the evictions, the health problems—the image that haunts our minds is essentially one that Dickens first vehemently brought to public attention.
Before Dickens, depictions of the working poor were mostly the occasional comic or terrifying figure in the works of William Hogarth or Henry Fielding, or they were destitute criminals in the popular press. Upon reading the first chapters of Oliver Twist, Lord Melbourne told Queen Victoria, “I don’t like those things. I wish to avoid them … and therefore I don’t wish them represented.” After Dickens (and the reformers he helped inspire), the working poor, as individuals, may still have been treated as “poignant” or “picturesque,” but they also were an issue, a cause, a measure of the failure or success of society. Forcing his society to reconsider its treatment of the poor was a “supreme act of moral imagination,” writes neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb in The Idea of Poverty. Dickens “brought the poor into the forefront of the culture.” We still label heartless politicians “Scrooges”; we still conceive of the poor as deserving or not (the transformation of welfare to workfare). “The common man,” George Orwell wrote in a 1939 essay, “is still living in the mental world of Dickens.”
In fact, when the Cornerstone Theater’s A Community Carol was produced in Washington, D.C., in 1994, the updating—which reconceived Scrooge as a black entrepreneur who had lost touch with his community’s poorer members—received national attention. Newt Gingrich, just beginning his right-wing revolution then as Speaker of the House, had helped to open what Time magazine dubbed “the season to bash the poor.” He had speculated about orphanages for poor children, so Washington audiences caught the immediate relevance, the Gingrichian echo, in Scrooge’s famous rejection of charity: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
Even so, it’s surprising that so many Christmas Carols skimp on these social issues.Or perhaps not: Poverty and hunger and crippling diseases don’t make for the kind of festive holiday fare that delights subscribers. You can see directors inching away from these, wishing for pageantry and place settings and hoopskirts. The perfect, dementedly show-biz example of this is the annual Carol at the Paramount Theatre in Madison Square Garden—a splashy, $12-million musical extravaganza about a family sinking into poverty. The disconnect between Broadway form and Dickensian content seems especially ludicrous when you see how the Cratchits nearly vanish. If you blink, you’ll miss them—they’re the ones without a kick line.
Sometimes, even the best-intentioned adaptations can shift Dickens’s emphasis—unwittingly. Gerald Freedman shrewdly handled Dickens’s narrative when the former artistic director of the Great Lakes Theater Festival developed his own Carol. He relocated the story to a Victorian household where the family is reading Dickens aloud. The butler, the children, the parents: All of them take on roles as the play-within-a-play unfolds. But what weakens the impact of Dickens’s social vision here is the fact that poverty is now a charade. It’s a matter of the characters putting on a show, donning some threadbare costumes for a moment.
On the other hand, the misplaced emphasis can lean in the other direction—turning Dickens into an overtly political radical. We get, for example, the simplistic replacement of British class antagonisms with American racial ones: Scrooge as white boss, the Cratchits as suffering African-Americans. In his 1939 essay—still one of the most insightful pieces on Dickens—Orwell makes an important distinction. Dickens may excoriate Scrooge’s capitalist heart. He may plead for better treatment for the working class—for humanity in general. But none of that makes Dickens a particularly political thinker.
“Dickens’s criticism of society,” writes Orwell, “is almost exclusively moral.” He has no plan to change society; his target is “human nature.” And his only real lesson is “that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious.” Hence, Scrooge’s transformation into the Dickensian cliché, the Good Rich Man, and the Cratchits into the Good Honest Poor. Hence, too, Dickens’s lack of concern over Scrooge’s line of work: Dickens is after a moral lesson, not an expose of business practices.
“Dickens sentimentalizes poverty,” says Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Cornerstone Theatre and one of the authors of A Community Carol. “Just as he sentimentalizes the disabled with Tiny Tim—you know, ‘pity the poor cripple.'” Yet that treatment of poverty is “part of why the story remains so well-loved,” Rauch says. “Dickens got to the personal more than the political.”
“He’s more generous than political,” agrees Cahill. “But I really admire that ability to say to an audience, ‘Do something. One person can make a difference.'” In fact, Orwell’s approving term for Dickens’s reformist approach is “generous anger.” He is a classic 19th-century liberal, unconcerned about theory or ideology or religion but deeply concerned that we examine our consciences, that we—well, that we do good.
When Providence’s Trinity Repertory was in serious financial trouble in 1977, it was suggested that Adrian Hall try staging A Christmas Carol as a solution. Hall was incredulous: “But isn’t that a children’s play?”
He continues: “But when I took a look at it, I saw Dickens’s social anger. It’s really an extraordinary moment when Scrooge learns to give freely of his heart.” And then Hall saw his audience respond eagerly to that: “I never knew the power of it,” he says.
“A Christmas Carol is really pretty dreadful in its simplicity,” says Hall. “All it says is that you, too, can be generous and kind instead of vicious or greedy. That’s a little thought—a little bitty thought.” He pauses. “But boy, it has ramifications—the kind that we cling to in the middle of the night.”
Jerome Weeks writes about books and theatre for The Dallas Morning News. He is currently adapting George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for the stage.