Scrooge was right, you know; it is humbug to fall like jackals upon each other for eleven months of the year, but on the twelfth to feign good will and generosity of spirit. He was a skinflint and a tightwad, but he was no hypocrite. When he asked the do-gooders, seeking donations for the poor, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” he knew the answer: there were, and they would continue to be society’s response to poverty and debt, notwithstanding the pathetic attempts of fundraisers like the ones who wandered into his counting-house. Charles Dickens, who wrote this immortal story, knew it too; he had spent time in a workhouse, along with the rest of his family, because of his father’s debts.
Dickens wrote a Christmas story, but he was after bigger game: laissez-faire capitalism itself, as it was practiced in the early Victorian era. In his story, the Christmastime fundraisers sought to end the workhouses and debtor’s prisons for good; the Ghost of Christmas Present showed Scrooge Ignorance and Want, in the form of starving children; and when Scrooge finally has his come-to-Jesus moment – you know this story – he not only gives the Cratchit family a Christmas turkey but gives Bob Cratchit a raise as well.
Dickins was thus engaged in moral uplift when he wrote A Christmas Carol, (in the preface to the first edition, he wrote “I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea….”) Dickens, whose own religious beliefs were vague, shrewdly seized upon Christian iconography for this purpose, not only by marrying his story to the season but by his choice of devices: the various ghosts; Marley’s just punishment; and, most significantly, Scrooge recovering empathy by going into his childhood. (“Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3).
Having assigned his story to do this much work, Dickens necessarily shortchanged the story’s art. A Christmas Carol’s principal shortcoming is the character of Scrooge himself, who must move from being an embittered miser to a sweet old man in ninety minutes, more or less. The caustic skeptic, who seems without human or religious feelings, must be convinced, in the story’s opening minutes, that the Marley who appears in his house is not “a bit of undigested beef” but a real manifestation of a man seven years dead, and thereafter accept the teaching of ghosts, as though they were nineteenth-century life coaches.
Those who would put this story to stage – and there are many who would put this story to stage – face another problem. A Christmas Carol is about twenty-eight thousand words – a short story for the profligate Dickins, but a novella for the rest of us. The adapter must keep the essence of the story and cut away the surplusage, while losing as little of the beautiful language as possible.
So how does American Shakespeare Center handle these challenges? Adroitly, I would say, and with a will, a purpose and a sense of humor. John Harrell, who has had a good year in the villainy department (he also played Iago and Sir Toby Belch this year), assays the old tightwad with a certain level of playfulness, even in the opening minutes, when Dickens reveals who he is. Dickens assigned Scrooge a dry wit, and Harrell and the production take advantage of it.
When Marley’s ghost (Jessika D. Williams), chained to two other denizens of Purgatory, informs Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts in successive nights, Scrooge asks that they all come at once, as he is a little pressed for time. Marley’s ghost may be a messenger from the vast and terrifying unknown, but he is also Scrooge’s old friend and business partner, with whom Scrooge feels free to banter.
So softened by Harrell, Scrooge moves more naturally into his childhood, accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Madeline Calais), than he does in most productions. Brought to the town in which he grew up, Scrooge skips and points happily, as though he was twelve years old again. He has become a child, bathed in a child’s optimism and grace, in a land where some fig pudding and a bit of Christmas goose can make up for a year’s worth of poverty and deprivation. So that Scrooge can observe, Chris Johnston plays his younger self; beaming ecstatically in the approval of Mr. Fezziwig (Brandon Carter). Scrooge also sees himself at childhood’s end, where he commits himself to a vocation of making money; his decision costs him the romance of his childhood and the love of Belle (Zoe Speas), whom he had hoped to marry.
The story continues, as you know, with Scrooge brought by the Ghost of Christmas Present (Williams) to see ordinary people taking on their burdens with fortitude and good cheer, and then brought by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be (an eight-foot-tall bunraku puppet) to see the raw, undignified, unhappy future. But because the production has laid the seeds for Scrooge’s change of character in the first Act, the Scrooge in the second Act seems authentic, even compelling, as he begs the spirits to instruct him in moral improvement.
Aside from Harrell’s Scrooge, this is an ensemble production; Williams is Mrs. Fezziwig, as well as the Ghost of Christmas Present (her presence set off with a visual pun) and Marley, Carter is Bob Cratchit, Speas is Mrs. Cratchit and Calais is Tiny Tim; and there are narrative sections of significant length, voiced by various members of the cast seriatim. The cast tumbles from character to character without mishap, easily achieving separation. This is Scrooge’s story, but the remaining actors do their part. Without changing the focus of the play at all, the actors establish characters who are three-dimensional and internally consistent.
This production of A Christmas Carol might call the work of Fiasco Theatre to mind, or Everyman Theatre’s good 2017 production of another Dickens classic, Great Expectations. In keeping with ASC’s 16th-century production aesthetic, minimal props and our imagination replace gimmicky effects. Thus when Scrooge comes home after an evening meal, the cast wheels in a freestanding door for him to open. When the knocker is to turn into the head of Jacob Marley, the top half of the door simply opens to reveal Williams in her ghostly garb. (Rhi Sanders is the properties master; Victoria Depew is the designer).
There is a great deal of music in this production – not only, as is traditional with ASC, before the play begins and at intermission (the whole production, including the musical intervals, clocks in at an hour fifty-one) – but in the play itself, especially during the Christmas parties, where, after a little wassail, the partygoers break out in Christmas carols, just as we do in real life. The cast – Johnston is the music director – is in good voice, and they all play instruments. Elleon Dobias, who employed her instrument as an orchestral violin or a hoe-down fiddle as the situation required, is particularly notable. I was not in love with some of the musical selections which prefaced the play, but tastes vary.
We are used to treating A Christmas Carol as a holiday ritual, along with The Nutcracker and the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree – dragging our frequently unwilling offspring to see the play that we ourselves were dragged off to see, unwilling, in our own youth. Consider seeing it this year as a story, of a man who has a conversion experience over the course of a night. Saul of Tarsus and C.S. Lewis both had conversion experiences in even less time; both became Christian apologists; Scrooge became a Christmas apologist.
On the big screen:
A Christmas Carol . Vocal and movement director: Nancy Anderson . Musical director: Chris Johnson, assisted by Sam Saint Ours . Featuring John Harrell, Brandon Carter, Madeline Calais, Chris Johnston, Jessika D. Williams, Zoe Speas, Sam Saint Ours, and Elleon Dobias . Designer: Victoria Depew . Properties Master: Rhi Sanders . Production Fellow, Properties: Selah Scott . Stage Manager: Thomas J. Coppola, assisted by Sarah Wardlow . Produced by American Shakespeare Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.