In the winter of 1843 a novella appeared that captivated London readers.
The first book run of the slim volume of 6,000 copies sold out quickly. A century later, two million copies had been purchased. And today it is hard to imagine the winter holiday season – or the American theatre — without Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
This fable of greed and redemption has spawned scores of print, stage and film versions. It started with an 1844 play in London, sanctioned by Dickens himself. The first film that imparts the fable of misanthropic skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation into a benevolent member of society, was a silent picture released in 1901. And since 1990, the DCPA Theatre Company has been one of many regional stage companies to usher in holiday seasons with a lively live adaptation of the story.
This year more than 50 renditions of A Christmas Carol are being mounted at theatres throughout the U.S. Among the scores of faithful film versions are animated features (including one starring Mr. Magoo and another featuring Bugs Bunny) and comedy features like The Muppet Christmas. A slew of other treatments update the story (like the Billy Murray hit Scrooged) and others still that imagine Dickens crafting the book — as in the 2017 movie The Man Who Invented Christmas and the recent play, Mr. Dickens and his Carol.
So, what is it about A Christmas Carol that still entrances readers and audiences today, even in an era when cynicism and social anxiety are so rampant? What is the source of its abiding popularity, which has been a holiday gift to theatres?
It begins, of course, with Dickens himself. By 1843, at age 31, he was a successful novelist, and a man deeply concerned by and outspoken about the grinding poverty among the British lower classes.
He had already published several novels we now consider classics — Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop – which drew in part on his own childhood experiences of destitution.
But as the sales of his new novel Martin Chuzzlewit lagged (Haven’t read it? You aren’t alone!), and the writer’s wife was expecting their fifth child, Dickens needed another literary hit.
He had written Christmas tales before. But after a powerful visit to the Field Lane Ragged School for needy children, he decided to pen a Christmas pamphlet that would be titled “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”
Yet the idea morphed into fictional work that would have far greater impact than most pamphlets. It would colorfully, movingly shine a light on poverty in the new industrial era, and promote more humane working conditions and public charity.
In the novella he described the central figure of Scrooge as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint…secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Scrooge treats his employee Bob Cratchit with miserly disdain, and begrudges him spending Christmas with his family. He scoffs at a pair of gentlemen who approach him for a contribution to help the destitute. “Are there no prisons?” Scrooge retorts. “Are there no workhouses?”
Dickens was enraged by this kind of selfish indifference. But he believed in the potential of positive transformation in human beings and engineered ingenious turnabout for Scrooge. He created several compelling phantoms to visit the old curmudgeon on Christmas Eve. First was the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s ex-business partner, who rises in chains from the grave to warn that without “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” Scrooge too would suffer an anguished afterlife.
Three Yuletide spirits are also conjured to whisk Scrooge to Christmases from the past, present and future. He sees what he’s missed by failing to value love, friendship and charity. And the story ends in moral triumph, when Scrooge sees the errors of his ways, makes amends with his family, becomes a generous benefactor, and celebrates the holiday joyfully with the Cratchit family – including Bob’s frail son Tiny Tim.
Though he certainly didn’t invent Christmas, Dickens’ story did impact Britain’s observance of it. What had become a subdued, insular religious event revived into a more festive public affair, like those in Scrooge’s past. And Queen Victoria’s German mate Prince Albert added in a new element: displaying decorated trees at Yuletide.
But A Christmas Carol also provided a great script for drama. It has compelling characters, supernatural effects, comedy, sentimentality, opportunities for song and dance — and a family-forward message of goodwill to all.
And no wonder. Dickens was passionate about theatre from the time he was a child. As an adult he was quite a ham: he produced elaborate amateur theatricals with friends and relatives. And on his popular lecture tours in Britain and America, he read aloud from his novels – and his A Christmas Carol recitation was a smash hit. According to biographer Edgar Johnson, it was “more than a reading; it was an extraordinary exhibition of acting…without a single prop or bit of costume, by changes of voice, by gesture, by vocal expression, Dickens peopled his stage with a throng of characters.”
Ghosts, hiss-worthy villainy, Christmas fol-de-rol, new beginnings — the intrinsic theatricality Dickens poured into his fable remains crowd-pleasing today. And if many of us now donate to charity at the holidays and wish one another good tidings, we likely have Dickens to thank.
As A Christmas Carol beguiles us, it can also remind us of what Dickens eloquently articulated. He asked us to think of those who are less fortunate “as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
A Christmas Carol
Nov 17-Dec 24 • Wolf Theatre