Giving the gift of Dickens at Christmas
For me, the holiday season wouldn’t be complete without 12-hour technical rehearsals, fake snow and petticoats. For the past three years, I’ve been given the best Christmas present an actress could ask for: I’ve been able to take part in a Broadway-scale production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
I remember my very first audition back in 2008. I walked into the beautifully remodeled Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in the heart of downtown Worcester and fell in love. With glistening chandeliers and a house that seats roughly 2,300 people, I knew there would be no better place to spend my holiday season. After the first year’s rehearsing the play, an adaptation by our director, Troy Siebels, I knew we had something great.
The classic tale of Scrooge’s icy heart melting with the warmth of Christmas is a fable for all ages. The joy of the season is perfectly conveyed through the classic carols and mirth. It’s an infectious feeling.
And that’s why I keep going back. The cast and crew become just as wrapped up in the story as the character of Scrooge. We become a holiday family, and we come to miss each other during the year. Over two and a half weeks, we spend eight hours a day, six days a week together. We bake cookies, swap recipes and sip cocoa. For Jewish members of the cast, we light a Menorah and play with a dreidel. The director and his wife host a potluck Christmas party where we watch our favorite holiday movies. Secret Santa gets everyone busy buying and making presents.
Before we open, about a week before Christmas, we camp out in the theater for our “ten out of twelves” – where we work for 10 hours and break for two. But there’s something that makes this process more than a job, and the production more than a show. It’s a living Christmas card, our way of wishing the audience members the merriest of Christmases. Our production is done in the true Dickens’ fashion. The clothes, the hair and the set all evoke London of long ago. We work with a dialect coach to perfect our British inflection.
It’s Ebeneezer Scrooge done the way Dickens would want; a miserly penny-pincher who has lost the joys of the season along the path of his rocky life. Through the visitation of “ghastly apparitions” he learns to embrace happiness and to spread it to those around him. Everyone can relate to Scrooge – we all have days when we mistreat those dear to us or take our pleasant lives for granted. People find hope in the Cratchits, a family who barely have anything but are grateful for each other.
Unlike many authors of his day, Dickens took a step into the underbelly of London, and examined the poor in many of his tales. The harsh environment of young Dickens influenced his later writings [see below].
In our production, the audience meets the supernatural full force. Through theatrical haze and eerie lighting, the ghost of Jacob Marley flies onto the stage. The other spirits have equally powerful entrances, especially Christmas Future, a 10-foot phantasm that enters with a clap of thunder. A Wurlitzer organ accompanies the singers and fills the theater with swelling chords and ringing bells.
“A Christmas Carol” at the Hanover has become holiday tradition, just as it has for the thousands who return each year. Packed with school kids of all ages, the theater has a certain indescribable buzz. Bringing the classic Dickens story to children is one of the greatest of gifts. It’s not just about Christmas – it’s about kindness, compassion, love, joy and second chances. That’s a story that anyone can relate to.
“A Christmas Carol” is at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in Worcester Dec. 16, 17, 18 and 23. Tickets can be purchased online at www.hanovertheatre.org or by calling 877-571-SHOW
How Dickens shaped a modern holiday
For a quick but obviously pro-Dickens view of Charles Dickens as the inventor of the modern Christmas, visit David Purdue’s Charles Dickens website (charlesdickenspage.com).
“Charles Dickens has probably had more influence on the way that we celebrate Christmas today than any single individual in human history...” Purdue acknowledges that there was a tradition of Christmas in the English-speaking world before Dickens but he argues persuasively that it was on the verge of dying out.
“At the beginning of the Victorian period the celebration of Christmas was in decline. The medieval Christmas traditions, which combined the celebration of the birth of Christ with the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (a pagan celebration for the Roman god of agriculture), and the Germanic winter festival of Yule, had come under intense scrutiny by the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell. The Industrial Revolution, in full swing in Dickens' time, allowed workers little time for the celebration of Christmas.”
Purdue says there were other contributions, such as Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg, who brought the German custom of the Christmas tree and revived the singing of Christmas carols, which had all but disappeared.
The first Christmas cards also appeared in the 1840s [supposedly invented by a minor aristocrat too busy, or too lazy to hand-write a greeting to his friends].
“But it was the Christmas stories of Dickens, particularly his 1843 masterpiece, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ that rekindled the joy of Christmas in Britain and America,” says Purdue. “Today, after more than 160 years, ‘A Christmas Carol’ continues to be relevant, sending a message that cuts through the materialistic trappings of the season and gets to the heart and soul of the holidays.” For people who think that Dickens painted too mean a picture of Scrooge, a close reading of Dickens time, and his experience working in a factory while his father was in debtors’ prison, makes Scrooge look positively benign compared to what London’s working class knew as “the boss.” Then, many people blamed the poor for being poor by way of genetic and moral defect and beneath humane and fair treatment.
Although Dickens was born what we would call middle class in America, his family’s decline gave him an education about the working poor. Indeed, many working class families in Dickens’ London would have considered the Cratchits extraordinarily well off. It is largely due to Dickens invoking the spirit of Christmas as an inspiration for sympathy for the less fortunate. His target audience was the burgeoning middle of the Industrial Revolution – to compel them toward charity for the poor. He had considerable success.
The Victorian Era saw the growth of philanthropy as a virtue among the middle class readers of Dickens. His own view of the holiday was as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
It was this transformative power of Christmas, coupled with Dickens’ own sense how tenuous one’s good fortune was, that underscored all of Dickens’ works. We can all change, to better ourselves and to better the lives of others.
“Transformation, however sentimentalized in his novels, was very real to him and desperately fragile,” said Professor Sam Coale of Wheaton College, who usually thinks and writes about more modern authors. “So he wrote and wrote and wrote, the words holding [back] any slipping back into his poverty-stricken existence as a child.”
By the time of his death in 1870, he had become nearly synonymous with the holiday. Author Paul Davis, in “The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge” (1990) recalls an anecdote from the time of Dickens’ obituary told by a contemporary, Theodore Watts-Dunton: “As he was walking down Drury Lane near Covent Garden Market on June 9th that year, Dunton overheard a Cockney barrow-girl's reaction to the news of the great novelist's death: ‘Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?’” Dickens has kept him alive for almost 170 years.