Christmas may have been and gone but the 2020 Christmas shows open in just over ten months – not long in production terms so let’s think about A Christmas Carol, numerous versions of which are available for performance by both amateur and professional companies.
When Charles Dickens published his ‘little Christmas book’ in 1843 it took just six weeks for the first adaptation to reach the stage,” writes Piers Torday in an author’s note to his 2019 adaptation for Wilton’s Music Hall. And Michael Billington notes in a 2017 Guardian review of David Edgar’s version for the RSC that there have been 250 film and stage versions in the last seventy years alone.
So why has this story of a Christmas-hating miser, redeemed by the visits of three ghosts who eventually lead him to bond warmly with others, so perennially popular? Why has Scrooge become one of those rare literary characters who has a presence in language and culture which goes way beyond the novella which produced him?
“It makes good theatre because the novel itself is so well structured – the classic five acts,” observes David Edgar adding that A Christmas Carol is very different from the weakly structured Nicholas Nickleby which he adapted for RSC in 1980. “But I think Dickens is like Shakespeare in that the work changes age by age as people respond in different ways. In the mid-Nineteenth Century the focus was the ‘invention’ – more a case of urbanisation, I think – of Christmas. Then, in the 1870s, it became a transformation story, caught up in the religious revival with analogies between the Cratchits and the Holy Family.”
Edgar continues: “The films of the 1930s saw it as a metaphor for capitalism and the famous Alistair Sim film (1951) gave us a Freudian adaptation. And there was a hippy version (1971) with Albert Finney as Scrooge which wasn’t very good although it was an interesting idea. I suppose my 2017 A Christmas Carol is the austerity version.”
An amorphous text, then. Piers Torday approached it through his discovery that although Dickens campaigned for the rights of women his treatment of his own wife Catherine, mother of his ten children, was shocking by any standards anywhere and at any time. He wrote hideously cruel and unfeeling things about her to his friends in letters and tried to have her committed to an asylum while he enjoyed an affair with Ellen Ternan. “And that led me to consider the women in A Christmas Carol,” he says, observing that almost every character is male and the women – Mrs Cratchit, Fred’s wife, Scrooge’s sister, and so on, are pretty marginal.
Torday’s version which sat very atmospherically in the Victorian gem which is Wilton’s Music Hall, presents Marley and Scrooge as dead brothers-in-law. The business is now in the hands of the misanthropic Fan Scrooge, widow of the former and sister of the latter. It’s a very neat way of feminising the whole story and I Ioved her feisty irascibility and irritation with the ghost of her husband who haunts her at the beginning. It puts a very delightfully fresh spin on one of the most familiar stories in literature and drama. “It had to be a lot more than just gender-blind casting,” says Torday.
Of course this wasn’t the first female Scrooge although it went much further than its predecessors. Take the one directed by Guy Retallack at Bridge House Theatre Penge last Christmas. My three-star thoughts on 28 November for Musical Theatre Review: “Rachel Izen plays the reformed curmudgeonly miser as a man. I had assumed that we were going to see Mrs Scrooge which would have been an interesting take on the narrative. Izen takes a while to get going and is occasionally moving, but for much of the show’s duration she is unconvincing. She listens well, though. Her strongest moments are when she is watching and reacting to scenes being acted out by the others.” And there have been other productions with women in the lead role.
“I was especially interested in this angle because before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1857, everything a woman owned passed to her husband on marriage,” Torday tells me. “The man could do anything he liked with her money and property without consulting her. And there was no divorce other than by act of parliament which meant she was trapped.” No wonder Torday’s Fan Scrooge has an axe to grind. And his concerns have an appealingly contemporary feel.
Edgar meanwhile, always a political playwright, focuses on the plight of children. “Of course it wasn’t the first time a playwright had used Dickens as an onstage voice,” he says, “but I was very interested in the story of how this novel came to be written so I used Dickens, outraged by the newly published The Physical and Moral Condition of the Children and Young Persons Employed in Mines, in conversation with his friend John Forster.” In Edgar’s play, Dickens initially wants to write a pamphlet in response to the government report. Forster persuades him to do it fictionally and gradually the two men merge into the eight-hander drama.
It still bites. That’s why it works. There are children in poverty and let down by the system in 2020 along with modern awareness of how easily children can be trafficked, radicalised or abused. But there’s also another modern anxiety movingly tucked into Edgar’s play.
At the end, Scrooge, now in his 70s, is beginning to fail in health. Having, by then, been pater familias at family events for many years he is now frail and forgetful. The adult Tiny Tim has to help him with a speech. “That was inspired by something which happened at my uncle’s Golden Wedding party,” recalls Edgar. “Suddenly, having spoken fluently without notes all his adult life he was floundering until his daughter-in-law very gently helped him. Dementia is a massive issue now that we’re all living longer.”
Another recent version of A Christmas Carol is the one Jack Thorne did for The Old Vic in 2017. It uses a narrator, lots of carols, and a cast of fifteen to tell the story without straying too far from the novel. There’s a lot of joy, tradition and ‘feel good’ in this take on the work. It’s frisky but doesn’t run with any sort of agenda of its own – unlike Steven Knight’s recent three-episode version for the BBC shown in the run up to Christmas.
Every inch a relatively scary ghost story (in contrast to most of the stage versions which never forget they’re family Christmas shows along with everything else) this leisurely take on a pretty short novel presents a youngish quite personable Scrooge in the shape of Guy Pearce. “As far from Alastair Sim as you could get,” writes Knight in The Sunday Times.
“I felt it important to look at the character of Scrooge a little more closely,” he continues, adding that he had “no intention of vandalising the original.” He was, however, determined “in this post-post-post Freudian age” to ask why Scrooge is as he is – a man who uses blunt taboo language and spends a lot of time gazing into space, thinking meaningfully – and later some pretty dark secrets are revealed. Most viewers either loved it or loathed it.
One interesting point Knight makes is that Dickens was constrained by the censor. He could only hint at unmentionable things. He cites Fagin and his coven of boys in Oliver Twist as an example. “I set about finding moments in the book [A Christmas Carol] when Dickens might be giving us a glimpse of why Scrooge became as he did,” he says.
So take your pick. A Christmas Carol is, and has always been, a story with a universal voice. We are all haunted by the ghosts of past, present and future – and not just at Christmas. And if you’re thinking of staging it as a play there’s a wealth of choice available…
Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Piers Torday (2019)
A Christmas Carol (RSC stage version)
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by David Edgar (2017)
A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Jack Thorne (2017)
All three adaptations are published and licensed by Nick Hern Books.
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