Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Battle Against Ignorance and Want

The first character with an actual name I ever played was Ebenezer Scrooge. I was in the 5th grade, and I got the role (without anything that resembled auditions) probably because my teacher, Mrs. Hamilton, figured I could learn the lines. She was right about that part, at least. I won’t say that Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been an annual ritual for the subsequent 46 years, but if you add up all the times I’ve read it, seen it staged, or watched any of six or eight different film versions, the total has to be a couple dozen or more. (And that doesn’t count the brilliant Blackadder version, which has indeed become a Yuletide tradition at Chez Curmie.)

Last night, my wife and I watched, for the first time I can recall, the Guthrie Theatre version from 1982, directed by Paul Miller. There were a lot of things I didn’t like: I thought the framing device of Dickens trying to finish writing the story while being interrupted by Christmas celebrants was too cute by half; found it a little creepy that the same actress (Keliher Walsh) played Scrooge’s lost love, Belle, and also his nephew Fred’s wife; got more than a little bored at the overly-extended Fezziwig scene.

Still, it is an effective adaptation, with a strong performance from Richard Hilger in the leading role. What works particularly well in this version is Dickens’s undercurrent of social commentary: it is not exactly a revelation that he was a keen observer of his culture, and that from Bleak House to Oliver Twist to Great Expectations, he showed a profound understanding of the effects of poverty.

Virtually any version of A Christmas Carol will play up the notion that Scrooge, prompted by visitations from the ghost of his partner Jacob Marley and of the three apparitions representing Christmases past, present and future, comes to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. But this version is simultaneously more and less “Christian” than the norm. References to Jesus per se, for example Tiny Tim’s famous declaration (quoted by his father) that he hoped people had seen him in church that day because it “might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see,” are relatively speaking downplayed. But the implicit message that Christian behavior is antithetical to the Scrooge of the prologue could not be clearer. It struck me that there’s a universality to this Scrooge that is often lacking. Maybe it’s just my mood, or that I’m particularly attuned to discussions of poverty and its manifestations in the wake of the recent squabble over the extension of the payroll tax cut, the manifold demonstrations of income inequality, the #Occupy movement, and so on.

But it sure seemed to me that we find Hilger’s Scrooge rather charmingly curmudgeonly early on. He is an eccentric, but a person, not a gross caricature of a miserly 1%-er. We have sympathy if not empathy for him when he is terrified by Marley’s warnings.

There is a melancholy feel to the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and a cautionary tone to Christmas Yet to Come’s revelations. But what happens with Christmas Present, in the scenes at Bob Cratchit’s and at Fred’s, but perhaps even more so subsequent to those moments, with Scrooge alone with the Spirit, defines this production.

At the Cratchits’ house, the goose, says the Narrator (Charles Dickens himself, played by Marshall Borden), “Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family… everyone had had enough.” The notion of “enough” is twice admired in this version; although such discussion isn’t in the book, per se, the original story does indeed make the same point in a different way.

One other change is the shortening of Mrs. Cratchit’s denunciation of Scrooge. In the book, she calls him an “odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man”; Dickens tells us “Scrooge was the Ogre of the family. The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for full five minutes.” Here, she makes her point, is mildly admonished for being uncharitable at Christmas, and she and everyone else move on. Similarly, there is teasing of Scrooge (in absentia) at Fred’s party, but Scrooge is an object of pity more than contempt. Fred says, “I am sorry for him; I couldn't be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always.” Later, he adds, “He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but he can't help thinking better of it—I defy him—if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you? If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds, that's something; and I think I shook him yesterday.” Against all odds, apparently, Fred turns out to be correct.

Most dramatized versions of this story, whether play or movie, show the arc of Scrooge’s character in a more or less linear progression from “humbug”-ing misanthrope to munificent benefactor. Not here. The visit of Christmas Future is nothing more than a coda; the heavy lifting has already been done by his brethren. There is little doubt that the climactic moment here is in a scene which is actually dropped in many adaptations. Here’s the text of the original—this production shortens it but also calls attention to it:
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man's,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.
From here on, it’s all coda. Scrooge’s transformation is complete; the scene with Christmas Yet to Come merely confirms it.

Like any great artwork, and A Christmas Carol is no less, this novella/play/film resonates in different ways at different times to different people. But this time, in this place, it speaks of the terrors associated with Ignorance and Want. We need to beware them both, that Doom might be erased. The essence of Christmas—the real stuff, not the commercialized nightmare in which trips to Walmart will outnumber those to Church by a factor of… what?... 10? 100?—is in love and compassion: qualities not unique to Christians, nor, alas, universally practiced by those claiming religious authority.

Dickens knew that, of course. The Religious Right has always been with us: “There are some upon this earth of yours,” says Christmas Present, speaking for his fellow Spirits, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” Words to live by.

Whatever seasonal holiday you celebrate, Gentle Reader, may it be filled with love, peace, joy, and charity. And as we enter a New Year, let us re-double our efforts to put an end to Ignorance and Want.

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