Barry Qualls

Michael Unger

Corrections or additions?

This article by David McDonough was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on December 8, 1999. All rights reserved.

`Christmas Carol:’ Reform, Not Revolution

One hundred sixty-three years ago this Christmas Eve,

Jacob Marley breathed his last, and 157 years ago his partner,

Ebenezer

Scrooge, first humbugged his way into legendary status as literature’s

most famous metamorphosis. Charles Dickens was then, and continues

to be, England’s most popular novelist, and "A Christmas

Carol"

is his most popular work.

It is virtually impossible to live in the English-speaking world and

not come into contact with the story. For those who have never read

the book, there are at least four film versions (the 1951 British

version starring Alistair Sim is my favorite), and endless television

adaptations, the latest featuring Patrick Stewart and currently

running

on TNT. Scrooge has ended up in the hands of Bill Murray, the Muppets,

and Mr. Magoo. Here in Princeton, McCarter Theater is presenting its

20th annual staging of the family favorite. This year’s production,

adapted from Dickens by David Thompson and directed by Michael Unger,

has a cast of 34, led by Stephen Temperley as Ebenezer Scrooge. Now

in previews, the show opens Saturday, December 11, and plays through

December 24.

Everyone in the Western world seems to know Ebenezer Scrooge well.

Or do we? What was Dickens trying to tell us in "A Christmas

Carol"?

And are we getting the message?

Top Of Page
Barry Qualls

"Dickens conceived all of his fiction as social reform

novels,"

explains Barry Qualls, English professor and dean of humanities at

Rutgers, who specializes in Victorian fiction. "The great moment

in this story is the appearance of those two children, Ignorance and

Want. This is where you see social comment, spelling out the issues,

and the potential for revolution if these issues aren’t attended

to."

Dickens, brought up in poverty, sent out to work at

a young age, largely self-educated, was passionate about his causes.

In 1843, when he wrote "A Christmas Carol," he was 31, and

facing a crossroads in his life. He had been a something of a

phenomenon

as a young writer; one of the first celebrity authors. Beginning in

1836, when he was only 24, he had achieved immense fame with the

monthly

publication of installments of "The Pickwick Papers," and

his stock rose with each succeeding novel, all serialized: "Oliver

Twist" (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1837-38), and "The Old

Curiosity

Shop" (1840-41). But his 1842 travel book, "American

Notes,"

and a novel set partly in the United States, "Martin

Chuzzlewit,"

both contained unflattering portrayals of America. And the nation

was not amused. Sales lagged, and Dickens set about trying to

rehabilitate

his reputation.

He had become preoccupied with the child labor issue. An 1842 report

on the appalling conditions under which children were forced to work

in mines and factories, and his visits to the wretched institutions

set up to educate the poor, originally inspired him to write a

pamphlet

on child labor. Instead, he conceived a Christmas story in which he

would warn against those two evils, Ignorance and Want.

It’s inconceivable that any pamphlet could have had an effect

comparable

to "A Christmas Carol."

Top Of Page
Michael Unger

Michael Unger, directing the McCarter production for a second year,

sees the value of subtlety. "It’s more powerful if you can move

people through a story," he says. "If you can succeed in

teaching

the lesson without anyone knowing that they have been taught, people

can see something of themselves in the journey of others."

The story of Scrooge is, then, not just the story of one man’s

redemption.

Scrooge is a stand-in for all the evils of capitalism, but he also

stands for Dickens’ belief that the system needs changing, not

destroying.

After all, Scrooge is no monster, he is merely selfishness

personified.

He pays his clerk 15 shillings a week, which was the going rate at

the time. He also has a sense of humor. "If I could work my will,

every idiot who goes about with `Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should

be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly

through

his heart," he intones, indulging his strong, wry sense of irony.

Scrooge is just dying to be a nice guy; and in Dickens’ world,

capitalism

has a heart — it just takes Christmas and three ghosts to find

it.

It is no accident that Dickens set his story at Christmas. By the

seventh century, the ancient pagan holiday had become a Feast of the

Nativity, but Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans succeeded in stamping

it out in the 1600s. In Dickens’ time, two centuries later, Christmas

was observed, but not on a grand scale. The very laborers he wrote

for and about did not generally even get the day off. Dickens changed

that; many historians give him credit for bringing Christmas back

as a major festivity, with his descriptions of the hustle and bustle,

the genial faces, the roaring fires, the roasting turkeys and geese

upon the spit, the mince pies and the puddings "singing" in

the copper. Dickens’ Christmas bears a strong resemblance to the

pre-Christian

holiday on which it is based. It is notable that while ghosts abound

in the story, there are few biblical references.

"Dickens was accused by critics of `Cockney religion,’ lower class

sentimentality," says Barry Qualls. "In his eyes, religion

is manifested by human contact."

After all, what is Scrooge’s greatest sin? He has turned his back

on his fellow man. What is his greatest fear? To die alone and

unmourned.

If there is a central image in "A Christmas Carol," it is

that of the importance of family and family life. British historian

William Lecky wrote in 1869, "The family is the center and the

archetype of the state, and the happiness and goodness of society

are always in a very great degree dependent upon the purity of

domestic

life."

"You’ll never find a better summation of how Dickens constructs

a novel than that," observes Barry Qualls.

Family images abound in "A Christmas Carol:" The Ghost of

Christmas Past shows Scrooge his young self, left alone at school

over the Yuletide holidays, his misery alleviated only by the

appearance

of his sister, come to take him home; the slightly older Scrooge

enjoying

a holiday dance as a part of the extended family at Fezziwig’s; the

invisible Scrooge observing the daughter of his old sweetheart and

reflecting that "(she) might have called him father;" the

warmth of the Cratchit home; and finally, the reformed Scrooge calling

at his nephew’s house and asking humbly to be admitted, reminiscent

of Robert Frost’s famous line: "Home is the place where, when

you have to go there, they have to take you in."

McCarter Theater’s production takes the family motif a step further

by framing the Victorian story within a modern one. "There’s a

very nice theme in this production of handing down a legacy,"

explains Michael Unger. "It starts out with a father reading the

book to his daughter, the way his father had read to him, and goes

into Mrs. Cratchit teaching Belinda to make the pudding the way her

mother taught her. The feeling you get from this piece is that,

although

you may not have a lot, if you have love of a family and people you

care about, you can survive."

So did Dickens get his message across, and was it

effective?

As a writer, Dickens had a habit of leaving loose ends untied.

Scrooge,

as best we can tell, is some sort of moneylender. After he reforms,

does he give up usury? Does he go out of business? Then what does

he live on, and how does he do good works? Is he living on his

ill-gotten

gains, or does he just become a good money-lender, handing out sums

left and right and never hounding anyone for payment, in which case,

he probably doesn’t make much of living, so there goes Bob Cratchit’s

raise.

"That’s the problem with all those Dickens novels," admits

Barry Qualls, "after the astonishingly prescient analysis of

English

society, they come down to `God Bless Us, Everyone,’ and that

wonderful

home and family. Still, Dickens was remarkably influential about

attitudes

towards social problems. England is one of the few European countries

in the 19th century that did not have a revolution, and there are

reasons for that. He popularized a mindset of social responsibility,

and lawful civil disobedience. The sense that everything emanates

from the home, and that to violate the social order is to violate

home. Dickens wants the status quo, but he wants it reformed."

Reforming the status quo is debatable from all sides of the political

spectrum, from those who want to preserve it, to those who would

destroy

it. Some would say Dickens went too far, others, not far enough. But

in our yearly holiday celebrations, our ability to set aside our

troubles

and quarrels for at least one day, our annual acknowledgment of our

fellow beings, Dickens’ influence is still felt, at the dawn of the

21st century.

— David McDonough

A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. Opening day for the show that continues through

December 24. $26 to $35. Saturday, December 11, 1 and 5:30 p.m.


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