Charles Dickens Was No Scrooge

When I was in seventh grade, I wrote a holiday play that was performed in a small playhouse.

By play, I mean a mostly plagiarized version of the many televised renditions of A Christmas Carol. And by playhouse I mean the living room in my parent’s condominium. Truth be told, the actors weren’t so much actors in the traditional sense as they were stuffed animals in the traditional sense. So one could argue that what I really produced was an amateur puppet show. Except for the fact that the puppeteers (my younger sister and I) were not hidden behind a curtain or stage, nor were our hands, mouths, and movements invisible to the audience. These days doll-play of this nature is typically referred to as therapy, but  back then, before Facebook, iPads, and cable civilized us, this was part experimental theater and part Coliseum bloodsport. Or so we social misfits would prefer to believe.

I remember the character of Scrooge, so well-selected from my sister’s hoarder pile of stuffed “pets”, as an ugly toad amidst the typecast teddy bears, cuddly bunnies, and cutely stuffed socks. Our Scrooge was a bald cloth doll, full of beans, and sporting a handlebar mustache. Rather than old and gaunt, he was chunky, dark, and middle-aged. You’d think Tony Soprano if you saw this doll today, but back then they didn’t transfrom kitsch from unattractive like we’ve learned to in our times. Whoever envisioned this Captain Cholesterol in the late eighties must have had his share of resume woes I imagine–but I digress.

The play: I don’t remember it at all. My parents, who made up the audience of two, kept Christmas in their hearts and were as good a sports as good a parents as any could be–but must have chuckled under their breath. The stuffed animals were all bowed at the last curtain call. I like to believe that Scrooge got the loudest applause and an encore.

Reading John Irving’s introduction to A Christmas Carol brought this memory back like a tug on the coat-sleeve of the Spirit of Christmas past. He writes:

“Most of us have seen so many renditions of A Christmas Carol that we imagine we know the story, but how long has it been since we’ve actually read it? Each Christmas we are assaulted with a new Carol…One year, we suffer through some treacle in a Western setting: Scrooge is a grizzled cattle baron, tediously unkind to his cows. Another year, poor Tiny Tim hobbles about in the Bronx or in Brooklen: old Ebenezer is an unrepentent slum landlord…We should spare ourselves these syrupy enactments and reread the original–or read it for the first time, as the case may be.”

But I wonder if Irving is missing something essential in these clumsy syrupy re-enactments, that is, the homage and honor that such poorly crafted frauds are actually paying to this nineteenth century “masterpiece”. These modern depictions, as pale (and arguably unnecessary) reflections of the original work, do not bring damage to Dickens personally like the pirate copies did during his lifetime. Irving mentions how Dickens was plagiarized in his own time and actually racked up £700 in court costs futilely trying to block the publication of obvious frauds such as Nickelas Nickleberry and Oliver Twiss.

Irving notes how Dickens’ sentimentality over children in A Christmas Carol is one of the story’s lasting strengths whereas this same sentimentality in many of Dickens’ other works has been widely criticized. When I think back on my version of A Christmas Carol and the the grand performance in the living room, I gain some comfort in knowing that my poor attempt at (near) childlike imitation may have brought a Cratchett-like grin to the ghostly face of Mr. Dickens himself. If I had any doubts about this, they are quickly dismissed in Irving’s closing paragraphs on Dickens:

More than a century and a half ago, Charles Dickens gave his first public reading of A Christmas Carol; it was just two days after Christmas–2,000 people gave the author their rapt attention, and frequent applause. The reading took three hours, though in later years Dickens would prune A Christmas Carol to a two-hour performance; he liked it well enough that first time, however, to repeat the same reading three days later–this time to an audience of 2,500 almost exclusively composed of working people, for whom he requested that the auditorium be reserved. He always thought they were his best audience.

“They lost nothing, misinterpreted nothing, followed everything closely, laughed and cried,” Dickens said, “and [they] animated me to that extent that I felt as if we were all bodily going up into the clouds together…”

It was at the author’s insistence that the price of A Christmas Carol was kept as low as five shillings–so that it might reach a wider audience. Dickens needn’t have worried.”

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