As I write this there are still 45 shopping days to Christmas, but last night we began our read-through for the Actors Civic Theatre production of that perennial Christmas ornament, A Christmas Carol, and tomorrow we begin rehearsal. Moreover, the Disney extravaganza in at least three dimensions has already opened, albeit to some mixed reaction, and at least two other productions are scheduled for the Pittsburgh area.
There are musical versions. There are straight plays. There are one-man tours de force. There are the Muppets. There is even a cartoon version with the lovable, near-sighted Mr. Magoo in the starring role. What kind of Christmas would it be if those four ghosts did not appear to show that cantankerous old skinflint the error of his ways? What kind of Christmas, if that cute little moppet didn’t get his turkey and give us one and all his blessing from atop his father’s shoulder? What kind of Christmas, indeed?
There are those who argue that Christmas as we know it was in fact really invented by Charles Dickens with the 1843 publication of the novelette. There are those who find the author’s plum-pudding view of the holiday less spiritual than they would like. There are those who point to the book’s social critique of the plight of the working poor in 19th century England and dwell on the author’s social conscience. Some focus on the theme of redemption; some can’t get beyond the sentimentality. Yet despite some disagreement here and there, there is no question but that, along with The Nutcracker, the Grinch, and “The Night Before Christmas,” this story of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge has become an icon for the holiday.
The Actors Civic Theatre production is an adaptation by local actor/writer/director stalwarts Mary Chess Randolph and James Critchfield. Much of the dialogue comes directly from Dickens. Like many of the more low-key productions, it tries to play down the special effects, while maintaining as much of the magic as possible. For music, it uses traditional carols.
I am playing the ghost of Jacob Marley. This is my second go at the role. I played Marley several years ago in a production at the West Virginia Public Theatre. The conceit of that production was that a traveling troupe of actors have found themselves stranded without their costumes and scenery immediately after the Twin Towers attack, and they decide to put on a makeshift performance to keep people’s spirits up. The show, after all, must go on. Still, soon after they begin the performance, almost coincident with Marley’s eerie call f “Scroooooge,” the magic begins. The show’s going on then is a sign that we will not let the terrorists win. It is, in this sense, the troupe’s equivalent of going out shopping, going on with our lives. No doubt Dickens would have approved.
Actually, to be exact, this will be my third go at Marley, if you count playing an actor playing Marley. I’m talking about the hilarious comedy Inspecting Carol by Daniel Sullivan. A small struggling theatre company looking for federal funds is awaiting the visit of a government inspector. When an aspiring actor appears they mistake him for the inspector, the titular nod to Gogol, and mayhem ensues. In
the second act of Inspecting Carol, Sidney Carleton, an older actor from Cleveland with a faux British accent, plays Marley, and mishaps abound as his unwieldy chains torment him and lighting instruments attack. Calamities gleefully abound for all the actors and the play leads to climactic disaster.
As ghosts go, even though he frightens Scrooge, and has been known to sometimes set young children in the audience to crying, Marley is a rather benevolent spirit. He comes not to torment; he comes to help, to save his old partner from the terrible fate to which he is doomed. “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made them link by link, yard by yard.” He is doomed to wander the earth and witness in death the happiness he can never experience himself. But he is here to show Scrooge how to avoid the same fate. “Mankind,” he says, “should have been my business. The Common welfare – charity, kindness, mercy, patience – all these should have been my business.” Scrooge still has a chance to avoid his fate, and it is “a chance,” Marley declares, “of my procuring.” Of course, how exactly Marley has managed to do this procuring is never explained. In fact just what Scrooge has done to deserve this second chance is never mentioned. One wonders why no ghost came along to help Marley out when he was still living.
But these are nothing but quibbles; the important thing is that as frightening as Marley’s ghost seems, he is really there to scare Scrooge straight, and as a matter of fact he does so. He is a very effective ghost. Would that all ghosts were like Marley and these spirits in Dickens.
It is time to memorize: “In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”