We don’t need Scrooge anymore, right?
So why is he still around? Is it because of Hollywood’s lack of creativity–their seeming need to remake anything? A Christmas Carol has begotten Jimmy Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Disney’s Scrooge McDuck, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Bill Murray’s Scrooged, etc., etc. Is the Scrooge meme just mindless proliferation in the name of tradition, in the same way your closet piles up with the sweaters from Kohl’s Aunt Marion gives you every year?
Because isn’t Dickens’ A Christmas Carol played out? Dickens supposedly wrote the novella in 1843 because the actual celebration of Christmas in Victorian England was on the wane. But Christmas is alive and well in 2008 America. On the verge of a recession and in the face of what Bill O’Reilly and Fox News describe as a secular “war on Christmas” in our schools, Christmas continues to endure. Even non-Christians are fervent when it comes to Christmas lights, trees, cards, movies, cookies, parties, cocktails, gifts, and music. If anything, “Christmas creep”–decorations up in Wal Mart prior to Columbus Day–is the most pernicious contemporary threat to Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t need saving anymore–by Scrooge or anyone else.
So I went to the Guthrie last night to see their annual production of A Christmas Carol for the same reason I go to midnight mass (almost) every year: to make my mother happy. Not quite bah humbug–more like slightly begrudging filial duty, but still.
The Guthrie’s production, of course, was top notch. The special effects could even be described as thrilling (definitely more thrilling than the special effects at midnight mass): like when Scrooge’s door knocker turns into Marley’s face; or when Marley’s ghost appears, shrouded in rattling chains and locks; or when the Ghost of Christmas Present, a red-bearded dude with the build of a professional wrestler and a brow wreathed with candles, descends from the sky on a gigantic cornucopia of fruit; or when, at the end of the play, Scrooge clings to his own tombstone, submerging into the stage, with an incense reminiscent of the acrid brimstone of The Inferno billowing out into the crowd.
The acting was pretty great too, considering how many times you’ve seen these characters. Bill McCallum’s aforementioned Ghost of Christmas Present was a big, goofy boomer; Sally Wingert and Michael Booth as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit were humble and loveable; Richard Ooms, in his roles as both Mr. Queeze and the gravediggers’ fence, was as terrifying as a family-safe production would allow. And most importantly, Raye Birk was incredible as Scrooge–inveighing the old codger with real pathos, as he’s forced to watch a lifetime’s worth of mistakes in one supernaturally epic TiVo session.
But beyond the great production values and professional performances, the play (at least the Guthrie’s version) retains some weird power that has nothing to do with Christmas. In a Q&A I did with Birk before the show, I strained to make an analogy between the anxious financial crisis of today and the grim economic conditions of Scrooge’s Victorian England–but as Birk pointed out, Victorian England was a lot worse: our ten-year-olds aren’t working in soot-filled factories, at least. And Scrooge was a bastard, but he wasn’t involved with a shadow economy built on an unrealistic euphoria goaded on by so-called financial wizards . No, as Dickens characterized him, Scrooge was “a good man of business.” He actually knew what he was doing.
America hates her boss.
And it’s not just the 39% of us that were bullied by him last year who are sick of the old man. We’re in the throes of the baby boom’s death rattle–with every one of those dudes clinging to their executive positions, our corporate budget is looking more top-heavy than the payroll of that Adam Sandler romcom co-starring Felicity.
A Christmas Carol is all about the working stiff’s catharsis, not Scrooge’s born-again epiphany. The Guthrie’s version is actually an adaptation of Dickens by Barbara Field, and Field tries to delve deeper into Scrooge’s personal history, searching for some kind of Freudian motivation in biography. It adds a scene where Scrooge gets yanked out of school and sent to a factory, where, as a ten-year-old, his cruel foreman whips him. Somewhat inexplicably, when Scrooge grows into a handsome young man, he’s still sweet and shy, almost blushing when he meets Belle, his future fiancée, for the first time. Hugh Kennedy, as young Scrooge, plays him with that endearing bashfulness with which Hugh Grant and Michael Cera made movie careers.
Despite all the cute tittering, sometime in the year after Scrooge’s engagement his inevitable transformation from shy young pup to cold-hearted robber baron takes place. In the original A Christmas Carol, Dickens seems to blame Scrooge’s pathological usury on getting dumped by Belle. The Guthrie’s version seems to place more of the blame on Jacob Marley’s influence. Neither version satisfactorily explains how Scrooge goes from that nice young man from Juno to the monster who tells a pair of charity workers that a holocaust for poor people is what the commonweal really needs.
My point: it doesn’t matter what motivates Scrooge. Nobody (except maybe the actor portraying him) cares. That’s not where the power of this story resides. But which one of you out there hasn’t fantasized about your boss going home to his mansion, slurping down some bad gruel, and embarking on a fever dream, the culmination of which will finally reveal your true worth to his organization–an epiphany that prompts him to give you the raise you so justly deserve?
The Obama Revolution was just the start–think about all the resentment issues that will be unleashed when we actually have to start paying off this bailout, or when the social security bill finally ends up in the mail. Maybe we should take up a Christmas collection and send upper management to this show before Tiny Tim grows up and realizes he’s getting screwed.