Goodman Theatre

The enduring popularity of A Christmas Carol through the last decade has really intrigued me. I mean, here’s old Ebenezer Scrooge, the perfect hero for the Reagan 80s: an old white man who’s independent, thrifty, conservative, resolute in the face of opposition, openly contemptuous of “liberality” and impatient with the efforts of big-spending do-gooders who want to take his hard-earned money and give it to people who can’t even hold down jobs. In a decade dominated by a popular father-figure president whose policies epitomize Scrooge’s social philosophy, it’s curious that audiences still delight in watching Scrooge’s torment as he undergoes what is surely literature’s most wrenching behavior-modification experience. One by one, the man’s principles and convictions are crushed before his eyes; every last shred of the dignity he’s built up for himself over the years is torn from him, until he’s left with nothing except a laugh and a “Merry Christmas.” George Orwell couldn’t have done it better. And the audience loves it, coming back year after year for more of the same.

Well, there is a difference between Ronald Reagan and Ebenezer Scrooge. Reagan projects an image of genial affability that disguises his callous policies; Scrooge, on the other hand, actually delights in coming across as a meanie. When he dismisses a pair of fund-raising businessmen, crowing that he’s proud to help the poor by supporting prisons and workhouses, you can tell that it gives him a kick to see his unwanted guests’ shocked reaction. When he verbally spars with his oh-so-Christmasy nephew, delivering the immortal rejoinder “Bah! Humbug!” you know he’s having a grand old time. (I’d love to see what he’d make of George Bush’s “kinder, gentler nation.”) But you can’t have so much fun at the expense of others and not pay a price. By the time the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come get into the act, old Scrooge has made himself everyone’s favorite target.

Therein lies the key to Charles Dickens’s strategy in writing A Christmas Carol. Seeking to stir his society’s awareness of the plight of the poor, Dickens fashioned Scrooge as the man everybody loves to hate. Scrooge’s outlook on life isn’t different from that of most men of his position in 1843 (or 1988); but his reactionary stinginess is so blatant that nobody in his camp would dare admit to agreeing with him. If you can’t sway ’em, Dickens knew, then shame ’em. And almost 150 years later it’s still working.

Certainly the audience at a recent Sunday matinee of Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol was responsive. The crowd was about evenly divided between adults and children, and their enthusiastic response was as clear a display of “wonderful unanimity” (in Dickens’s words) as I’ve ever seen. In the past, I’ve found Larry Sloan’s briskly efficient stage adaptation to sacrifice too much of the rich human texture of Dickens’s original book–which, like all of the great writer’s works, makes its points not just through its rendition of the central story but in the seemingly infinite detail of its panoramic view of a whole world. But this year–the second consecutive season that Michael Maggio has directed this annual Goodman presentation–there is a depth and maturity in the story telling to match the flashy special effects Sloan’s script calls for (including an aerial entrance for the Ghost of Christmas Past and a fire-and-brimstone exit for Marley’s ghost, as well as rolling fog, starry skies, and a sudden snowstorm). Julie Jackson’s eccentric, gorgeously colored Victorian costumes are as vivid and quirkily extravagant as Dickens’s prose. The opening medley of Christmas carols feels more connected to the story now, as we’re made aware not just of the music but of the varied human voices that sing it. Though there are some individual acting problems–mainly inconsistent and/or overdone British accents and frequent difficulty in projecting the lines (especially over Larry Schanker’s lush but sometimes overloud synthesizer score)–there is a wonderful feeling of ensemble among the cast; and William J. Norris, in his tenth season as Scrooge, makes the very most of his role as both protagonist in the story and observer of it. His climactic transformation–sitting safely on his bed after a long night of mind-altering visions both horrific and humorous, he comes forth with a slow, rusty, long-forgotten cough of laughter that blossoms into a huge, unstoppable roar of healthy hilarity–epitomizes the blend of craftsmanship and spontaneity that is live theater at its finest. Goodman’s Christmas Carol is a lavishly ornamented work, but there is a tree under the ornaments, too: a true evergreen. If only its effect were as lasting as its popularity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Osgood.