“There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.”
If you’re a regular Shakespeare & Beyond reader, you know that Charles Dickens was a Shakespeare fan—the novelist referenced the Bard in his works and even helped to preserve Shakespeare’s birthplace with a benefit reading of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
We’re big fans of Dickens, and so are our theater partners, many of whom stage adaptations of A Christmas Carol around this time of year. We asked some of our partners to tell us about their productions of A Christmas Carol and how staging Dickens is similar to staging Shakespeare.
In Maryland, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s diverse, Baltimore-flavored Christmas Carol—onstage through December 23—has become a local tradition. This year, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Associate Artistic Director Gerrad Taylor directs. He played Young Scrooge in the company’s first production of A Christmas Carol four years ago, and directed their recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He told us where the company’s adaptation came from: five years ago, when the company moved into its current theater—a beautiful former bank in downtown Baltimore—they found the bank’s old counting-house. Looking at it, Artistic Director Ian Gallanar started to think about the counting-house in A Christmas Carol, where Bob Cratchit toils for Scrooge & Marley. Gallanar thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we took this story and gave it a Baltimore twist?” So, he wrote his own adaptation, one in which Scrooge lives in Victorian Baltimore, rather than London.
Twenty-five miles from Baltimore, there’s another production of A Christmas Carol onstage at the Annapolis Shakespeare Company. Tony Award nominee Donald Hicken directs an adaptation he and Annapolis Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Sally Boyett wrote. Their Helen Hayes-recommended production is onstage through December 30.
A Christmas Carol is a tradition in Atlanta too, where the Atlanta Shakespeare Company has been staging the story at their Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse for over twenty years. For the last fifteen years, they’ve used an adaptation by Tony Brown, who also directs. Fourteen of those productions, including this year’s, have featured actor Drew Reeves in the role of Scrooge. “Teenagers have come up to me and told me that seeing me as Scrooge has been a part of their Christmas tradition their entire lives,” Reeves says. Their Carol is onstage through December 23.
Are there similarities between staging A Christmas Carol and putting on the Shakespeare plays that are these companies’ bread and butter? Reeves suggests that both writers create works that are almost universally relatable: “The emotional journeys taken by the characters in Shakespeare, and in Dickens, are so clear and honest that they are universal. They both tap into the human experience in such a way that there’s no need to imagine ‘how would I feel if…’” Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s Gerrad Taylor feels similarly. Shakespeare and Dickens’s language and ideas are pitched to “connect to the everyday human being,” he tells us. “People look at Shakespeare and recognize people that I’ve known, people I see on the street, people I have in my family.” But Taylor also remembers feeling “perplexed” by performances of A Christmas Carol as a child: “Reading it, as a child, I saw characters that reminded me of people I knew: someone might remind me of my Aunt, someone else might remind me of my mother. But when I saw it onstage, I didn’t see myself in the play.” Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s ethnically-diverse cast might be one reason Baltimore has embraced this production for four straight years: “Baltimore sees a cast that represents the Baltimore community. Black families can come and see people they relate to. Latino families can come and see people they relate to. Asian-American families can come and see people they relate to.”
Working with the text
A common (and occasionally controversial statement) in theaters is that “there’s no subtext in Shakespeare:” that his characters confess to the audience, in soliloquys, asides, or even dialogue, the inner thoughts that characters in more modern plays just would hint at. That may be true of Dickens as well. Annapolis’s Donald Hicken says, “There are fewer long speeches with Dickens, but the need to animate the scenes seems to me to be a challenge with both writers, because their language is non-idiomatic and often provides what would be sub-text for most contemporary playwrights.”
At Chesapeake, Taylor’s approaches Dickens’s language in the same way as he would approach Shakespeare’s. Even though both writers’ works appeal to a wide range of people, Taylor says, “the language sounds a little different to our ears” in the 21st century. He and his cast approached Dickens’s words with comprehensive text work that explores “the stakes of what the characters are saying and mines the words for physical actions, just as we would with Shakespeare.” Taylor recalls one of Belle’s lines:
You may—the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will—have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke.
“It’s a looooong thought,” Taylor says, “So, what are the operative words? What is the punctuation telling us to do?” Taylor worked with the actress on “driving through the entire sentence, while still pointing up the operative words,” to help audiences understand Belle’s meaning. Taylor would take the same approach with Shakespeare, where “you might have 12 lines before you get to a period.”
Working with Shakespeare and Dickens emphasizes for Taylor that “even contemporary work still needs attention to the language and the details of the language. It’s not in verse, but we still have to make sense of the language. . . Even August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Lynn Nottage—they’re all still writing a kind of heightened dialogue.” Working with classic texts like Midsummer or Christmas Carol helped Taylor to “appreciate how word choice and diction have an effect. I think language is so important.” In Atlanta, Reeves feels the same way. He applies a skill he developed working with Shakespeare—”making the language sound natural”—to his performance as Scrooge.
Compared to Shakespeare…
Which Shakespeare play is most like A Christmas Carol? Atlanta’s Reeves hesitates to make a comparison—“I find Carol so unique”—but suggests that it has some similarities to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “What comes to mind for me is that Carol is to the rest of Dickens’ work as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to the rest of Shakespeare’s work.” Both, he suggests, are substantial stylistic departures for the writers. Plus, both works are well-known and almost ubiquitous on the stage: “For us, Midsummer is becoming an annual tradition in the same way as Carol.”
Chesapeake’s Taylor points to As You Like It. “Jacques has that monologue about man [the “Seven Ages of Man” speech], and there’s something about the idea of man’s life that resonates throughout As You Like It. Orlando has this interesting arc: his fight with Oliver at the beginning feels bratty—young. But by the end, he grows up. There’s a similar arc in A Christmas Carol. We see Scrooge grow up. But at the end, he comes back to his childhood. He has this line: ‘I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby’ We sort of see the journey of the child to the adult and back to the child.”
For director and adaptor Tony Brown, the most interesting comparison the one between A Christmas Carol and Macbeth. “Scrooge is shown. . . glimpses of the future by the Ghost. Macbeth is tantalized with promises about the future by the Weird Sisters. Each character then has a choice to make,” Brown says. “Each man chooses to act upon what he has been shown the one with a happy outcome (both for himself and for all whom his life touches) and the other in his own self-destruction and the devastation of his family, friends and country. . . you could say Scrooge is the Anti-Macbeth.”
Hicken is reminded of another play where a man is snatched from the jaws of despair by magical circumstances: The Winter’s Tale, which demonstrates “the transformative power of forgiveness.”
Where to catch A Christmas Carol
Catch A Christmas Carol at Annapolis Shakespeare Company through December 30, or at Atlanta Shakespeare Company or Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, both through December 23. Looking for a modern take? Our pals the Q Brothers (listen to our 2017 interview) perform their hip-hop Christmas Carol at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through December 30. On the west coast, see Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! at The Old Globe through December 29 (spoiler alert: the Grinch, like Scrooge, finds his Christmas spirit at the end). Enjoy a Christmas mash-up at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, where Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) is onstage until December 30. Looking for some Shakespeare? Don’t miss The Winter’s Tale, onstage at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through December 30.
The Annapolis Shakespeare Company, Atlanta Shakespeare Company, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Old Globe, and Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey are theater partners of the Folger Shakespeare Library.