Happy New Year all! Right, I’ll kick off 2019 with an admission: until two weeks ago, I had never read A Christmas Carol.
Yup, you read that right. Charles Dickens’s much-loved (and pleasingly short) fable about mean old Scrooge being ‘woke’ (right up there with modern idioms, that’s me) and swapping his miserliness for kindness and generosity… to be honest, I knew the story so well I really thought I had read it. But in preparation for a family visit to David Edgar’s adaptation of the book for the Royal Shakespeare Company, I thought I’d take up the original – and boy, am I glad I did.
Because if I hadn’t, I might really have thought that what we saw in Stratford was the Real McScrooge. Or rather, I’d have suspected some of the odder scenes as being fashionably updated, but not known exactly where Dickens ended and his adaptor began. The more skilled the adaptor – and Edgar is very skilled – the more the original writer’s essence is blurred, twisted and, frankly, betrayed.
I’ve banged on about this kind of thing before: the sickly, bogus, supposedly A AMilne quotes littering the internet, David Hare’s pride at writing ‘genuine’Virginia Woolfisms. But increasingly I feel I’m holding up an umbrella against a tsunami of ‘improvements’ meted out to just about every great literary figure no longer alive and therefore unable to protest, by contemporary writers who feel with astonishing arrogance that They Can Do It Better.
It’s not good enough for
Edgar that Dickens allows avarice to enter the soul of the young Scrooge, in
spite of the abundant generosity from his employer, Fezziwig. There has to be a
reason for this corruption. So Edgar makes Fezziwig profligate and unwise,
leading to bankruptcy and death; from which harsh lesson, ah, of course,
Scrooge derives his obsession with money. Cause and Effect, satisfying the
rules of character creation as required by the literary world today.
|The Fezziwigs' Christmas Party by John Leech|
Except that Dickens didn’t give a fig for these rules. He saw no need to explain why Scrooge becomes a miser in the first place; it was just in his character. Nor, in Dickens’s world, are kind and generous people punished for being so: his whole point is that people have a choice in the way they behave towards others. Nor is he an overtly radical writer, though from Edgar’s adaptation you could be forgiven for thinking so.
Yes, he showed the appalling effects of poor
housing, hunger, sickness and lack of education on the poor but his aim was to
arouse the consciences of the wealthy to relieve that want, not to foment class
warfare. When Scrooge in the book visits (invisibly) his nephew’s Christmas
party, he finds a happy group of people enjoying each other’s company with
games and conversation, making him regret his refusal to take part; what he
doesn’t find is a heartless political discussion, blaming poor parents for
sending their 4 year-old children down the mine so that they can spend their
earnings on gin, and (highly suspect in days before contraception) a
particularly unpleasant woman congratulating herself and her husband for ‘only
going for our fifth child when we knew we could afford it.’
|Appalling living conditions - Wentworth Street by Gustav Dore|
|The Workhouse at St Marylebone|
I have no problem with Dickens himself appearing as a character in this adaptation, discussing with his friend Forster the scoliosis and other deformities suffered by seamstresses and milliners, as well as child labour in factories and mines. This is a clever device that teaches us much about the terrible conditions around him that Scrooge (and others like him) refuse to see. I do mind when Edgar alters A Christmas Carol itself because, well, how dare he? How dare he write a scene in which Mrs Cratchit humiliates her husband for not standing up to Scrooge, when poor Bob has no chance of doing that and keeping his job, as his wife (in the REAL Christmas Carol) knows? Or have Bob Cratchit, thinking himself dismissed, give his employer a hefty piece of his mind, purely for an easy laugh from the audience who knows better?
|Happy family scene as drawn by Arthur Rackham: |
no entitled brats here
It was a good show, with great acting from the cast, particularly the over-tragically-written Bob Cratchit (played by Gerard Carey); but it wasn’t Dickens. By all means, David Edgar, write your Victorian Christmas morality tale, you can even borrow heavily from the great man himself. Just don’t call it A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, OK? Because it isn’t.
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