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It's not TV, it's live theatre...

Posted: 24 December 2008 | posted by David J. Loehr |

I'm in the midst of a break from tv and tv-related blogging, since we've been elbow-deep in production this month with a new play. That and, well, it's Christmas. But speaking of, here is a blog post from McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ--where I lived for many years--concerning some complaints about their current version of A Christmas Carol.

The short version? The author, astounded, rails against all the criticism they've been getting about not using "God bless us, every one," as the last line of the story.

After the jump, my take on their take on Dickens.

The author's argument that ‘it does still appear in the story, you’ll hear it in the Christmas Present scene, it’s okay,’ shows a keen talent for Jesuitical hair-splitting, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the message of the story and/or the season.

But pointing out that “it’s a bit unclear who would say: ‘and so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’ It’s only Scrooge and Tim onstage, after all!” is disingenuous at best. There’s nothing that says the line at the end has to be exactly that word for word. It doesn’t need a narrator. It doesn’t even need people beyond Tiny Tim and Scrooge on the stage at the time. But I think it does need to be there, assuming you have a 6-yr-old who doesn’t “squeal” the line. Why?

For one thing, people are waiting for it. As a writer, I don’t subscribe to the “do what’s expected” school of thought very often, but once in a while… You wouldn’t adapt “Gone With the Wind” and end with the line “I’ll worry about it tomorrow.” You wouldn’t end “Casablanca” with “Hey, I like you, let’s hang out.” Even if you could craft a line that gets the same meaning across–and presumably with more style than those two examples–you’ll still get slammed by audiences and critics alike simply because it’s one change too many. But it’s more than just staying true to the words of the book. Why is it that people are waiting for that line?

Because to wrap the play up with Scrooge saying ”a heart which until very recently never knew the meaning of the phrase–a very…merry…Christmas” doesn’t quite capture Dickens’ intent, I don’t think. Yes, it illustrates how Scrooge himself has changed, fine. (It might be nice if it didn’t sound more like Dr. Phil than Charles Dickens, but that’s another criticism entirely.) I would argue that Dickens isn’t only concerned with Scrooge at that point. By ending with that thought, the play stays closed off, there is only one person who is touched, and that person is Scrooge.

Ending with the line, “God bless us, every one,” isn’t just some little kid being cute, it isn’t just a moment in the story itself, it is Dickens reminding the audience directly and–here’s the important part–including and welcoming them into the story and the sentiment. The playwright's line goes past sentiment into sentimentality. Furthermore, done well, the scene should balance past, present and future, or youth and age, or even innocence, corruption and redemption if you’d prefer, all of which are more than a little thematic to the story.

In any case, people are waiting for that line precisely because it is the one moment meant for everyone, it is the one moment addressed directly to them. Without that closure, you may have a lovely production of “A Christmas Carol,” but it will–and does–seem a little chillier than it could be.

As for the comment that “one post asked us to ‘return your play to Mr. Dickens’ (funny, he didn’t write the play…),” I suppose that’s supposed to sound clever, but the post isn’t implying that Dickens wrote the play. It seems to imply that your play should get back to more of the original language.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that after years in the Princeton area, I now live in the Louisville area, so now I get to see the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville production each year. Their adaptation tinkers with the story as well, and this year introduced some new elements to the production. My own theatre company has produced the one-man version of Tom Mula’s play, “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol,” for a few years running as well, which is a wonderfully different take on the material. But both of those adaptations understand that whatever it is you change, that line belongs at the end of the story.

Of course, in the last twenty years, the most effective, most beautiful production I’ve seen of “A Christmas Carol” has been the one-man stage version performed by Patrick Stewart, which doesn’t alter the text as written except in trimming for time. It is, quite simply, stunning.

It just goes to show, Charles Dickens knew how to write one hell of an exit line.

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