Monday, December 28, 2020

Sadness and Joy: A Christmas Carol

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol, available for streaming until January 3. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

There have been dozens and dozens of straight dramatizations of Charles Dickens’s 1843 tale “A Christmas Carol” – on stage, on film, on radio and television, even more if we include novelties like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and the 2017 parody A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong by the English company Mischief Theatre. Scrooged, the updated 1988 version, written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue and directed by Richard Donner, with Bill Murray as the avaricious president of a TV network, is a special case: an imaginative retelling of the story that captures its spirit with astonishing precision, just as Glazer’s contemporary take on Great Expectations did a decade later. It is, I think, sublime – and the best thing Murray has ever done.

I grew up on the 1938 Hollywood version with Reginald Owen, which is more M-G-M than Dickens, and on the 1951 English movie, adapted by Noel Langley (one of the screenwriters on The Wizard of Oz) and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, which I adored and awaited every holiday season. Reacquainting myself with it a few days ago after a hiatus of maybe four decades, I found it was just as good as I’d remembered – and it even had small gems I’d entirely forgotten, like the use of superimposition in the scene where Marley’s Ghost (Michael Hordern) reveals spirits of wandering souls at Scrooge’s window. (It recalls the way Max Reinhardt films the fairies in his 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) The great Alastair Sim plays Scrooge, and the supporting cast includes Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddeley as the Cratchits, Miles Malleson as Old Joe the fence, Ernest Thesiger as the undertaker (both in the Christmas Yet to Come section), and George Cole as the young Ebenezer in the Christmas Past scenes. Cole matches up well with Sim, and Langley has enhanced his role and given the actor a chance to show us how Scrooge changes from a warm soul to a cold one, instead of simply letting his fiancĂ©e Alice (Rona Anderson) tell him so as she breaks off their engagement. Cole is terrific; Sim is inspired. His Scrooge’s disdain for the “fools” of the world who revel in Christmas is pointed; it clearly comes out of a private resentment. When his nephew Fred (Brian Worth) shows up at his office to invite him to Christmas dinner, Sim’s Scrooge looks suspicious, trapped; unlike the philanthropists soliciting for funds for the poor, or the poor man who owes him twenty pounds and can’t repay it, or even the children singing “Silent Night” outside his door, Fred wants nothing from him but his friendship, and his guilelessness baffles him and makes him uncomfortable. (The later revelation that Scrooge’s beloved sister Fan died giving birth to Fred, and implored her brother on her deathbed to watch over him, provides the motivational layers in Sim’s relationship with his nephew.) Sim’s performance is seeded with unusually textured moments, like his final moment with the dying Marley where his partner exhorts him to save himself – when Sim lifts his dead hand and drops it in alarm, we see him considering, just for a beat, the possibility that he’s made a dreadful error with his life – and his protest to the mute Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come (Czeslaw Konarski), with terror and regret, that he’s too old to change his ways. And the scene where the repentant Scrooge appears at Fred’s house and hesitates before opening the parlor door (the kindly young maid gives him a silent go-ahead) is deeply affecting. Then he transcends it when, his unexpected appearance interrupting the company’s singing of “Barbara Allen” (a ballad of love and loss), he rushes into Fred’s wife’s welcoming arms and begs her forgiveness for years of pigheadedness.

That was the best Christmas Carol I’d ever encountered until I saw Jefferson Mays’s one-man version, which opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles two years ago and is available, through January 3, in a beautifully filmed streaming version.

Directed by Michael Arden, who conceived it with the production and costume designer, Dane Laffrey, and adapted it with Mays and Susan Lyons, this Christmas Carol is in the genre of Readers Theatre – an old-fashioned form of presenting literary texts on stage that was visually pared-down and tended to be narrative rather than dramatic and thus lifeless. But if you live long enough and attend enough theatre, you find that many of your assumptions about what makes good theatre turn out to be limited, if not downright wrong. The one-man performance of Tolstoy’s story “The Kreutzer Sonata” by Larry Pine, which I saw in 2006, was technically Readers Theatre – and it was electrifying. Gatz, the uncut Elevator Repair Service rendering of The Great Gatsby, which comes in at six hours, one of the most brilliantly oddball evenings I’ve spent at a theatre, was Readers Theatre. So was The Lehman Trilogy, an utterly dazzling three-hander that began at the National Theatre and was transplanted to the West End in 2019. (Its Broadway run, alas, was arrested by the pandemic.) And it’s equally accurate to say that Mays gives a star performance in the nineteenth-century style – a description that would have applied equally well to Pine in The Kreutzer Sonata. Mays luxuriates in the opportunity: his voice is a palette of emotional colors ideally suited to the range of feeling we associate perhaps more with Dickens than with any other  writer. Watching him slip effortlessly, over the course of an hour and forty minutes, from one character to another (he plays about fifty parts) and in and out of the narration, I was continually reminded that Dickens himself was a famous and tremendously popular public reader of his own works. It’s invigorating to recognize that the legacy of the legendary actors of Dickens’s time, both in England and America, is alive and well. Mays offers one of the most entrancing pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. The impression he provides of an entire company of players is so convincing (and the cutting of the film is so deft) that when the camera pulls back to reveal him in long shot you keep being jarred by the realization that there’s no one else on stage.

Mays does so many fantastic things in this production that it would be folly to try to catalogue them, so I’ll restrict myself to a few that I found particularly moving. When the Spirit of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to a joyous Christmas party from his youth, at the office of his first employer, Fezziwig, Mays’s reading of the description of the atmosphere brims with excitement and buoyancy – which, of course, conveys what Scrooge himself is feeling as he remembers the joy of the occasion. But it’s accompanied by melancholy, because this is the world he closed himself off from when he turned his back on love and friendship in his single-minded pursuit of money. (This is an Our Town moment.) It’s hard to believe that anyone since Dickens has done more with the Bob Cratchit material – with, for example, the complexity of his repeating, to his wife, Tiny Tim’s comment that “he hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” After Mays assures us that “every one had had enough” at the Cratchit Christmas dinner, he injects the tiniest pause for sadness, as if to acknowledge that for this poor, bursting family to have enough to eat is something of a miracle. He picks up this idea when he mentions about the pudding that climaxes the feast that “nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family”; nobody said or thought it, but we do. And he lingers subtly on Tiny Tim’s after-dinner song “about a lost child traveling in the snow,” rendered in “a plaintive little voice.” Anyone who is fortunate enough to get to the theatre regularly in New York is aware that Jefferson Mays is one of the best reasons for doing so; the work he’s done in shows like Oslo, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, The Front Page, Journey’s End and Blood and Gifts has been remarkable. Watching him in A Christmas Carol, you realize that he’s even more spectacular than you thought. He’s a national treasure.

Did I say that Readers Theatre is traditionally pared-down? Certainly not here, where Laffery’s set, initially a series of flats with a few pieces of furniture and a few significant objects (like the clock on Scrooge’s mantle, which strikes one as the first of the three spirits promised by Marley’s Ghost arrives), is constantly changing. The entire stage – the show was filmed at the United Palace in New York in October – is filled with Christmas ornamentation for the appearance of the Spirit of Christmas Present, a magical image that flies up and vanishes in a few moments as the ghost carries Scrooge away. Shortly after Laffery conjures up a full parlor for Fred’s Christmas celebration. The dancing guests at Mr. Fezziwig’s are filmed and projected onto the windowed doors – removed from Scrooge by time and by his choice to absent himself from the happy bustle of humanity.  Those are the same windows that, at the top of the show, swirled with London fog (and with the assurance of magic to come). Ben Stanton’s lighting design is magnificent. It begins modestly as Mays lights a candle to puncture the darkness – and to italicize the word wonder in the lines “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.” But Stanton has a Pandora’s Box of tricks in store. He gets a genuine horror-story effect in the Marley’s Ghost sequence, and when the play comes to Stave Four – the script retains Dickens’s literary divisions – the production takes on the look of the German Expressionist silent horror movies of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang and Paul Leni, and the zones of light recall the photographs and sketches one may have seen of Expressionist stage productions of the 1910s and 1920s. Lucy MacKinnon contributed the abstract projections, James Ortiz the puppets, and there’s an enormously clever sound design by Joshua D. Reid, which includes contemporary songs by Sufjan Stevens that are surprisingly effective, especially “Silver and Gold,” which underscores Scrooge’s shift to “a life dedicated to gold,” in the words of his departing beloved.

Everything Dickens wrote hovers over the same great themes: the idea that the child is father to the man and that a child ill-used is blighted for life unless he can – by some miracle – be rescued; the power of the past to both haunt us and remind us of the precious items we may have lost along the way; and, perhaps most potent of all, the salvific quality of empathy. Scrooge finds redemption when he is finally able to feel for another human being – Bob Cratchit and especially Tiny Tim. Perhaps because the Cratchit sections of the story are the most difficult to dramatize without plummeting over the edge into sentimentality, it isn’t always clear in the various versions of the story that Scrooge’s discovering a capacity for empathy is its baseline. Arden and his collaborators and especially Mays make it the candle that illuminates the darkness. And Dickens surely didn’t shy away from that darkness. The 2019 limited-series version that showed up on FX last year soured the material as if the original had somehow sugared over the ideas and needed to be made uglier and angrier and more bitter. (I stopped watching halfway through, when Scrooge’s father in one of the flashbacks took a knife to the pet bunny the boy’s sister had given him for Christmas.) This Christmas Carol honors Dickens.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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