BLOG: I'm Scrooge

by Alan M. Berks • Dec. 13

In depth |

Friday night, I saw the Guthrie’s A Christmas Carol for the very first time—the first time I saw any Carol honestly, though I did see Bill Murray in Scrooged at some point in my life. This might explain why I knew the play’s ending before it started.

I feel now as though I understand so much more about the Holiday Theater Season, and more. I finally know who Fezziwig is, so Actor’s Theater of Minnesota’s Fezziwig’s Feast isn’t just some jolly-sounding title. (Before I saw A Christmas Carol, I thought, if it sounds like a Christmas kind of show, than it can be a Christmas show, whatever the heck it is..) Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, too, is more intriguing. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the Golden Girls Remix an awful lot more now—Until Friday, I wasn’t up on the Dickens or the eighties sitcom.

I feel like I get it now—well, and also I feel like I don’t get it. More on that in a second. . .

After the show ended, the chubby middle-aged man behind me immediately started explaining to the four teenagers next to him that this version was “more the way they would have done it 100 years ago. It had less flash. It was more faithful.” I certainly don’t know if that is true, but the teenagers nodded dutifully, and the middle-aged man continued eagerly, turning to one particularly lanky kid with unruly curly hair, to say, “You remember when I was calling you, ‘Nephew! Nephew!’ last year. Do you remember? ‘Nephew!’ So you understand why now? You understand?” The teenager giggled. I don’t think he remembered, and I suspect he didn’t understand, but I also think he would remember the shouting of Nephew! in a crowded theater, from now on.

In the hallway outside the theater, I passed another family standing in a circle, regrouping. The woman who appeared to be Mother was saying to a girl who looked like her emo-loving daughter, “Last year, you said you liked the year before better. You say that every year. That would mean that the only one you really liked was the first time you saw it!” Everyone laughed. And, I’m going to bet that the daughter didn’t even like it that first year. I’m think she doesn’t like it every year, but she likes something about it, she likes hanging out with her family, she likes saying that last year’s was better, and by the time she’s a mother, she’s going to drag her children to the same show and continue to tell them how the year before was better.

I was eavesdropping on family tradition be made. And it don’t necessarily have to be a good tradition in order for it to be a tradition. You just have to keep at it.

Like: I’m a Cubs fan because my father was a Cubs fan. The Chicago Cubs are a bad baseball team. They have always been a bad baseball team; they are perhaps, historically, statistically, the worst baseball team in the last one hundred years. If a person really loved baseball, he or she might want to watch a team that is actually good at playing baseball, but being a Cubs fan is only partially about baseball. When I was sixteen, my dad and I couldn’t find anything to talk about at all—no joke, nada—except who was pitching for the Cubs that day. He’d drive me to school; by rote, we’d go over the projected lineup for the day.

Years later, we did learn to talk to each other about things that weren’t mutually annoying, and I’m pretty sure that being a Cubs fan built an invaluable bridge over incoherence and resentment to those later years of friendship.

So, you know, I feel like I get why A Christmas Carol is the Guthrie’s moneymaker. We’ve got to build memories with our families somehow.

I hope I’ve got it right because, as a piece of theater, I don’t get it at all. I don’t want to sound like a Scrooge here, but if the Guthrie’s Christmas Carol were my introduction to theater than I would never ever return for anything else.

The actors are obviously talented; the production design is inventive and impressive; the script is good and lively; and all these obviously high-quality elements simply make the whole experience worse.

It’s a bunch of people on stage, traipsing around in long red scarves, with British accents and woolen, weird costumes, singing songs that are, I don’t know, “old-fashioned” kind of songs. Not carols precisely but not popular songs either. There’s some clomping. I guess that’s dancing.

O, and there they go singing again because, I don’t know, because people want singing? The language I actually found harder to follow than I would Shakespeare. Shakespeare is verbal and acrobatic. Dickens is just verbose. It’s a well-known fact that Victorian language is stuffy and purple, but there I was trying to follow it all night long. Why is the Ghost of Christmas Past a ballerina? Charity Jones is an excellent ballerina Ghost of Christmas Past. I’m not criticizing anyone’s efforts. I just. . . The Ghost of Christmas Present is a green Santa Claus? Would I understand this better if I had seen more Christmas Carol’s in my life?

Obviously, I didn’t see the longer version, but I felt like the shorter version that they did this year at Guthrie was paradoxically more boring for being more speedy. Perhaps if I had settled in for the evening, I wouldn’t have found myself counting the ghosts, and their scenes, wondering how many more lessons I had to sit through, knowing already what they were teaching, and comparing that to my watch, wondering whether the actors were going to get to Tiny Tim’s final line in the required time limit. I found myself wondering whether the actors were thinking that too, considering the speed with which they were talking.

I’m not saying it was a bad production. Far from it. I’m saying that, as a person who goes to theater regularly, it simply isn’t what I want in theater. In fact, if I thought that theater was this kind of Washington Irving, Ghost of Sleepy Hollow, old-fashioned, elementary school pageant thing, I wouldn’t still be doing it.

This final thought best encapsulates the distance between me and, I suspect, the rest of the audience for A Christmas Carol: I was disappointed that this production didn’t challenge the audience more (as though that were even close to its purpose). I mean, in this super-capitalist society, there were far more Scrooges in the audience than Cratchits, yet I’m sure almost everyone saw themselves, comfortably, in Cratchit or Fred rather than the bad guy who hoards his money and won’t contribute anything to the general welfare. Every man for himself, he believes. Where do I hear that every day?

I was disappointed that Scrooge was so obviously clownish from the beginning that he was easy to dismiss.

I wanted an edgy Christmas Carol. Honestly-and I recognize this as absurd—I want the Brecht version, where people aren’t allowed to relax and pat themselves on the back for their Christmas spirit. I want to see the version that makes them itchy and self-conscious.

I don’t expect the Guthrie to do that version, and I don’t blame them. They make a heckuva lot more money making theater than I do.

I do, however, have high hopes that in the glut of Christmas shows that come around every year, I may be able to satisfy my craving for a mash-up of Brecht and Scrooge somewhere down the line.

I really enjoyed the goose running around the stage though. That was super funny.

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