Monday, December 22, 2014

God Bless Us Every One: Dickens Personified in a Single Performer

            I haven't been much attracted the various theatrical and cinematic versions of "A Christmas Carol" available in recent years. They seemed overly commercial. Appealing to our desire for the meaning of this holiday at the one time of year when it's socially acceptable to embrace this sort of talk: charity, concern for the less fortunate, smile on your brother. Since we're going to be buying all this stuff, the popular logic seemed to run, it would be good if it were all sort of part of some larger something or other. Or at least paid lip service to it.
            The problem, or maybe my problem, with this sort of approach to "A Christmas Carol" is we haven't been enough attention to the language. Dickens wrote a story, to be read. He didn't write a movie, and though a very theatrical writer -- and a theater lover himself; whose first creative ventures were for the theater -- he found his natural outlet as a storyteller who 
wrote masterful prose. The Carol is long narrative fiction (or tale, fable, allegory, romance, or as we say today, "a novella") of some ninety printed pages, written to be read on a page.
            Now Dickens himself liked to "enact" his fiction in an oral medium: a dramatic reading dramatically enacted by himself. He would stand on stage at a podium and deliver an expressive reading of his works -- doing the voices of the different characters, their accents, their speech patterns, their gestures.
            He wrote his stories this way, with a sense perhaps that his tales would 'play' in the theater of the mind. It's why stories, particularly the best of them, remain so vivid.
            I have a new respect for the story, generally regarded as Dickens's most popular work, after seeing a one-man performance by actor Neil McGarry in a small room in Plymouth last weekend that relied not on fancy costumes, props, special effects, or the "visuals" of any sort but on the actor's fast-paced, expressive, and superbly alert delivery of the author's language.
            It goes like this:
            The actor's voice narrates the tale: "Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!"  McGarry stiffens his posture, tightens his brow, squeezes Scrooge's ledger in his closed fist.
            "Once upon a time," the actor's voice tells us, "of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve -- old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. " McGarry sits; busy, upright, rigid. "... he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them." And somehow McGarry is also wheezing back and forth outside the counting house, beating his breast to warm himself, stamping his feet.  
            "Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk's fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal," the actor narrates. "...Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed." McGarry wraps a scarf around his neck, tenses above the imaginarily miniscule fire, fails to appear any warmer.
            "'A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!'" cried a cheerful voice," the actor narrates. "It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew." McGarry is a nephew, a younger man, looser of limbs, cheerful of mien, a light heart in his voice. "Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!" McGarry is quickly Scrooge once more, short-sighted, tight-fisted, barely a glance for his big-hearted nephew. And an instant later he goes back to being the nephew.
            ... Somehow McGarry keeps this up for much of the ninety pages of original text in a delivery of the full scope of Dickens's vivid, expansive narrative that doesn't leave much out. The story never drags or loses its force or focus. Neither does McGarry's performance.
           This one-man production does not rely on big, melodramatic moments or surprise revelations. We see the character of Ebenezer Scrooge changing as Dickens meant him to be seen: shaken by the shackled specter of his deceased partner Marley. The story's resolution has already been planted by the impact of this first visitation: the truth that Scrooge must change from the heartless, self-satisfied misanthrope who chases away those who might bring him a drop of the happiness of human contact he no longer knows can exist, but does exist for most people, and for the lack of which he is dying inside.
           The encounters with the three successive ghosts each take a piece out of his self-protective armor.
            The hardest moment, the most emotionally horrifying moment in the tale comes when Scrooge is confronted with the image of a newly dead corpse. No one keeps watch on or "wakes" the deceased, no one appears moved or in any way concerned by his loss, his remains are dishonored by the gravediggers who steal his clothes, news of his passing is greeted with cruel barbs by strangers who know him merely by reputation. The vision of the death of a human being which means nothing to anyone alive strikes the spectator -- Scrooge, led by the spirit of Christmas yet to come -- as a horror he begs the spirit to free him from. It's the moment an unfeeling miser has become a human being again. If you can hurt, you're alive.
            McGarry's energetic, dramatized recitation of the prose -- including the humor, the byplay, the color, the exaggerated happiness of ordinary interactions among those who cherish one another: a dance, a festive meal, a friendly joke -- reveals the life in the morality play, still alive 170 years after it was written.
            It shouldn't be a cliche this story, something you have to see or pay attention to every Christmas "season." "A Christmas Carol" has been overdressed. Peel away the accretions, and the life of the story is still fresh. It's there in the vital flow of the language, a 'meaning' there for all seasons. The joy of life is communal. God bless us every one.