My niece and I saw a performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Soulpepper on Saturday. Michael Shamata’s adaptation has been a holiday fixture with the company for the past 12 seasons and most performances (including our Saturday matinee) are sold out.
An innovative in-the-round production directed by Shamata, a riveting portrait of Scrooge from Oliver Dennis, and a virtuosic turn by John Jarvis as Marley and the Three Ghosts made for damned good theatre. And the production avoided all the pitfalls of “cuteness” and Victorian kitsch that so often burdens versions of Dickens’ ghost story at this time of year. That is not to say that there was not gaiety and joy – that there was – but Dickens’ social message was not neglected in the telling. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the bald brutality of Scrooge’s usery or his dismissal of the Gentleman collecting for the poor so acutely. And as Scrooge spoke of prisons, workhouses and the treadmill I heard echos of comments that I have read this past year on the CBC website and I cringed.
And given the opinions I’ve heard voiced in angry, sneering and sadly dismissive words the frightening episode that ended the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Present had a chilling effect.
“‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe,’ but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.’
‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
‘Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
‘Spirit. are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’
‘Have they no refuge or resource.’ cried Scrooge.
‘Are there no prisons.’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.'”
A Christmas Carol, Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits
It is now December 21 2015 – 172 years almost to the day since A Christmas Carol was published – and it appears little has changed in the minds, and hearts, of many. The poor are still looked down on, the unemployed all labelled lazy, the homeless vilified and the pursuit of knowledge and education is called “elitism”. And isn’t it odd that though Dickens’ shows the horrors of Want it is Ignorance that he tells Scrooge we must fear the most. That is perhaps the most frightening and prophetic passage of all: “Deny it…. Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”
And looking at what is happening around us today it is as true a warning now as it was in December of 1843. How little we have progressed.
On this day in 1989: Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate re-opens after nearly 30 years, effectively ending the division of East and West Germany.