For the first time in seven years — and the first time ever at the Wyly Theatre — the Dallas Theater Center is presenting a new version of A Christmas Carol. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says artistic director Kevin Moriarty’s stage adaptation stresses musical life – and the harsh economic forces at work in Charles Dickens’ story.
- What the Dickens? Jerome Weeks’ essay on A Christmas Carol in American Theatre magazine, December 2000
- KERA Radio review:
- Online review:
Kevin Moriarty brings the Industrial Revolution boldly clanking and hissing into A Christmas Carol. When “The Carol of the Bells” is sung as a segue from Dickens’ famous opening lines (“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that”), the song begins with metallic bangs and whistles, all befitting Beowulf Boritt’s evocative set. Scrooge’s office is a vast, gritty factory floor. One half-expects Sweeney Todd to enter. Or better still, some steampunk ghosts. With a few clever costuming tweaks, it could happen. It’d actually be kind of cool.
But by centering Scrooge outside London’s business district and in what would more likely have been the industrialized Midlands, Moriarty has resolved a minor mystery in Dickens’ story: What does Scrooge do for a living? We often assume he’s a banker because he’s seen counting money in his “counting house.” But that just refers to the locked money room at the back of any establishment. Scrooge also seems to lend money at loansharking rates — but again, many Victorians with money did that. It was hardly a regulated industry. And no one ever refers to him as a moneylender or his establishment as a bank (a most peculiar bank — it seems to have only one clerk, Bob Cratchit).
The fact is, for a critique of heartless capitalism, A Christmas Carol is relatively vague about what Scrooge, the iconic heartless capitalist, actually does. It’s not a single oversight: We never learn what Mr. Fezziwig and Scrooge’s nephew Fred do, either. Very few jobs are actually named. Dickens simply doesn’t care much about his characters’ specific livelihoods.
Unlike Dickens, Moriarty puts work front and center. The audience is looking at a mass of rivets and pipes, valves and sooty windows — with a small pack of child laborers not doing a very good job at keeping this ‘dark Satanic mill’ particularly clean. Bob Cratchit is not an office clerk now; he’s more a factory foreman. No more exchanges about how cold it is and how Scrooge won’t let him have more than a single piece of coal. Characters are pushing heaps of the stuff all around the place.
Actually, there still is a degree of vagueness about business: We could be in a steel mill or a boiler room, any coal-fired something-or-other. As comedian Patton Oswalt joked about all those iron foundries used as settings in 1980s hard-rock videos: The only thing this place actually seems to produce is sparks.
To foreground harsh economic visuals like this, Moriarty even invents new scenes of business life. Both the young Scrooge and Marley work as apprentices for the beloved Mr. Fezziwig (Sonny Franks). Here, they loan money to him, and when Fezziwig can’t pay, they ruthlessly take over the company. Moriarty heavily underscores the resemblance to our own age of digital upheaval and cutthroat investment banking. The young Scrooge (Alex Organ) declares to Fezziwig, “You must see that this is the age of the machine and the factory and the vested interests! Time has passed you by.”
Unfortunately, all this mass manufacturing and hedge-funding tends to depersonalize and sideline Bob Cratchit. He’s just a stand-in for the downtrodden working class. True, Dickens’ characters became stereotypes long ago. But it’s the job of any stage adaptation to turn them into real people. Moriarty’s class-struggle and steam-pipe adaptation makes that harder, and actor Akron Watson isn’t up to making Cratchit more than just stoic and sad.
As for Kieran Connolly as Scrooge, his mean-spirited Montgomery Burns feels generic at first; he doesn’t have the smart ferocity of Connolly’s inspired performance as Mark Rothko in the DTC production of Red. Where Connolly shines is in Scrooge’s scenes of quiet heartbreak, recognizing his long-lost chance at love with Belle (Susana Batres).
Ultimately, though, Dickens’ novella was never a position paper about curbing the punishing effects of free-market economics. The novelist and critic George Orwell pointed out that Dickens may attack capitalism, but he never proposes fundamental, political changes such as stronger government regulations or stronger labor unions. Instead, Dickens’ critique was always a moral one. He simply wants Scrooge — he wants each of us — to be a better person. This is why Scrooge’s job description is not that important. Dickens’ aim as a writer isn’t economic reform; it’s reforming human hearts.
All this may seem obvious, even trite, but it gets a little waylaid here. One way that moral reform happens in Carol comes directly from Scrooge being forced to peer into his own grave. He sees how isolated and worthless his life of moneymaking has been, how life’s real purpose lies in helping others. And as clichéd as all that may sound, the cemetery scene can still raise a few goosebumps when done well.
But Moriarty pushes his Malthusian thesis to the very end: Scrooge doesn’t face the Angel of Death. We lose Dickens’ shift into the personal and the mortal. We get, instead, another lesson on profit and loss. This time, it’s about the horrific costs of Victorian child labor.
Not to belittle the seriousness of the issue — it certainly remains a pressing horror in some places and it was a very real horror to Dickens — but I suspect child labor is not an immediate concern for the many upper-middle-class Dallas families taking their children to see the show. It’s not directly personal — the way that staring at death and realizing your life at the office has been a waste can be. It’s a little as if The Wizard of Oz didn’t end with Dorothy’s plea about going home. Instead, she makes a pitch for improved weather reporting, the better to avoid tornadoes. Yes, it’s somewhat relevant, but it misses the emotional core of what’s been going on.
Despite these oversights and weaknesses, Moriarty’s Christmas Carol is still a striking-looking affair and even the most effectively dramatic Carol the Theater Center has offered since Adrian Hall’s in the late ‘80s. And Hall’s, for me, remains the gold standard in staged Christmas Carols. It shows how tepid the Carols have been for 20 years: Many adapters think Dickens’ novella is just a bit of tear-jerking sentiment followed by a holiday romp, and their results often confirm this. At least Moriarty understands that the bleaker Scrooge’s world is and the scarier Marley’s ghost is, the greater the joy we feel. It’s a little Victorian festival of food, warmth and rebirth in the midst of winter’s ice and darkness and hunger. It sounds simple enough, but it’s not.
All of which is why the best parts of this show are that grim factory, that ghastly ghost (Chamblee Ferguson), and the wonderful outbreaks of music and step dance, choreographed by Joel Ferrell. Kudos to Moriarty (or whatever researcher/arranger worked with him, no one is credited) on finding unfamiliar carols, folk songs and musical treatments to keep these familiar proceedings so rambunctious. It’s not too much to say that the Fezziwigs’ holiday party is the highlight of this Carol — perhaps of any stage Carol I’ve seen — with Sonny Franks on mandolin and Liz Mikel in full voice. You’ve rarely heard such an exultant, stomping version of Auld Lang Syne.