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Becoming Scrooge: Gerald Dickens and "A Christmas Carol"

Gerald Dickens Photo 1.png
Gerald Dickens
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Gerald Dickens

On December 19, 1843 a new novella was published in London. By Christmas Eve, all copies of the book were sold out. And for the last 178 years, it has never been out of print.

Its official title is "A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas." The story of imposing spirits, time travel, and redemption has been reimagined many times over. And sometimes a performance comes along that gives an audience a glimpse into how the author, Charles Dickens originally presented the story. By telling it himself.

The voice of Dickens reaches us today through his great-great grandson, actor, director, producer, and author, Gerald Dickens. He will perform his one-man adaptation of the famous work at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington on Long Island on December 5.

Morning Edition host Tom Kuser spoke with Gerald Dickens from London.

Tom Kuser: What inspired you to develop your own adaptation of "A Christmas Carol"?

Gerald Dickens: I'm ashamed to say it wasn't actually my idea in the first place. It was back in 1993, which was the 150th anniversary of the first publication of "A Christmas Carol". And somebody came to me with the idea of staging a charitable event.

There was a lot of publicity about "A Christmas Carol" in Britain during that year. I was an actor. Dickens went on tour and performed "A Christmas Carol" himself. It seemed like a good idea to her to mix all these things up together and create a version of what Dickens' show might have been like. So that was when I went when I started.

And I took as my basis Dickens's own scripts, the one that he had adapted for his reading, too. And that seemed like a pretty good place to start. Setting aside the fact that I was related to him, just as an actor having those words, and the atmosphere that he created and the rapid change of location and everything else that makes "A Christmas Carol" such a joy. It was just incredible to work on. And that's when I got absolutely hooked by this story, which I've now been living with for 29 years, almost 30 years. That's how it all began.

TK: It must have been very challenging to adapt, a work that flows that way in such a famous work too.

GD: Well, of course, from a performance point of view, you have the advantage of that pretty well all of the audience know where the story's going. So you haven't really got to worry too much if they fully understand we’re in the past, and then we're in the present, and then this is a vision of the future because everybody knows that.

When I first came to start adapting it, I went to my father for advice, because he was a huge Dickens fan and scholar and expert. And I said to him, you know, how do I tell this story? How do you do this? Because it's going to be, you know, maybe 90 minutes of me just standing there with a book, how do you maintain the concentration of an audience for that length of time? And he said to me, 'Don't worry, Dickens has done all the work for you.'"

And I didn't know what he meant. Well, that's not very helpful. I wanted something more tangible than that. So I went back to the original text of the book and started reading it out loud. And I got to the first line that describes Ebenezer Scrooge. And the line is:

 “He was a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. He was hard and sharp as flint, secret, self-contained, solitary.”

And by the end of reading that sentence, I had just turned into him without doing anything. So my father was absolutely right. Dickens had done all the work. It's all there in the text. It's not a book. It's a script, complete with stage directions and everything. It's wonderful.

TK: And when you tell the story, I understand you're dressed in the clothing of the time that the novella is set in. And it sounds like what you're describing is, you're telling the story, as if you were Charles Dickens, is that right?

GD: Well, sort of, I suppose so. I mean, I don't go out of my way to be Charles Dickens. I'm very much me. You're right, the costume. It's a single costume throughout the whole show, I don't change costume at all, just to get that feeling and that atmosphere. But what I really wanted to do in this adaptation, was to narrate the story. So using a lot of the narrative text, which of course, when you're watching a movie or a TV special, is lost, you don't get that you might see it in the way it's filmed. But all you get, it's a dialogue, whereas I am telling the story in the words that Charles Dickens used. So from that point of view, yes, it is Dickens telling his own story.

TK: How many characters then do you have to sort of inhabit during this, this adaptation?

GD: That's a very good question. It's somewhere around 30. It’s between 25 and 30. And then the reason I hesitate is some of them don't have voices. So they have to decide do they count as being characters on the show or not? Including Scrooge's dressing gown which is hanging up on the back of the door and which terrifies him after he's seen the face of Jacob Marley and I just sort of do a moment where I'm dangling like a dressing gown on a hook. So I think that counts as a character, even if it doesn't say anything. I'd say between 25 and 30.

TK: Is there any part of the play that resonates with you more than others?

GD: You know it changes. An awful lot depends on how I'm feeling, how a specific audience is, maybe a venue. You know, some audiences embrace the laughter and the joyfulness of the story and the playfulness. Others react to the drama and the intensity and you sort of get swept along with that.

There's an amazing moment in the play, which I often cite as my favorite point, is when we're with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, and he leads Scrooge to the Cratchit household. And we're witnessing the family in mourning following the loss of Tiny Tim. And I just stand at the very edge of the stage pointing out into the auditorium. And I say, “It was quiet. It was very quiet.”

And if everything has gone well, if the show is really doing what it should do, that moment you can absolutely cut the atmosphere and you can feel the audience's attention and fear and everything else. It's a very still moment. And I love that moment if everything is going well.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including founding producer of the midday talk show, The Full Story.