The Dickens is in the Details: South Coast Rep's Christmas Carol Hat Trick

You might wisely think to run, quickly, from anything advertised as an Orange County tradition. Think flying angels at the glass cathedral, boat parades, wreaths hung from auto grilles. But Mr. Bib is here this morning to recruit you into the cult of A Christmas Carol, that 33-year theatrical hat trick staged by the good players of the South Coast Repertory.  The continuing story of the annual making of a play advancing liberal capitalist philanthropy (if not, say, class warfare or genuine redistribution of wealth) should perhaps be less surprising or gratifying in the environs of the lawns, temples and glass-concrete terraria complex sponsored by the Segerstroms, et al but perhaps my own surprise, delight and, lately personal connection to it inspires me in recommending you buy a ticket and read a book about the original, and the life and times of this classic, and its author.  


After all, the month of Dickens pays for the troupe's staging of terrific plays the rest of the year, on the Segerstrom Stage and Julianne Argyros Stage. The old chestnut makes possible other productions, “serious” and new (sometimes premieres) and often avant-garde, not to mention the terrific kid and family theater lineup.

And what accounts for its success? Having now seen A Christmas Carol many times, I say “adapter” Jerry Patch, though maybe that's because I so unreasonably esteem writers. Patch read and studied the novella, changed and dramatized and turned it into a self-referential multi-media invitation which not only encourages the audience to finds its own role, but in some kind of jolly un-selfconscious echo chamber, to applaud that role. I have never been to performances where the clapping begins when the lights go down, before the overture or arrival of the first character. 
That many generations of OC families feel they own this sucker is tribute to Patch's success at making the audience “as much a part of Fred's (Scrooge's nephew) Christmas party as the actors onstage.” So that the show is at once a pageant and a literary explication of a book which everybody thinks they have read, even studied, but in fact have mostly acquired by cultural osmosis or one of the many film versions. 
Though in this collaborative effort, it's impossible to overstate the roles of the show's longtime director John-David Keller (also in the cast, and also doing this for over three decades) and the stage manager, Jamie Tucker, as well as a cast which I have now seen firsthand, is so generous and smart about Dickens and Patch's words.
Yes, full disclosure demands that I confess here that my particular personal insight develops much lately from my own kid's experience as one of the child players this year. He's made his parents proud, of course, but, more than than, has caused us to turn our home into Dickensland. It turns out that SCR's thoughtful dramaturgs and actors, cast and crew are experts on the 1843 classic, a deceptively simple-seeming entertainment about ghosts, time-travel, a then-increasingly rightist British Parliament whose actions are famously memorialized in the iconic line about “poor houses,” not to mention a response by a liberal utilitarian man of letters of his benighted times to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Further ironies abound, not the least of which being a theatrical variety of weird sentimentality for Victorian London, probably not a very nice place at all.  And the arguable thinness of A Christmas Carol compared to old Chuck's more serious novels, which I have now also been inspired to visit, or revisit. And, yes, this play's gently astonishing place now in the cultural tradition of Orange County, California of all places.
That this play, begun in 1980 and staged as a one-off fundraiser, became a cash cow, not to mention a legitimate sacred cow,is just perfect, I guess. Maybe I haven't seen enough other adaptations and variations of the book, but that this one succeeds so vigorously in our funny little world of institutionalized political reaction and class disparity, Minutemen and Tea Partiers, GOP hegemony (for the moment, anyway, a county which voted for Romney!) and robotic Reaganoid provincialism meets suburban no-nothingism just delights the dickens out of me. My own theory is that a lot gets expressed up on that stage at Christmastime that cannot be the rest of the year, in a play based on a book which, again, a lot of people have not actually read and for whom this is the single live dramatic production they attend the whole year. 


So I was pleased, by way of my initiation as theater dad, to be recommended by the director a book which Patch himself and cast member read, and re-read, to put on the show. And to buy it, for Boy Ebenezer and the whole household. Michael Patrick Hearn's exhaustively researched and impossibly engaging The Annotated Christmas Carol, with illustrations by John Leech. Hearn is a legendary children's literature expert and enthusiastic who's also the go-to scholar on all things Oz. He's written on L. Frank Baum, as well as children's author Wanda Gag,  Victorian fairy tales, Native American stories, and more. He is, in short, the real deal. The novella is short, but you can spend hours reading the historical explanations, biographies and context in the careful annotations. 
Here, early in the book, the line in Chapter (“Stave”) Two, describing Scrooge's visit with Ghost of Christmas Past to the deserted boarding school of his childhood.
At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire, and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.
And here, the footnote:  This child was the boy Charles Dickens.  

It goes on to quote from biographies of CD, and offer the possible origins of this dramatic conceit, the Self confronting itself, as argued by other scholars. The psychic antecedent here is Charles Lamb's “New Year's Eve,” one of Dickens' favorite essays. If this is too much literary history and interpretation, well, it's just right for me! I was an English major, but not a very good one. I only vaguely recalled Lamb and his famous essay on mortality, offered through the voice of an alter ego. Happily, I'd been reintroduced to the totally wonderful narrative versions of Shakespeare's play which Lamb wrote with his kind of nutty sister Mary when I became a parent, having wanted to share the “what happened” part of them with the boy. Lamb was also one of the most celebrated essayists of his day, and that Dickens was a fan is unsurprising, and makes me feel both dumb and, now, a bit smarter. Helpfully, Hearn has done the work of making me a more engaged Caroler, offering this amazing excerpt from that essay to illustrate at least one clear influence on Dickens.
Elia looks back upon “'the other me” there, in the background, in tender love and pity, and regret – “From what have I fallen!” and suggests that “over the intervention of forty years, a man may have leave to love himself without the intervention of self-love.”

That so many playgoers arrive prepared to embrace such lessons, based on taut scenes of shame, alienation and yes, redemption seems remarkable. That they laugh at jokes offered at the expense of the business class, the wealthy, bankers, perhaps by extension the One Percent, also. That they don their “transformed” Ebenezer Scrooge bright-red scarves to celebrate and resist in symbolic physical catharsis speaks to the power of this play, and this production, anchored it turns out in so much “emotional truth,” I think they call it in theater, if not obvious politics.  Best of all, this scene above is about reading, about being a reader, and about appreciating that relationship to books!  Especially when you are watching it as drama built on the reading of a book that maybe you haven't read.
Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention the pure fun of it all, of reading the novella over, the 

annotated version, and seeing the play, with its perfectly wonderful and near-legendary moment of the now 71-year old lead Hal Landon, Jr. doing a somersault into his black top hat. The audience waits for it, and then goes wild. They need him to make it. They would get up there and do it themselves if they could. This hat trick is the manifestation of an entire community's delight at a feat now accomplished in so many multiples of experience as to confuse vicarious and what is personally experienced.  A good thing!  

The Annotated Christmas Carol, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, W.W. Norton, 266 pgs., (Out of print but available used)

South Coast Repertory's “A Christmas Carol” plays through December 24. 

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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