BRATTLEBORO—Although A Christmas Carol might seem an old chestnut roasting on an open fire, Charles Dickens’ iconic holiday novel could hardly be more popular in 2011 — or, according to Peter Gould, more timely.
Several new productions are opening this month in Windham County, including a traditional new production by Gould at New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro, as well as the saucy sendup, Totally Scrooged!, by comic actor Pickles Reese at Town Hall Auditorium in Grafton.
Gould notes that many versions of A Christmas Carol get performed this time of year all over the world. The piece has been remarkably popular.
Immediately after the novella was written in 1846, it caught the public imagination as few literary works ever do. By the end of the the first year of its publication, more than a dozen productions were staged in London alone.
“You could say that right away Carol became ‘viral,’” Gould observes.
A week or so after the original appeared in print, he said, many illegal editions started appearing, undercutting Dickens’ official version and selling for as little as six pence a copy.
Dickens was ambivalent about this kind of success since he needed the royalties from authorized sales of his work for household expenses.
But Gould claims that when Dickens confronted the pirates, they retorted with a strangely coherent logic: “You wanted it out there, gov,’ didn’t you?”
Dickens could not object because A Christmas Carol is a holiday story with a message.
Gould finds the work strikingly timely for what is going on in the world today, seeing A Christmas Carol as a fine vehicle with which to dramatize the issues behind Occupy Wall Street.
Gould says when just 1 percent of population controls the majority of the wealth of our country, at the expense of the other 99 percent of America, something is terribly out of line.
In all his works, Dickens wanted to awaken the upper class to the social injustice of the unequal distribution of wealth, and that message came across most successfully in A Christmas Carol.
Historically, stage, film, and television adaptations have varied enormously. And certainly there’s a huge variance between NEYT’s production and Totally Scrooged!
Pickles Reese (the stage alter-ego of Grafton blacksmith Adam Howard) has garnered rave reviews around the country for his comedic interpretation of the holiday classic.
“I have added a lot of humor, but this is not a mockery of Scrooge,” Howard said in a 2004 interview with The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. “I play all the characters with a minimum of props. I ask the audience to help me by using their imagination. I also go into the audience and make the show interactive.”
Blacksmithing and comedy might not seem to go together, but Howard said that since he has performed for years for visitors to the various forges where he worked, there is a natural relationship.
Howard has been performing Totally Scrooged! for about 10 years. He has also performed it as a benefit show, as is the case this year, when it will raise money for Grafton Cares and Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA).
By the book
In contrast, Gould has opted for a rigorously traditional version of A Christmas Carol.
“I could have gone to Drama Book Shop in New York City and picked up one of the numerous versions of the work written, but I was concerned with honoring Dickens’ original intent as much as possible,” Gould said.
He spent over 70 hours to hone the novella into a two-hour play with 34-member cast, which ranges in age from 8 to 21.
“This is not a loose adaptation like A Muppet Christmas Carol,” says Gould. “This script is coming straight from Dickens’ Victorian text — narration, dialogue, and movement.”
He claims his adaptation of the classic Dickensian tale is many things: beautiful, tender, scary, and life-changing — as this story was always meant to be.
“I felt a huge responsibility trying to get it right,” he says. “I did immense research to get every word accurate, and to express the story accurately.”
He believes the outcome of his diligent work is also “exciting and freshly imagined.”
“It is a story about the disparity of rich and poor, a story of selfishness and generosity,” Gould says. “ The thesis of his book is summarized by the ghost of Jacob Marley: ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business.The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’”
Gould believes that lessons that perhaps were once learned are being forgotten again today.
“The difference between executive and workers’ pay from the 1940s and today is huge and is being underscored by the power structure keeping people entertained and scared,” he said.
Dickens’ intent in his writing was to wake people to selfishness and greed.
“My hope is that after seeing this play, people will be infused with the spirit of Christmas and charity,” says an enthusiastic Gould.
But don’t mistake it: this is no dreary message-driven drama. Gould’s production will be filled with music, dance, and tricks.
“Expect plenty of magic in this production, from Marley’s head popping out of the door-knocker, to a 10-foot-tall ghost, and Scrooge appearing in two places at once,” he says.
It will be the kind of show that Victorian showman Charles Dickens might well have approved.