A Christmas Carol - a stage play in
written by Charles Dickens and adapted & scored by
NOTE: My adaptation and pre-recorded musical score
CD are available for groups to perform. I also offer a
which can be produced on stage. If your theatre troupe lacks costumes or sets,
the radio version is very economical to produce and is a proven hit with
audiences from Egypt, to Italy, to Poland, to Ireland, to the UK and America.
I also offer a short version intended for family or staged-reading
productions--not at theaters. See
Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as
family/staged-reading version for info.
Visit Christmas Carol
stage play webpage
for info on performance rights and a free, downloadable "Christmas Carol"
script--in PDF format--including several scenes and a truncated version of the
for more information.
My adaptation of A Christmas Carol
restores this oft-told tale to its source in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel. In
the 160-odd years since this story appeared, it has been bowdlerized and cut
to fit the conventions of the day--resulting in widespread mis-perceptions
and simplifications of its true meaning. Most people are only familiar with
second-hand retellings and any accusations of triteness and cliché against
this story are most likely attributable to poor adaptations.
With this in mind, I've endeavored to
create a version that is both faithful and fresh. The dialogue is
nearly verbatim from Dickens' text, however the emphasis and psychological
shadings are my own as I sought to reinforce Dickens' original message. I
originally adapted this "Ghost Story of Christmas" for the medium of radio
drama--where the audience's imagination provides an unlimited special
effects budget. The script proved so popular that I have created a
stage-play version, complete with lighting cues, set descriptions and stage
direction. The stage version retains the orchestral musical score I created
for the radio adaptation and features an optional CD of pre-recorded sound
effects. The following notes pertain to the story and how to approach
presenting the drama.
Charles Dickens's major literary themes
were memory and forgiveness. He believed that through experiencing the joy
and sorrow of memory, one could learn to live properly in this world.
Accordingly, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption is carried out by
memory, example, and fear.
Scrooge has often been mistakenly
presented as an evil man with no redeeming characteristics who suddenly gets
converted--overnight! That perception has been fostered in many of the film
and animated versions produced over the years and often results in a rather
boring fable for children. However, this instant redemption--what critics
call “the Scrooge problem,” can be overcome. There must be motivation for
Scrooge's miserly behavior and he must be permitted to change little by
little, so the final conversion isn't totally unbelievable. The elements of
a convincing transformation are in Dickens' book, but hardly anywhere else.
It boils down to understanding the character of Scrooge.
First, Ebenezer Scrooge isn't just
evil--that’s one-dimensional. He's got a tough shell on the outside to
protect his squishy soft interior. He holds terrible, anti-social attitudes,
but has them for a reason. His character is based upon Charles Dickens’
regrets for his own personal behavior--in not being kind enough to his
fellow man, in not being charitable enough to unfortunates. In fact,
Scrooge's history is modeled upon Dickens’ early life. And there’s a little
Scrooge in all our natures.
Memory: Scrooge's Tortured Past
Through the Ghost of Christmas Past, we
learn that Scrooge was raised in the country, where they observed an
old-fashioned Christmas. He was sent away to a dismal boarding school and (like
Dickens) was left there over several Christmases by a remote and cruel father.
The schoolboy Scrooge sought escape in books---fantasies that protected him from
the cruel world--and took him out of it. He loved his sister, the angelic Fan,
who later died giving birth to Fred--which explains Scrooge's resentment for
his good-natured nephew.
The young Scrooge was taken out of school
and put to work in a warehouse run by the jolly Mr. Fezziwig--who serves as one
of several models for Scrooge's re-education. In the world of business,
Scrooge/Dickens sought financial success as a way to fortify himself from the
harsh realities of loneliness and a rapidly industrializing Britain.
Unfortunately, Scrooge's wish to make himself invulnerable also shut him off
from humanity--which is why his fiancée, Belle, breaks their engagement. This
further isolates him until he is entirely alone, “as secret and solitary as an
oyster.” His partnership with the similarly cold-blooded Jacob Marley
reinforces Scrooge's miserly ways.
However, despite the warped personality,
Scrooge retains a keen intelligence--he is a successful businessman--and has a
biting sense of humor. He doesn't see himself as evil--he’s just being
"practical." Here he personifies modernism and Puritanism--ideas firmly in place
when Dickens wrote the story. (Please note that British Puritans discouraged “pagan” Christmas
celebrations and had largely succeeded in eliminating the holiday as a feast of
any kind by 1800. Their social engineering of the workhouses separated families
and produced thousands of “orphans” when the parents were still alive. Dickens
sought to change society.)
Scrooge's Saving Grace
Humor is the key to my interpretation of Scrooge--not
jolly, but snide humor. I've left Dickens’ dialogue alone,
but I freshen it up by having Scrooge deliver it as biting
sarcastic jokes to show his sense of superiority and utter
disdain for the fools of the world. Think of him as a nasty,
wise-cracking cable TV pundit--smart, but twisted.
He's a self-made man who can’t see "making idle people
There's a hidden laugh behind his most famous lines. He's
thinks he's being clever when he asks the charity
seekers, “Are there no prisons?” He thinks he's being
funny describing how idiots should be “boiled with
their Christmas pudding and buried with a stake of holly
through their heart!” In my view, Scrooge doesn't believe
this in a literal sense. He's making mean-spirited
jokes--chortling to himself. I even have him laugh as he
delivers these outrageous pronouncements. Here, Scrooge is
being provocative and very entertaining--to himself. He's in
his own world. It's the self-satisfied smugness of somebody
who has it made. He's laughing all the way to the bank.
Scrooge's ill-humor is a way to leaven his
misanthropy--otherwise he comes off as a monster--someone
beyond hope. However, that's just the way many adaptations
portray Scrooge--as evil incarnate. The trouble is, the
harder you make Scrooge appear, the more unconvincing his
eventual conversion becomes--the "Scrooge Problem".
The "Wicked Scrooge" approach ignores Dickens'
themes of memory and forgiveness. Scrooge knows the
difference between right and wrong, but feels contempt for
those that don't share his values of thrift and
practicality--so he lampoons the "losers" with self
congratulating put-downs. Think of Scrooge as a smarty-pants
who finds himself endlessly clever. In my view, if Scrooge
has a sense of humor, then he is human--and therefore, has a
possibility of redemption. The various ghosts wipe the smirk
off his face and through hocus-pocus psychoanalysis and
example, pave the way for his eventual salvation.
Example: How to Keep Christmas
On the example side, I make sure to show how
Scrooge should “keep Christmas” by vividly depicting the celebrations at
Fezziwig’s, the Cratchit home and Fred's party. When Dickens wrote the story,
the Christmas holiday was celebrated the way Easter is today--you go to church
and there are a few gifts for children. Dickens converted the 12 day Yuletide
feasts (largely of pagan origin) which had been held in large country manors,
into smaller scale celebrations that could be held at work, home and among
friends. The feasts, children's games and punch were popularized by the story
and revolutionized the holiday. If you view Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present
as a variant/prototype of a pagan Father Christmas/Santa Claus, nearly
everything about our modern Christmas comes from Dickens's tale--a fact I
highlight in the announcer's introduction.
Fear: The Ghost Story of Christmas
Fear is the final motivator for
Scrooge's conversion. Once softened up emotionally by the first two ghosts,
he now reviles the callousness and materialism of the businessmen and the
rag and bone shop grotesques. The dead body and Tiny Tim’s passing move him
to compassion, leading him and the Sprit to the graveyard scene, which is
the most difficult in the story.
Most adaptations of the "Carol" fail
right here. They show Scrooge quaking in fear and then, somehow, he is
saved. Several versions even have him fall into the grave, but at his own
tombstone, Scrooge wouldn't just be afraid of dying. After all, everybody
dies. The crypt alone isn't enough motivation for the miser to change his
ways. He is saddened by the death of Tiny Tim, but must also undergo his own
demise to be re-born.
To finish him off, Scrooge must be
reminded that he's headed for Marley’s fate--eternal damnation! So, I
bring back the rattling chains and hundreds of phantoms from Marley’s
visit. Now, that could scare him into being a nice guy--and gets us
over the final hurdle of the implausible “Scrooge problem.”
Scrooge repents, of course, but is only
saved when he says, "I'll change! I'll change... I pray! I beg you."
It's the word "pray" that turns things around and this submission to God is
a fitting Victorian Christian touch. With it, the phantoms vanish and
Scrooge is saved.
Why a "Ghost Story of Christmas" anyway?
It was an English custom to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve--stemming
from the old Yule celebrations of Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice, and
Dickens wrote several other supernatural Christmas tales. My adaptation
seeks to play up the ghostly aspects of the story--but in the context of
19th century Christian beliefs. Marley’s Ghost is truly scary, as are the
hundreds of phantoms.
Likewise, to increase Scrooge's fear, I
use thunder and wind sounds to add real menace to the graveyard scene. To
get a ghostly flavor where necessary, I use a slight reverb for the
spirits--and also for Scrooge, when he accompanies them. I employ the reverb
to depict the spiritual realm as distant, yet nearby. And Scrooge segues
from the graveyard to his bedroom by the reverb becoming drier and drier--a
nice radio touch that can also be used in stage productions—via a wireless
mic on the actor and an electronic reverb effects device. Afterward, the
cacophony of church bells announce both Christ's birth and Scrooge's
The last area I stress in my adaptation, is
Dickens’ beloved soap box preaching about the children, “Ignorance and Want”--a
scene missing from many versions. Charles Dickens was a liberal social
reformer--he’d been poor himself and knew firsthand the horrors of life in the
workhouses, the factories, and the streets.
In most adaptations, this social message
gets deleted in favor of more sentimental scenes--some actually turning Tiny Tim
into the star, but it is charity that is central to Dickens’
Christmas--Goodwill towards men; Charity despite the harsh weather and economic
pressures. Dickens takes the metaphor of Christ's offer of heavenly redemption
and literally brings it down to Earth. His Christmas is a utopia and Scrooge's
journey there is Dickens' model for us all. Without this plea for charity to the
less fortunate, the story becomes too materialistic as a paean to feasts and
games--hardly what Dickens, the moralist, intended.
What Christmas Is All About
Some object to Dickens’ Carol for
its lack of references to religion, but they fail to see Tiny Tim as a metaphor
for Christ--Tim’s crutch is his cross; his death redeems Scrooge; his creed is
“God bless us, every one”; Marley’s ghost and the chained phantoms are damned
souls to whom Christ is unknown; Scrooge is a "wise man" who travels far before
bestowing his gifts; Scrooge’s death and resurrection, etc. Charles Dickens was
too much an artist of symbol and myth to tell his story any more directly than
he did. Those who can’t see Christ in this Christmas story, have perhaps a bit
too much fundamentalism clouding their eyes. This subtext informs us as we
produce the play. Paradoxically, with the religious themes being only in
the subtext, the play can be presented in government-subsidized theaters and
schools without being seen as overtly advocating an exclusively Christian
message. Charity and goodwill are after all, prized by the secular and
non-secular alike. The “Carol’s” message is truly universal.
In scoring A Christmas Carol,
other than my own ghost and suspense music, I adapted real Victorian carols
throughout. I tried to use less well-known carols, to avoid cliché or
sentimentality, without sacrificing the authentic characteristics that
period music could lend to the drama. I employed the carols to reinforce
emotional and structural connections in the story.
For example; Belle's theme ("The
Coventry Carol") is played by a music box--a gift from Scrooge--that
winds down as their relationship crumbles. "In The Bleak Mid-Winter"
plays under Scrooge's visit to his boyhood and his good-hearted sister, Fan.
This theme returns after Scrooge's redemption, played by a heavenly harp at
the party where he is welcomed back into the family by Fred, Fan's son.
In drama, action and sound effects are
motion and music is emotion, and Christmas music has a powerful effect on
audiences, evoking both fond memories and reverence. I can't understand why
other composers have not used this approach in scoring this story--it being
so naturally obvious and highly effective.
In my pre-recorded musical score, the instrumentation is strictly Victorian: brass
choir, pipe and reed organs, hand bells, church bells,
chimes, cymbals, timpani, fiddle, concertina, music-box,
wine glasses (glass harmonica), choirs and strings. I think
this musical underscore adds greatly to the production.
While there is the singing of the boy
carolers, the music here is mostly used for dramatic underscoring and scenic
transitions. This is not a Broadway musical with a singing Scrooge. Troupes
looking for such a version will not find one here. For them, I suggest
seeking out the DVD of the fine 1962 animated Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol—with music
by Broadway great, Jules Stein—and performing those songs where they fit
into my adaptation.
Bells are central to this story and I
use plenty of them in the score and as sound effects. The bells serve as
punctuation and as a metaphorical "wake up call" to Scrooge--who lost a
fiancée named “Belle.” The program's sound effects begin with jingling bells
and the tiny bell on Scrooge's office door, and work their way through
clocks, wind chimes, death-bells, and finally, to a cacophony of church
bells when Scrooge is saved.
Sounds such as doors and dinner dishes,
toasts and Marley’s chains will be produced by the actors on stage. Other
sounds such as wind, thunder, clock chimes, Marley’s off-stage bashing,
cymbal flourishes for scene transitions and the otherworldly screech of the
third Spirit can be rendered by a live off-stage sound effects team or
triggered from a CD of pre-recorded SFX. I offer a professional sound design
tracks for $25—which can be downloaded as MP3 files. See
the ENG pages in the
truncated sample script PDF for more information.
There are a number metaphors I use in my
interpretation of this material. First, I seek to convey an edge-of-the-seat
quality by urging a vigorous delivery and slightly fast tempo. Christmas
celebrates the pending birth of a child and always carries anticipation and
mystery, as does the unwrapping of a Christmas gift, and so too, the best
ghost stories. With that in mind, there is surprise everywhere and I
endeavor to keep the audience always guessing “what’s next,” even though
this material is familiar. I stress mystery being revealed repeatedly--in
Scrooge’s comic toying with the charity seekers, Marley’s arrival, the
hiding of Martha Cratchit, Fred’s “twenty questions” game, the contents of
the charwoman’s bundle, the shrouded body on the bed, and the otherworldly
“voice” of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.
The second metaphor I pursue is the
contrast of delight amidst awfulness--the laughing crowds despite the
privations of winter’s cold wind and crunchy snow; the boy carolers being
interrupted mid-song by the angry Scrooge; the abrupt change from Fezziwig’s
gay fiddle-driven party to Belle’s sadly winding down music box, etc.
There’s a defiant mysticism about celebrating life on one of the shortest
days of the year. The idea that hope can spring from such bleak surroundings
is at the heart of Christmas--and Dickens’ fable.
Lastly, I seek a gusto from the many
grotesques in the story, starting with the unreformed Scrooge. He relishes
his misanthropy. He’s not suffering in the counting house. He loves it
there. He enjoys punning with Fred and the charity seekers. He even jokes
with Marley’s ghost--for a while. The chained Phantoms inspire compassion in
Scrooge, while the Spirits teach him the sad fate of all those other
exuberant ogres. Scrooge’s loony joy at the end seems that much higher for
all the fright and suffering that preceded it.
I hope to encourage cast and crew to
dive headlong into their roles and leave behind all the gloomy and
moralistic “Carols” they have seen before. This is a miraculous birth, not a
fatalistic funeral. Let’s laugh good and hearty! Just like Scrooge!
The only other advice I could give regarding
producing the program would be to read Charles Dickens’ original story to
refresh your memory as to what is really going on. It would also be very helpful
to view the video of the excellent 1951 film version starring Alastair Sim. It
goes under the title of either A Christmas Carol or Scrooge and is
available in original black & white or in a colorized version.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a great story for all
ages and should be an enjoyable production. It will teach people things they
didn't know about Christmas and Scrooge and themselves. And its fantasy elements
are perfectly suited to the magic of radio and the contemporary stage. To those
who seek to produce this wonderful story, I can only echo Tiny Tim's credo, "God
Bless you, every one!"
Here's a link to a free, 4-1/2 minute MP3 clip from my radio drama adaptation of Dickens' "Carol":
Scrooge and Marley.mp3 (2.1 MB) It can give you an idea of what your
production will be.