The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve visitors is not only a Christmas staple, but in many ways defined how we celebrate the holiday to this very day.
Our fascination with the timeless tale fuels Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol, the Lost & Found Theatre production now on stage in Kitchener.
While we’re all familiar with the story, this production takes a step back to look at its creation.
“The audience are surprised when the play opens – it’s not Scrooge, but Dickens himself who’s on stage,” explains producer Christy Ziss.
We’re first introduced to Dickens struggling with writer’s block. In his home on Christmas Eve, Dickens meets with his publisher, Mr. Hall, who’s demanding the author come up with something new instead of a disappointing current series – and he wants it by the following day, threatening to cut the writer’s salary. Drawing on the publisher’s crotchety demeanor, Dickens creates Scrooge and his overnight transformation, writing in a flurry.
The audience gets to see the ideas running through Dickens’ mind as he develops the story.
“There are characters literally swirling all around him,” she notes. “The audience is going along for that ride.”The story by writer Richard Quesnel takes some literary license in having the novella written overnight, in parallel with the timeline of Scrooge’s redemption, though Dickens did create it in short order, a six-week span leading up to Christmas in 1843.
The costumes, sets and Victoria Christmas carols all reflect that period, says director Terry Barna.
“There’s something about that little flashback in time that people really enjoy.”
The insight into Dickens’ inspirations – the story behind the story – has also made Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol a key offering from Lost & Found for three years now.
“People really seem to enjoy it because it shows Dickens in his life,” he explains. “It really takes a look at his home life, the relationship with his wife and the time in which he lived.”
Originally performed as a Christmas reading by the theatre group, Lost & Found’s play grew thanks to audience support and feedback.
“A lot of our shows started out as readings. We had many people telling us, ‘you need to do this as a full production.’”
In play-within-a-play mode, the audience sees both Dickens’ attempts to write the book and the story of A Christmas Carol itself.
As the story takes shape, we see the genesis of Ebenezer Scrooge and the events that unfold with Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley and those three fateful spirits of Christmas past, present and future.
That Dickens is drawing on real life is reflected by the same actors who interact with Dickens coming back as characters in A Christmas Carol, notes Ziss.
The horrid conditions of Scrooge’s London were no fiction: Dickens had but to look around to see the misery of the workhouses, debtors’ prisons, and the impact of ignorance and want. His own father had been sent to prison for his debts at one point, forcing a then 12-year-old Dickens out of school and into the 10-hour days of working in a factory.
Already established as a journalist and author by the time he wrote A Christmas Carol, he was known for his support of the poor and the need for reforms. All of his concerns, and prodigious writing talent, were brought to bear in the story. It was an immediate hit, selling 6,000 copies in a week, and going through several printings in short order.
A morality tale, the warm Christmas message was credited with much of what we think of as the quintessential Christmas spirit and trappings following a long period of puritanical sentiments in England. It’s a tradition that continues today, with the many incarnations of the story across film, television and stage.
It’s in that vein that the theatre company continues to expand its take on the tale.
“We’ve been trying to set it up as a Christmas tradition of our own,” says Barna.
The Lost & Found Theatre production of Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol runs through December 23, at the Conrad Centre for the Performing Arts, 36 King St. W., Kitchener. Tickets are $29 ($18 for students), available by calling 519-896-2253 or through the website at www.lostandfoundtheatre.ca.