n Dickens the Dramatist, F. Dubrez Fawcett has listed some thirty-eight dramatic and film adaptations of the most popular novella in our language, A Christmas Carol, written in October and November of 1843. Since Fawcett compiled his list in 1952, we have been treated to Albert Finney's Scrooge in the seventies and George C. Scott's "mid-Atlantic" miser-turned-philanthropist in the eighties, and most recently Patrick StewartÍs highly Freudianized Carol, to say nothing of countless other, less significant productions involving such luminaries Henry Winkler (An American Christmas Carol). The story of the spiritual and social reclamation of a "covetous old sinner" has certainly stood the test of time in a way that the story of the indigent ticket-porter or delivery man who had a dire vision of a Malthusian future has not, although its plot-line may well be the origin of that for the celebrated film It's A Wonderful Life. The same lack of longevity applies to Dickens's other Christmas Books: The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848).
What we tend to forget is that Dickens did not intend A Christmas Carol as a maudlin litany of Yuletide niceties, but as a vehicle to stimulate the social consciousness of (to say nothing of simple compassion in) the complacent upper and middle classes with respect to the desperate need for social reforms in the Hungry Forties, whose wretched conditions are but weakly reflected in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1885), set just prior to the reform of the Corn Laws. Clearly there has been too much festive goodwill washed down by too many toasts of "God bless us, everyone" between 17 December 1843, when the first of these modest little scarlet-and-gold volumes now called "The Christmas Books" was published, and the present for a modern to approach A Christmas Carol as a complacent, middle-class Victorian would have done. Tiny Tim, old Marley, and the three spirits have done their worst for a dozen generations, and we are now totally insulated from the social realties to which Liberal-minded Dickens was responding.
Another way of recapturing something of the spirit in which Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol is to read its bitter-sweet sequel, The Chimes (1844), the writing of which, incidentally, impelled Dickens towards a second career as a professional reader after a brilliant "one-man show" that he and Forster staged at the latter's rooms at 58, Lincoln's Inn Fields during Dickens's flying visit to London from Genoa in the first week of December 1844. A fully-annotated and quite inexpensive version of The Chimes is to be had in the two-volume Christmas Books edited by Michael Slater and published by Penguin in paperback. Only the most resourceful scholar would be able to peruse the Mark Lemon and Gilbert A. A'Beckett adaptation based directly on Dickens's own proofs—the little melodrama was played during the Christmas season of 1844 and up to the end of January 1845 at London's Adelphi Theatre, and was later printed in Dicks' Standard Plays and Duncombe's. Here, at last, one sees what Dickens was driving at in A Christmas Carol: he sought to work a change of heart in his contemporaries and improve the lot of the working poor when the number of unfortunates was increasing rapidly and meager harvests, government inaction, and mass unemployment were starving them to death. The change of heart that occurs in the story, ironically, is experienced by a member of the working class rather than by an affluent bourgeois, as in the first Christmas Book.
The Chimes: The Novella and Its Dramatic Adaptation—The Influence of Melodrama and Pantomime
Sent Dickens's own proof-sheets (apparently Dickens changed the county of Will Fern's native village after his reading at Forster's), his friends Mark Lemon and G. A. A'Beckett were able to open their stage version of the recently-published novel on Wednesday, December 18, 1844, at the Adelphi (not on Tuesday, December 19, as the title-page of Dicks' Standard Plays version suggests), a week ahead of that indefatigible Bozzian pirate, Edward Stirling, at the Lyceum.
Like other dramatic adapters of the period, Stirling, Lemon, and A'Beckett in creating a Chimes for the stage were working within the conventions of pantomime, melodrama, and burletta. The initial dramatic adaptation appeared on the stage of the Adelphi, a minor house noted for a peculiar species of Gothic melodrama known as "The Adelphi Screamer" and the domestic, middle-class oriented melodramas of J. B. Buckstone (1802-1879). The play has entirely the feel of a period melodrama in terms of its sympathetic presentation of its humble characters, its humour and pathos. The plot in so far as it deals with the impending marriage of Meggy Veck and Richard may certainly be regarded as romantic, as is typical of early nineteenth-century melodrama, and involved a malevolent conspiracy (the persecution of Will Fern planned by Cute and Bowley); moreover, the issues of suicide, prostitution, and incendiarism are treated sensationally, so that the Adelphi audience would have experienced the appropriately melodramatic emotions of indignation at Bowley's hypocrisy (a character who in the context of melodrama should not be interpreted as well-meaning but ignorant), pity for the suffering Lilian and Meggy, and joy at the play's wedding dance, a conclusion which secures poetic justice for Trotty and the young couple, if not for the piece's pasteboard villains. The prostitute Lilian's "Magdalene-like death at Meg's feet" (Kurata 27) is at once socially realistic and melodramatically hyperbolic. Such stage directions as "A loud scream is heard behind" (IV. i., p. 16) and the musical accompaniment specified by script at key moments are wholly consistent with staging practices in the minor theatres prior to the Licensing Act.
As Michael R. Booth points out in "Public Taste, the Playwright and the Law," the nineteenth-century English melodrama of the domestic species and the novel shared a number of salient features:
sensation, spectacle, violence, true love, romantic fantasy, strong narrative, fine sentiment, rhetoric, courage, low comedy, domestic realism, home and family, eccentric characters, patriotic spirit and a happy ending. (35)
All that seems missing from The Chimes is an overt appeal to English patriotism; nevertheless, its realistic presentation of social ills, almost unprecedented in terms of contemporary literature, is wholly consistent with period melodrama, while its use of supernatural agency and spectacular effects is reminiscent of the pantomime.
The staging of the hastily composed play began with Charles Dickens's active collaboration, which involved his supplying the adapters with "proof-sheets of the story in advance of the actual date of its publication" (Morley 203), and thereby enabling it to open only two days after the book's publication, in time for the Christmas bill at the Adelphi. Since this was also one of the two Christian holiday seasons associated with pantomime (a form which, utilizing traditional fairy-tales, often employed spectacular effects and a supernatural machinery to resolve the plot), it is noteworthy that one of the fairy tale- like illustrations, John Leech's "Sir Joseph Bowley's" (p. 55), utilizes side curtains in the upper register to accentuate the theatricality of the two scenes enacted at Sir Joseph's London mansion in the second quarter:
The illustration is framed by curtains pulled back at each side, and the artist has taken the same freedom as a dramatist. We accept the passage of time between scenes in a play and the transformation of characters in a pantomime. (Solberg 104)
The pantomime in its emphasis of the culminating transformation of the principal character relied heavily for its effects on scene-changing apparatus, including a double system of flats and trap-doors. Leech's disposition of the characters and furnishings in both scenes in this seventh plate, moreover, suggests the shallow depth of a stage rather than a three-dimensional, realistic space.
The Chimes—The Novella and Its Dramatic Adaptation: The Script
For the opening of the written version (Penguin, p. 149-156) the adapters have effectively replaced with a prologue given by the "Spirit of the Chimes" and an initial scene involving Jabez, his "Tivoli Professors" (a street band of the type one suspects existed in Genoa rather than the East End of London), and the chaitable groceress Mrs. Chickenstalker (establishing immediately this character who will be so important in the dream vision and at the play's conclusion). We take up Dickens's own dialogue at the bottom of p. 3 (bottom of p. 156 in Penguin). The sequence involving Trotty's chaity towards Will Fern and Lilian—"I have had my dinner" (p. 162-3)—the collaborators have tightened up considerably (play, p. 5).
They nevertheless remain true to Dickens's words and plot throughout, with several exceptions. The first involves Lady Bowley's speech about Will Fern in Scene ii, which has dropped her song (p. 184 Penguin) and intimates that Will Fern "objects to the employment" (p. 8) of pinking and eye-holing. In the novella, Lady Bowley states that she had introduced this "nice evening employment" (p. 184) as something over and above the day-labour expected of the men in the village, and that Fern (something of a Chartist rebel in the novella) had objected: "I humbly ask your pardon, my lady, but an't I something different from a great girl?" (p. 184). In the novella he is not the mere shirker of employment that Lady Bowley's much-shortened speech in the play implies.
The narrated section (p. 186-7) which involves Toby's imagining the bells' ringing "Friends and Fathers" the dramatic adapters have replaced by a short soliloquy in the Christmas Pantomime tradition in which Trotty expresses his relief at having "got rid of that letter" (p. 9) which will "do" for that social misfit and rebel, Will Fern.
Meg does not reply to Toby's request that she listen to the bells a second time in either the play or the novel. The first time in the play, she describes the ringing of the be11 as "strange" (p. 11) as opposed to the story's "loud" (p. 196), a genuine improvement.
The Chimes as a Drama and "A Tract for the Times"
At Toby's second injunction in the play, she says nothing (the novel had described her appearance), clarifying the point at which Trotty enters his dream vision. Several points present real difficulties. First of all, why does Trotty produce the bacon and then exit to find it in Scene iv? And why in the first scene of Quarter IV have the playwrights changed the dying Richard into a mere dying "lodger," and reduced "like fighting cocks" of the novel into the far less effective singular (p. 16) of the play? A further point of confusion is the loud scream, quite different from the "lamentation" of the grieving wife in the novella. The melodramatic scream implies that the lodger is a stranger, the sight of whose corpse produces a horrific shock rather than a cry of grief.
Michael Slater in the Penguin introduction mentions that, in addition to the manuscripts to Forster, he wrote "frequent letters to his friend outlining the proposed development of the story" (p. 137). Between the third of November when he finished the writing and the story's publication of December 16 further changes must have been made. Perhaps in some early state of the novel, even that which he read to his circle upon his re turn from Italy, the dying man had merely been a lodger, and Dickens tightened up the story and heightened its pathos by having Meg thrown out of her flat on the very night of his death rather than some time afterward, as in the play.
The play's conclusion is considerably lightened by the elimination of the novel's last, sermonical line, Meg taking over the role of the narrator at the conclusion as is appropriate in pantomime for the female lead (especially since she speaks in dialect neither in the story nor in the play at any time). And yet, the whole mood of both novella and play strikes a modern reader as far darker — far more serious and far less witty—than that of A Christmas Carol.
If, as Michael Slater contends, The Chimes is a "tract for the times," A Christmas Carol is nonetheless in part a sociological commentary on the plight of the poor in The Hungry Forties. Let us not be deceived about Dickens's intentions in the first— and finest— Christmas Book. If we have our doubts, we should turn once again to Charles Dickens's condemnation of the Ignorance and Want produced by an unfeeling, "Malthusian" society (exemplified by the former, unrepentant Scrooge) and merely hidden by the pleasant trappings of Christmas Present. Let us not forget: on their brow society's doom is written.
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Last modified 7 December 2008