A Christmas Carol: Scrooge for Today

A new adaptation of Dickens’ festive classic, A Christmas Carol, is bound for the stage, as part of the RSC’s 2017 winter programme.

Ahead of the show’s Stratford debut, the show’s writer David Edgar muses on the origins, currency and message of this timeless tale.

"Sometime in the autumn of 1979, I received a phone-call from Trevor Nunn, the then artistic director of the RSC. He explained that the company wanted to do a version of a Dickens novel, and asked if I would be interested in adapting it. As my brain rushed chaotically through what I remembered of the Dickens canon, he explained that the choice was already down to two: the dark and majestic late novel Our Mutual Friend and the earlier picaresque jollity Nicholas Nickleby. Instructing me to think about it, Trevor said he’d ring back in a couple of days.

"Immediately I consulted my wife. The extent of my Dickensian scholarship can be judged from the fact that my first question was ‘Is Nicholas Nickleby the one with Mrs Gamp in it?’ (It isn’t). Her advice was to do it if it was Our Mutual Friend but not if it was Nickleby.

"But by the time Trevor called back, the die had been cast. He and fellow director John Caird (the team that was to direct Les Misérables) had decided on the early novel. I decided – sensibly, on this occasion – not to follow my wife’s advice, and sat down to read.

"Following Nickleby’s now legendary success on both sides of the Atlantic, I decided to quit while I was winning, and resolved never to adapt another Dickens (although I did do a Jekyll & Hyde for the RSC in the early 1990s). Three years ago, the company asked if I might be persuaded to reconsider that decision. To both the RSC’s and my surprise, I found myself saying yes.

"Why? A Christmas Carol poses a particular problem for the adaptor. Unlike Nickleby (but like Jekyll & Hyde) the novel has been adapted dozens if not hundreds of times, and most people know it through the plays and the movies. But, actually, the constant reinvention of the story is one of its fascinations.

"Originally, in fact, it was to be a political tract. In early 1843, Dickens had read an excoriating parliamentary report on the condition of child labourers in Britain’s mines and factories, and determined to produce a Christmas pamphlet titled ‘An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child’. In October, he decided to make the same appeal through fiction. By the end of November, he’d written A Christmas Carol.

"Starting out as a demand for social reform in a blisteringly miserable and angry decade (the Hungry Forties saw the nearest thing to a general strike before 1926), the story was later to veer from a Christian allegory (Scrooge as a pilgrim, the Cratchits as the Holy Family) via a children’s fable to a post-Freudian case-study. In post-war Britain, Scrooge was portrayed as an asset-stripper and (in his converted form) a kind of hippy; in Reaganite America, adaptors asked whether there was anything wrong with Scrooge’s perfectly sound business model at all.

"As with Shakespeare, the greatness of A Christmas Carol lies in its capacity for reinterpretation. The fact that it’s at least three stories (one for each ghost) allows the contemporary adaptor to look at Scrooge’s life – as he does – as a confrontation with past abandonment, present injustice and the possibility of future change. And there is of course a fourth life in A Christmas Carol. Dickens too was suppressing the secret pain of his own childhood. As he wrote the story, he was supporting a huge and growing family, not all of them (he sometimes felt) entirely worthy of his largesse. And in order to do so, he was in considerable debt. He was thus both vulnerable and attuned to Scrooge’s arguments for people standing on their own two feet.

"The success of Nicholas Nickleby was partially attributable to its time. A year into Margaret Thatcher’s government, as unemployment rocketed and swathes of industrial Britain collapsed, people wanted to hear that there was more to life than money.

"As a call for social justice, A Christmas Carol is perhaps similarly topical today. Around the time I agreed to adapt it, a leading cabinet minister assured the nation that financial independence is the only pathway to dignity and self-respect – and, thus, that acceptance of a helping hand when you need it is a pathway to indignity and shame. Ebenezer Scrooge: alive and well."

A Christmas Carol plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon from 27 November 2017 - 4 February 2018, starring Phil Davis as Ebenezer Scrooge. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for booking and further details.