It is the 180th anniversary of the publication of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the 30th for Gerald Dickens’ one-man stage adaptation, and the 15th for bringing it to Nashua, New Hampshire as a guest of Fortin Gage Flowers and Gifts. The great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens spoke with us about the endurance of the Christmas classic, his own history with his famous ancestor, and what’s so great about Muppets.
You’ve been doing your own adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’ for thirty years now. How has it changed over that time, if at all?
The original adaptation I started with was based on the version that Charles Dickens himself did when he went in reading to us in the 1860s. That was my starting point back in 1993. It has evolved and I’ve changed it. I’ve put some passages in, and take some passages out over the years, but I don’t tend to sit down before each year’s tour and revisit it particularly. The original show came out of improv, really, in that I’d been doing it as a reading for a number of years, and then one performance, I discovered I’d left the book somewhere. So I suddenly had to do it. And I realized at that point that I knew it from memory, which was amazing and very fortunate for me because I probably wouldn’t have ever come to that decision. But being forced into it, I discovered that that the language had had such an effect on me that I understood how it worked, and where it led to and what the next passage was, and how all of the emotions and atmospheric changes.
How do you how do you decide what stays and what goes?
With a story like this, you’re kind of channeling the audience’s own knowledge of it, so that certain extent they fill in the gaps because they are so familiar with A Christmas Carol. They’ve seen it in movies or on TV or they’ve read it so many times, that the whole story is in there. I can’t tell the whole text, but I use stage or the props to capture the essence of a passage that isn’t there. I capture the poses from all of the original illustrations in the book. That’s really important to me because Dickens was very, very precise about how the illustrations appeared in the book. So I try and capture each of the poses from the original illustrations in 1843. Does anybody know that or notice that? I have no idea. But it makes me feel good.
What about A Christmas Carol lends it so well to being a one-man show?
Well, I think the first thing about that is that A Christmas Carol can work in any format because the story is so strong. So it can dance numbers and music and full orchestra. It can be a one man show or an audio piece. It can be an animation. It always works. The one man version isn’t the most pure, but I think it works very nicely as a one man show because the text is very conversational. Dickens, as a narrator in the book, will suddenly break away from the action and talk to the reader in little asides, almost saying, “You know, I’m not quite sure what happened. Let’s get back to it.” And that’s a really lovely little touch when you’re reading. So by being one man, you can tap into Dickens, the novelist chatting to his his readers, as he does in the book. And it’s very much performed in that way. It’s very much a communication between performer and actor, so by the end of the performance, everybody’s involved in it. We’re all part of it because that’s how the story is.
Is there any difference between playing it to an American audience and playing it to an audience in the UK?
An American audience will come to the theater with the full intention of enjoying themselves to the maximum. As soon as you walk in, you start the opening beats and the first little aside and the first laugh comes, and that’s great. An English audience tends to be much more reserved and they’ll come in and say “we paid our money, now come on”. And then little by little, it will break down. By the time we get to the end, the audience is all the same.
A Christmas Carol in America is so big, it’s such a part of the Christmas celebration, much bigger than it is in England. Every city you visit, there will be a production of A Christmas Carol somewhere. Every TV sitcom or drama will have a Christmas Carol themed special somewhere along the line. And just look at the commercials on the TV: Scrooge riding a Peloton bike or whatever. In America it’s so tightly woven into the Christmas celebration that everybody just wants to soak it up and enjoy it.
I wonder if that has something to do with the Christmas theater traditions in the UK and having pantos versus here, we just have A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker.
When I first came over here, I used to really resent The Nutcracker. I sort of saw that as the big competitor. And you’re right that the British have a lot of pantomime throughout the entire Christmas season, though A Christmas Carol is is is breaking back. It’s been increasing, I think. But, yes, those two, A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker have been the theatrical fare [in the US].
Do you have a favorite character to play?
From a purely rational, practical point of view, the answer has to be Scrooge, because he’s really the only character in the show that undergoes a process of change. And that process of change is so important to get right. I’ve seen productions of A Christmas Carol where Scrooge, in the opening scene, is bad tempered and he’s shouting at everybody, and then the ghost comes along and he shouts at everybody. And then the second ghost enters, and [Scrooge] shouts at everybody. And then the third ghost comes along and [Scrooge] is terrified seeing his own grave, and suddenly he changes. In that sense, the story doesn’t work.
As soon as he goes with the Ghost of Christmas Past, the very first thing he sees is a vision of his old school. And he sees himself lonely, abandoned, and all the other children have gone home. He’s at school on his own, sitting by a fire reading. And as he’s looking at this vision of himself, he says, “poor boy”. Initially it is a memory of how he suffered, but then he repeats it: he says, “poor boy” again, and that is remembering the little carol singer who came to his door earlier that evening and who he sent packing. So his first thought is, I should have done something and I should have given him something and I didn’t. And it’s too late. And that’s when the process of change begins. Little by little, everything he sees just chips away at him. By the time the second ghost comes, the first thing [Scrooge] says to him is, “I went forth last night and I learned a lesson that is working. So if you have anything to teach me, please tell me now”. He wants to change. He wants to continue this process. So that’s a really fun thing, is just getting every one of those little points to the story and making it work, so the ultimate reveal on Christmas morning is genuine.
Was Dickens a big part of your family culture? Did you have any sort of resentment of it, or was it always something you embraced?
My dad was a massive Dickens fan and scholar and was always doing research and was writing papers and giving speeches and submitting articles for magazines and that sort of thing. So the house was full of Dickens books everywhere, and, you know, he couldn’t help himself. He was always quoting Dickens. I don’t think he did it intentionally, but it just came out. You couldn’t have a Christmas lunch without the whole of the Cratchits’ Christmas being quoted. So, yes, we were surrounded by it, but it was never forced upon us. He never did that. And what he did was always encouraged us to do whatever we wanted to do as well as we could. With me, that was theater, but there was a sort of mantra he would always say with a bit of a twinkle in his eye that I would get Dickens one day and he was absolutely right.
When I was in my teens, we had to study Oliver Twist for an examination paper one year. And and that’s when the resentment kicked in. It’s this 900 page novel, it’s incredibly long and dull and it had lots of language that would not be understood. And all my classmates sort of looked at me with absolute hatred for inflicting it on them. So it was during those years when there was a bit of resentment to it. But then I discovered him through theater. I discovered how theatrical Dickens was, and I’d seen a production of Nicholas Nickleby in London, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s amazing eight hour epic, and it all just suddenly made sense. I got it because it was pure theater, and that’s that. That’s when it really started to have an effect on me.
Is there a Dickens short story or book that you would have really liked to do on stage but doesn’t really lend itself well to to theater?
I think probably they all lend themselves to be adapted if you want to take the time to sit down and really work out how to to dramatize it. Actually one of the favorite pieces I perform is a piece called Dr. Marigold, which nobody’s ever heard of. It’s a short story he wrote in 1864, and he published it in his magazine, but I think he wrote it for his reading engagements. It was a great piece, because it translated superbly to stage and is beautiful to perform. And it’s even more beautiful because nobody’s ever heard of it, so nobody knows where the plot’s going or what’s going to happen.
Going back to the Christmas Carol, how do you keep it fresh after 30 years for for yourself as an actor?
I just love the story. Every time I do it, it’s exciting. Every single time I do it. I do try different things every year, which keeps that pressure to a certain extent. I feel myself completely fortunate to be allowed to live it twice a day, every day throughout the Christmas season. It still excites me. It can still make me cry.
I read it every year, and I tend to cry every year. Especially if I pair it with the Muppet version.
You know, one of the questions I’m asked more than anything is what is your favorite movie version? The defining one is always the Muppet version. It’s such an accurate telling of the story. It’s incredible because you’ve got the two narrators. It’s Gonzo and there’s a rat, and because you’ve got the two narrators, you are getting whole chunks of Dickens narrative. None of the other versions do. The others use all the dialog. But [the Muppets] have the narrative, and they take it directly from Dickens. It’s a really good telling of the story. I love it.
It feels very much in the spirit of the narrative, doesn’t it? The song [Scrooge’s ex-fiancé Belle] sings that the older Scrooge sings along to is such a beautiful sort of short-hand that evokes the same feeling as the “poor boy” line you mentioned earlier.
That particular scene is a very important part in my adaptation as well. And capturing that moment where he suddenly realizes that he’s lost her and can’t do anything about that is another one of those points that that is really important to nail as part of the process of change.
Dickens famously created sketches of people he came across in his life. Do any of his characters strike you as the sketch he might have made of you?
I don’t know. I’ve never thought of it to a great extent. You look at everybody else around you and you see all these great Dickens caricatures and you think, gosh, he understood people. He captured them all. But when you look at yourself, it’s kind of someone very sensible and very clever and very nice and charming.
I know a lot of Micawbers.
Yes, there’s a bit of Micawber in every artist. “Something will turn up!”
You can find out where Gerald Dickens is performing A Christmas Carol and other works by going to geralddickens.com.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.