Friday, December 23, 2005

Stave I: Secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster

"But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call 'nuts' to Scrooge."

Idyllopus has a fun post up.---There's a tautology. Does she post any other kind?---Inspired by her niece's casting in a production of A Christmas Carol, she sings the praises of her favorite movie Scrooge, Albert Finney, who played a singing and dancing Scrooge in the musical Scrooge. She writes:

Some find Albert Finney’s gnarled Scrooge obnoxious and hate the fact it’s a musical, and I could do without some of the lispy singing of cute kids, but Finney does a pretty good job of making believable Scrooge’s reformation in one night. Alastair Sim, in the 1951 film, is too eager to be out of his box, too ready, and can leap too high. The dissolution of Finney’s misanthropy is slightly more complex and is less through his being challenged morally, than being reminded of how he can still feel, that the capacity for joy is still there, which he can only experience after wading the grief of the past. The film doesn’t do a good job with explaining how Scrooge goes from a dancing young man in love to an isolated miser (I read the book to H.o.p. a couple of years ago and can’t recollect how it fares on making this believable) but never mind. The Spirit of Christmas Present sits on Scrooge and tricks him into participating for a change and seems Scrooge is ready to be tricked. He is less inspired by fear than he is released from gray cynicism. And fear.

Idyllopus's post reminded me that back in September the Viscount LaCarte, inspired by nothing so warm and touching as a young relative's early foray into a life in the theatre, but by Dick Cheney's Scroogish performance during a visit to Katrina-devastated New Orleans, wrote about his favorite movie Scrooge, George C. Scott. Sez the Viscount:

Over the years, the Alistair Sim Scrooge has been celebrated as the standard by which all others are judged, but I do not share that opinion. I think Scott’s Scrooge is by far the best, because he is gleefully mean. He is his own audience, and he is greatly amused by his miserliness and his callous indifference to suffering.

The classic scene is when he is approached by businessmen for a contribution to charity. He welcomes this opportunity to express his disdain for the poor. He appears to live for moments such as these. When he first encounters them, they say something like, “Mr. Scrooge, I don’t believe you’ve made our acquaintance” and he mutters with a wry grin, “Nor do I wish to.” They then go on to explain to him about the suffering children, the whole exchange about “Are there no prisons? No work farms?” The defining moment though, is when they tell him that conditions are so bad that some would rather die, and he says, (paraphrased from memory) “Well, if they’d rather die then let them die. It will reduce the surplus (laughing!) population.” There is the difference. Alistair Sim delivers those lines in anger, but Scott delivers them with glee, reveling in the fact that he is so clever in his meanness. He is proud of being such a scoundrel. He loves being a miser.

Me, I love both Sims' and Scott's Scrooges, each has different virtues. I have a soft spot for Finney, but I think Mr Magoo's is the better musical version, and I'm not kidding.

So rather than write about my favorite Scrooge, I'm going to write about my least favorite. (No, not Cheney.) It's not a movie Scrooge, but a stage Scrooge, and actually the actor playing the part wasn't at all bad. It was the play, which was called The Gospel According to Scrooge.

You're already dreading what's to come, I'll bet, quaking like Scrooge in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, terrified to follow but knowing you must for your own reclamation.

The Gospel According to Scrooge was performed at an Evangelical mega-church in Syracuse and don't ask how I wound up in the audience. The production values were professional. The church was rich and could afford to pull out all the stops. The acting was decent---good community theater level talent. What made the show awful was the script. It stuck to the main outlines of Dickens' story but the playwright Christianized it.

Over the years, it's been regularly remarked by critics, literature profs, and civilian lovers of Dickens that A Christmas Carol for all its Christmas spirit is not a particulary religious tale. There are very few references to the Reason for the Season.

True, but Dickens was writing for an almost totally Christian audience, most of whom would have been regular church-goers. He could assume that his readers knew the background. Besides, he was writing fiction. If his readers wanted a sermon, they knew where to go to hear one.

But the few Christian and religious references Dickens does put in are pointed and explicit. (See Tiny Tim's reason for hoping the people in church were looking at his crippled legs.) A Christmas Carol isn't a Christian allegory, like the Narnia books; its message is universal and not dependent on any religion, but it was written by a believer, who didn't particularly try to leave his faith out of any his writing, and so the story does have a Christian spirit, enough anyway that you wouldn't think Christians would have a reason to make changes.

My mistake. I keep thinking of Christianity as including everybody who believes that Jesus of Nazereth was the son of God and the Messiah.

I forget that the Fundies have a different, and much more exclusive idea, of who counts as a Christian, and Dickens doesn't.

To give you an idea of what changes the playwright made, I'll quote from a letter I wrote to my old friend Bill the night I saw The Gospel According to Scrooge:

As theology, it made my skin crawl. What is it about Evangelicalism that makes me feel like a devout atheist? Besides the fact that by the lights of Evangelicals I am a devout atheist.

It stuck pretty close to the story. Big difference is that in Dickens' world whenever somebody talks about Jesus and being saved as much as the characters tonight did it's a sure sign that person's a raging hypocrite. Here everybody's a pharisee at the front of the temple and yet that's considered a good thing.

Scrooge isn't visted by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He's visited by angels. Who behave like Dickens' ghosts, so why the change?

Tiny Tim doesn't die when Scrooge dies, by the way. I want to think the playwright spared him as a matter of dramatic expediency---by the time the Angel of Christmas Yet to Come shows, we're two hours into the show. But at the Cratchitt family Christmas they say a prayer, a long, specific prayer that Tiny Tim gets well, and so I'm suspecting that Tiny Tim lives so that the audience doesn't ask why God didn't answer their

Also it turns Scrooge's fiancee Belle into a prig. She doesn't break it off because Scrooge loves money more than her or anything. She accepts Scrooge's declaration that he does love her. She just won't marry a guy who doesn't love her particular version of God.

There's a non-Dickensian moment in Scrooge's past when young Scrooge loses his faith. You'd think that would have been a good moment for an angel to show up. But, nope. We're told God would have sent one, but Scrooge rejected Him, so tough luck Ebenezer. Scrooge is nine years old at the time! God gets miffed at third graders and leaves them to damn themselves?

"Well, Lance, the Lord works in mysterious ways. His ways aren't our ways and we shouldn't expect him to think like we do." I buy that, actually, but everybody who says this then goes on to explain what God's up to in fairly specific terms.

Get the picture?

In The Gospel According to Scrooge, Scrooge's sin is not miserliness and it's not misanthropy---it's that he's rejected Jay-sus!

(End of Stave One. I have to go do some last minute Christmas shopping. Stave Two later this afternoon. In the meantime, while you are thinking about which is your favorite Scrooge you can also go over to Rox Populi and vote for your favorite movie Jesus.

Update: Stave II is done.)


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