Scrooge R Us: Is 'A Christmas Carol' still relevant?

December 6, 2010

It’s hard to imagine how children reared on PlayStation and Wii, and plugged into the world and each other every minute of the day, can make sense of the theater, where you have to go when they tell you, sit where they tell you and shut up while others talk. It’s even harder to imagine how those same children can make sense of "A Christmas Carol," set two centuries ago, when keeping warm and fed and not dying of nameless crippling diseases were the concerns of daily life.

To be sure, the message of "A Christmas Carol"–that generosity is better than stinginess–can seem timeless, or even affirmatively timely. Those who are constantly connected can observe what connection might really mean: taking responsibility for your fellow creatures, listening to their concerns as well as airing your own, staying part of the community in which we and they all suffer and enjoy and live and die.

Which somber note is utterly (and properly!) counteracted by the Goodman Theatre’s latest method for bringing "A Christmas Carol" into the realm of the conceivable for wired-in young people: compelling a reluctant and truculent Scrooge to tweet several times a day. Scrooge’s feed began on November 19, the day of the show’s first preview, and will continue until the show, the character and the season end their reign on New Year’s Eve. So for the past few weeks the 2000-some Goodman followers on Twitter have had their conversations enlivened or highjacked–depending on your point of view–by Ebenezer the Emphatic.

Some followers are enthusiastic–one wrote, “Following the Goodman Theatre became a lot more interesting since they started tweeting as Scrooge”–while others disdain the entire concept. One complained that the tweeting is “turning me off the theatre & Scrooge. . . . too arch & doesn't fit the show or character.” For those of us a bit less serious about our encounters with comic promotional efforts, Scrooge’s comments bring tidings of great joy to all people.

Certainly the tweets aren’t true to period–Scrooge admits a weakness for the tv show “Glee,” and for watching reruns of "It’s A Wonderful Life" so he can root for Potter–but they seem to be pretty much true to character. They’re focused on business (“Tonight is the Opening Night of A CHRISTMAS CAROL”), defiantly sour (“Before you see it, just know the rumors of my holiday redemption seem to be exaggerated”) and relentlessly crabbed (“If I had a nickel for every time someone said, ‘Happy holidays,’ I'd throw the bag of nickels at the next person who said, ‘Happy holidays.’”) At the same time, Scrooge tweets for all of us whose patience has worn thin for certain holiday traditions: “I swear, if my nephew Fred sends me one more Christmas card with his dog dressed as a person on the cover, I will go right out of my mind.”

And Scrooge’s economical nature comes in handy for followers daunted by the show’s expense. (With tickets as high as $81 apiece, is "A Christmas Carol" supposed to be a child’s introduction to theater or his/her only encounter with it all year?) “I applaud your thrift, sir,” he responded to one inquiry about cost. “Promo code TINYTIM will get you $10 off tickets after Christmas.” Characteristically, the financier couldn’t help adding, “If, however, you decide to pay full price I’ll gladly lend you the full sum. At 18% interest.”

The modern American cult of "A Christmas Carol" has always been a strange one: a highly political work morphed into a feel-good story about how a single person and a simple change of heart can solve all the world’s problems; a portrait of structural inequality and grinding poverty transformed into a suggestion that once-a-year generosity can overcome year-long need and hardship. (Yes, I can hear you hissing, but really! Ask any social-services agency about the thousands of volunteers who want to serve Christmas dinner to the homeless but can’t be bothered to supply equally necessary meals on any other day.) So if Scrooge’s Twitter voice is inconsistent, that in itself is perfectly consistent with our half-assed approach to Dickens’ work, and to the holidays.

As Walt Kelly might have written: We have met Scrooge, and he is us.