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Last updated: October 30, 2018

Christmas Carol - script notes

A Christmas Carol

written by Charles Dickens and adapted & scored by Tony "Sparx" Palermo

NOTE: My adaptation and pre-recorded musical score CD are available for other groups to perform. I offer a 60-minute version that is very complete, and makes full use of  Dickens' Victorian dialogue,  and also a 40-minute version that omits several minor scenes (the businessmen, the rag and bone shop, the covered corpse), trims the scenes of Nephew Fred's party and the boy told to buy the prize turkey, and has simpler renderings of Dickens' dialogue.

Contact for more information.

Writer/Director’s notes

My radio adaptation of A Christmas Carol  restores this oft-told tale to its source in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel. In the 160-odd years since this story appeared, it has been bowdlerized and cut to fit the conventions of the day--resulting in widespread mis-perceptions and simplifications of its true meaning. Most people are only familiar with second-hand retellings and any accusations of triteness and cliché against this story are most likely attributable to poor adaptations.

With this in mind, I've endeavored to create a version that is both faithful and fresh. The dialogue is nearly verbatim from Dickens' text, however the emphasis and psychological shadings are my own as I sought to reinforce Dickens' original message. This "Ghost Story of Christmas" is particularly well suited to the medium of radio--where the audience's imagination provides an unlimited special effects budget. Please take note of my intentions when producing this script.

Charles Dickens's major literary themes were memory and forgiveness. He believed that through experiencing the joy and sorrow of memory, you could learn to live properly in this world. Accordingly, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption is carried out by memory, example, and fear.

Scrooge has often been mistakenly presented as an evil man with no redeeming characteristics who suddenly gets converted--overnight! That perception has been fostered in many of the film and animated versions produced over the years and often results in a rather boring fable for children. However, this instant redemption--what critics call “the Scrooge problem,” can be overcome. There must be motivation for Scrooge's miserly behavior and he must be permitted to change little by little, so the final conversion isn't totally unbelievable. The elements of a convincing transformation are in Dickens' book, but hardly anywhere else. It boils down to understanding the character of Scrooge.

First, Ebenezer Scrooge isn't just evil--that’s one-dimensional. He's got a tough shell on the outside to protect his squishy soft interior. He holds terrible, anti-social attitudes, but has them for a reason. His character is based upon Charles Dickens’ regrets for his own personal behavior--in not being kind enough to his fellow man, in not being charitable enough to unfortunates. In fact, Scrooge's history is modeled upon Dickens’ early life.

Memory: Scrooge's Tortured Past

Through the Ghost of Christmas Past, we learn that Scrooge was raised in the country, where they observed an old-fashioned Christmas. He was sent away to a dismal boarding school and (like Dickens) was left there over several Christmases by a remote and cruel father. The schoolboy Scrooge sought escape in books---fantasies that protected him from the cruel world--and took him out of it.  He loved his sister, the angelic Fan, who later died giving birth to Fred--which explains Scrooge's  resentment for his good-natured nephew.

The young Scrooge was taken out of school and put to work in a warehouse run by the jolly Mr. Fezziwig--who serves as one of several models for Scrooge's re-education.  In the world of business, Scrooge/Dickens sought financial success as a way to fortify himself from the harsh realities of  loneliness and a rapidly industrializing Britain. Unfortunately, Scrooge's wish to make himself invulnerable also shut him off from humanity--which is why his fiancée, Belle, breaks their engagement. This further isolates him until he is entirely alone, “as secret and solitary as an oyster.”  His partnership with the similarly cold-blooded Jacob Marley reinforces Scrooge's miserly ways.

However, despite the warped personality, Scrooge retains a keen intelligence--he is a successful businessman--and has a biting sense of humor. He doesn't see himself as evil--he’s just being "practical." Here he personifies modernism and Puritanism--ideas firmly in place when Dickens wrote the story. (Please note that British Puritans discouraged “pagan” Christmas celebrations and had largely succeeded in eliminating the holiday as a feast of any kind by 1800. Their social engineering of the workhouses separated families and produced thousands of “orphans” when the parents were still alive. Dickens sought to change society.)

Scrooge's Saving Grace

Humor is the key to my interpretation of Scrooge--not jolly, but snide humor. I've left Dickens’ dialogue alone,  but I freshen it up by having Scrooge deliver it as biting sarcastic jokes to show his sense of superiority and utter disdain for the fools of the world. Think of him as a nasty, wise-cracking cable TV pundit--smart, but twisted.  He's a self-made man who can’t see "making idle people merry.” 

There's a hidden laugh behind his most famous lines. He's thinks he's being clever when he asks the charity seekers, “Are there no prisons?” He thinks he's being  funny describing how idiots should be “boiled with their Christmas pudding and buried with a stake of holly through their heart!” In my view, Scrooge doesn't believe this in a literal sense. He's making mean-spirited jokes--chortling to himself. I even have him laugh as he delivers these outrageous pronouncements. Here, Scrooge is being provocative and very entertaining--to himself. He's in his own world. It's the self-satisfied smugness of somebody who has it made. He's laughing all the way to the bank.

Scrooge's ill-humor is a way to leaven his misanthropy--otherwise he comes off as a monster--someone beyond hope. However, that's just the way many adaptations portray Scrooge--as evil incarnate. The trouble is, the harder you make Scrooge appear, the more unconvincing his eventual conversion becomes--the "Scrooge Problem".

The "Wicked Scrooge" approach ignores Dickens' themes of memory and forgiveness. Scrooge knows the difference between right and wrong, but feels contempt for those that don't share his values of thrift and practicality--so he lampoons the "losers" with self congratulating put-downs. Think of Scrooge as a smarty-pants who finds himself endlessly clever. In my view, if Scrooge has a sense of humor, then he is human--and therefore, has a possibility of redemption. The various ghosts wipe the smirk off his face and through hocus-pocus psychoanalysis and example, pave the way for his eventual salvation.

Example: How to Keep Christmas

On the example side, I make sure to show how Scrooge should “keep Christmas” by vividly depicting the celebrations at Fezziwig’s, the Cratchit home and Fred's party.  When Dickens wrote the story, the Christmas holiday was celebrated the way Easter is today--you go to church and there are a few gifts for children. Dickens converted the 12 day Yuletide feasts (of pagan origin) which had been held in large country manors, into smaller scale celebrations that could be held at work, home and among friends. The feasts, children's games and punch were popularized by the story and revolutionized the way we celebrate the holiday. If you view Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present as a variant/prototype of a pagan Father Christmas/Santa Claus, nearly everything about our modern Christmas comes from Dickens's tale--a fact I highlight in the announcer's introduction.

Fear: The Ghost Story of Christmas

Fear is the final motivator for Scrooge's conversion. Once softened up emotionally by the first two ghosts, he now reviles the callousness and materialism of the businessmen and the rag and bone shop grotesques. The dead body and Tiny Tim’s passing move him to compassion, leading him and the Sprit to the graveyard scene, which is the most difficult in the story.

Most adaptations of the "Carol" fail right here. They show Scrooge quaking in fear and then, somehow, he is saved. Several versions even have him fall into the grave, but at his own tombstone, Scrooge wouldn't just be afraid of dying. After all, everybody dies. The crypt alone isn't enough motivation for the miser to change his ways. He is saddened by the death of Tiny Tim, but must also undergo his own demise to be re-born.

To finish him off, Scrooge must be reminded that he's headed for Marley’s fate--eternal damnation! So, I bring back the rattling chains and hundreds of  phantoms from Marley’s visit. Now, that could scare him into being a nice guy--and gets us past the implausible “Scrooge problem.”

Scrooge repents, of course, but is only saved when he says, "I'll change! I'll change... I pray! I beg you." It's the word "pray" that turns things around and this miser's submission to God is a fitting Victorian Christian touch. With it, the phantoms vanish and Scrooge is saved.

Why a "Ghost Story of Christmas" anyway? It was an English custom to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve--stemming from the old Yule celebrations of Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice, and Dickens wrote several other supernatural Christmas tales. My adaptation seeks to play up the ghostly aspects of the story--but in the context of 19th century Christian beliefs. Marley’s Ghost is truly scary, as are the hundreds of phantoms.

Likewise, to increase Scrooge's fear, I use thunder and wind sounds to add real menace to the graveyard scene. To get a ghostly flavor where necessary, I use a slight reverb for the spirits--and also for Scrooge, when he accompanies them. I employ the reverb to depict the spiritual realm as distant, yet nearby. And Scrooge segues from the graveyard to his bedroom by the reverb becoming drier and drier--a nice radio touch. Afterward, the cacophony of church bells announce both Christ's birth and Scrooge's re-birth.

Social Protest

The last area I restore, is Dickens’ beloved soap box preaching about the children, “Ignorance and Want”--a scene missing from many versions. Charles Dickens was a liberal social reformer--he’d been poor and knew firsthand the horrors of life in the workhouses, the factories, and the streets.

In most adaptations, this social message gets deleted in favor of more sentimental scenes--some actually turning “Tiny Tim” into the star, but charity is what is central to Dickens’ Christmas--Goodwill towards men. Charity despite the hard weather and economic pressures. Dickens takes the metaphor of Christ's offer of heavenly redemption and literally brings it down to Earth. His Christmas is a utopia and Scrooge's journey there is Dickens' model for us all. Without this plea for charity to the less fortunate, the story becomes too materialistic as a paean to feasts and games--hardly what Dickens, the moralist, intended.

What Christmas Is All About

Some object to Dickens’ Carol  for its lack of references to religion, but they fail to see Tiny Tim as a metaphor for Christ--Tim’s crutch is his cross; his death redeems Scrooge; his creed is  “God bless us, every one”; Marley’s ghost and the chained phantoms are damned souls to whom Christ is unknown; Scrooge is a "wise man" who travels far before bestowing his gifts; Scrooge’s death and resurrection, etc. Charles Dickens was too much an artist of symbol and myth to tell his story any more directly than he did. Those who can’t see Christ in this Christmas story, have perhaps a bit too much fundamentalism clouding their eyes. This subtext informs us as we produce the play.  Paradoxically, with the religious themes being only in the subtext, the play can be presented in government-subsidized theaters and schools without being seen as overtly advocating an exclusively Christian message. Charity and goodwill are after all, prized by the secular and non-secular alike. The “Carol’s” message is truly universal.

Music

In scoring A Christmas Carol, other than my own ghost and suspense music, I adapted real Victorian carols throughout. I tried to use less well-known carols, to avoid cliché or sentimentality, without sacrificing the authentic characteristics that period music could lend to the drama. I employed the carols to reinforce emotional and structural connections in the story.

For example; Belle's theme ("The Coventry Carol") is played by a music box--a gift from Scrooge--that winds down as their relationship crumbles. "In The Bleak Mid-Winter" plays under Scrooge's visit to his boyhood and his good-hearted sister, Fan. This theme returns after Scrooge's redemption, played by a heavenly harp at the party where he is welcomed back into the family by Fred, Fan's son. 

In radio drama, sound effects are motion and music is emotion, and Christmas music has a powerful effect on audiences, evoking both fond memories and reverence. I can't understand why other composers have not used this approach in scoring this story--it being so naturally obvious and highly effective.

In my pre-recorded musical score, the instrumentation is strictly Victorian:  brass choir, pipe and reed organs, hand bells, church bells, chimes, cymbals, timpani, fiddle, concertina, music-box, wine glasses (glass harmonica), choirs and strings. I think this musical underscore adds greatly to the production.

Sound Effects

Bells are central to this story and I use plenty of them in the score and as sound effects. The bells serve as punctuation and as a metaphorical "wake up call" to Scrooge--who lost a fiancée named “Belle.” The program's sound effects begin with jingling bells and the tiny bell on Scrooge's office door, and work their way through clocks, wind chimes, death-bells, and finally, to a cacophony of church bells when Scrooge is saved.

There is also a great deal of background walla walla to paint the parties and streets. The story doesn't have many sound effects, but I rally plenty of them for the graveyard as Scrooge must battle the elements of doom before he prays and is redeemed.

Sounds such as doors and dinner dishes, toasts and Marley’s chains will be produced by the actors on stage. Other sounds such as wind, thunder, clock chimes, Marley’s off-stage bashing, cymbal flourishes for scene transitions and the otherworldly screech of the third Spirit can be rendered by the live sound effects team or triggered from a CD of pre-recorded SFX. I offer professional sound design tracks for $25—which can be downloaded as MP3 files.  See the ENG pages in the truncated sample script PDF for more information.

Directorial Approach

There are a number metaphors I use in my interpretation of this material. First, I seek to convey an edge-of-the-seat quality by urging a vigorous delivery and slightly fast tempo. Christmas celebrates the pending birth of a child and always carries anticipation and mystery, as does the unwrapping of a Christmas gift, and so too, the best ghost stories. With that in mind, there is surprise everywhere and I endeavor to keep the audience always guessing “what’s next,” even though this material is familiar. I stress mystery being revealed repeatedly--in Scrooge’s comic toying with the charity seekers, Marley’s arrival, the hiding of Martha Cratchit, Fred’s “twenty questions” game, the contents of the charwoman’s bundle, the shrouded body on the bed, and the otherworldly “voice” of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.

The second metaphor I pursue is the contrast of delight amidst awfulness--the laughing crowds despite the  privations of winter’s cold wind and crunchy snow; the boy carolers being interrupted mid-song by the angry Scrooge; the abrupt change from Fezziwig’s gay fiddle-driven party to Belle’s sadly winding down music box. There’s a defiant mysticism about celebrating life on one of the shortest days of the year. The idea that hope can spring from such bleak surroundings is at the heart of Christmas--and Dickens’ fable.

Lastly, I seek a gusto from the many grotesques in the story, starting with the unreformed Scrooge. He relishes his misanthropy. He’s not suffering in the counting house. He loves it there. He enjoys punning with Fred and the charity seekers. He even jokes with Marley’s ghost--for a while. The chained Phantoms inspire compassion in Scrooge, while the Spirits teach him the sad fate of all those other exuberant ogres. Scrooge’s loony joy at the end seems that much higher for all the fright and suffering that preceded it.

I hope to encourage cast and crew to dive headlong into their roles and leave behind all the gloomy and moralistic “Carols” they have seen before. This is a miraculous birth, not a fatalistic funeral. Let’s laugh good and hearty! Just like Scrooge!

Preparation

The only other advice I could give regarding producing the program would be to read Charles Dickens’ original story to refresh your memory as to what is really going on. It would also be very helpful to view the video of the excellent 1951 film version starring Alastair Sim. It goes under the title of either A Christmas Carol or Scrooge and is available in original black & white or in a colorized version.

On radio, the 1939 Campbell Playhouse version, titled A Christmas Carol, was produced by Orson Welles and stars Lionel Barrymore as an exceptional Scrooge. Barrymore’s vocal mannerisms and delivery are perfect--unfortunately the script, in my opinion, deletes many important scenes and doesn't exploit others enough. However, for my version, I've modeled my ending introduction of the cast and crew after theirs, as an especially fitting and fun closer.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a great story for all ages and should be an enjoyable production. It will teach people things they didn't know about Christmas and Scrooge and themselves. And its fantasy elements are perfectly suited to the magic of radio. To those who seek to produce this wonderful story as a radio drama I can only echo Tiny Tim's credo, "God Bless you, every one!"

Here's a link to a 4-1/2 minute MP3 clip from a production of my adaptation of Dickens' "Carol": Scrooge and Marley.mp3 (2.1 MB)


TONY PALERMO is a radio playwright, professional sound effects artist, radio director, composer, and educator based in Los Angeles, California.

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