A Christmas Carol was penned by Charles Dickens in 1843. How is it that the play story and its themes manage to stay relevant today?
The central social issue of the story is this: how should society answer the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In Dickens’ day, there was no safety net and a healthy part of the ruling population believed that if you couldn’t compete in the market place and earn your living, you had no right to exist. Conservatives thought the poor would always be poor; good for the few who climbed out of that by dint of luck or some sort of personal gift, but, really, what’s the point of helping? So naturally, they were an inferior class. They could never be anything but inferior.
Many in England in the year Dickens wrote the story (1843), knew this was wrong, and feared that if the systemic poverty and exploitation of the working class weren’t addressed, violence would be inevitable. The memory of the “Terror” during the French Revolution haunted Dickens, and others in England, and they knew something similar could happen in Albion if things didn’t change. The crux of the story, as the novelist Walter Allen pointed out, is not only Scrooge’s transformation;, it also lies in the life of Tiny Tim. Tim is of no use to his family economically. He’s a cripple and a burden. But he is something much more than any appalling, materialist, statistical judgement about the worth of his life to the economy. And that is because he’s the center of love for his family, for the whole story, really. Though him, Scrooge becomes kind. And that is something we seem to have to learn to be over and over again: if not to love each other, at least to care for each other.
This is your first time playing Marley in ACT’s production. You’ve played Scrooge many times and you’ve also directed. Did you have fun? Did the role of Marley provide a new perspective on Scrooge or on the story?
Marley is great fun. He’s more fun when one acts him live, on stage, of course, especially in ACT’s version, because he reliably scares the hell of the kids when he’s done well. I don’t think this reveals a special instinct of mine for sadism or child abuse. Most Marleys enjoy the prospect. Tim Piggee, who was a good Marley, used to count his nightly performance in the role a success if he got them running up the aisles to get away from him, or hiding in their mothers’ laps. It must be said, however, that ghosts are hard to play on stage, and Marley is no exception. As you are not a holograph, but a flesh and blood actor, you have to convince the audience you’re a supernatural phenomenon while sweating under all that make-up, in the Allen Theatre round, so it’s actually quite a technical challenge.
I don’t know that playing Marley has changed my understanding of Scrooge. I’m so close to the original story and ACT’s production, both having read the story and acted and directed ACT’s version so many times, that the way I think about these characters is a blend. In my mind now, they are mixed with everybody else in the story, into the great, still living, astonishing, multitudinous voice that is Charles Dickens.
What gives you the most pleasure about your work (past or present)?
One of the great benefits of making theatre over the years has been the continual opportunity to learn new things. Especially if your career takes you through the glorious repertoire and range of the art form across and on every continent. Each play, each role, is a universe that requires some sort of deep investigation, artistically, and intellectually. And you get to belong to a new family each time you embark on the process!
I must add, too, that one of the most important personal benefits of the theatre to me has been that it gave me the chance to meet my wife, the remarkable, wonderful, Marianne Owen!
The most important question: wine or chocolate?
Wine or Chocolate? BOTH of course! But never too late in the evening. Heartburn!
KURT BEATTIE has created theater for regional and national audiences for over 40 years as an actor, playwright, and director. Recently: Danforth in The Crucible and Scrooge in a Christmas Carol (ACT), Weller Martin in The Gin Game (Village), and Jean Shepard in A Christmas Story (The 5th). In Seattle, he has directed many productions, including the ACT/5th Avenue Theatre’s Grey Gardens. Recipient of the TPS Sustained Achievement Award and ArtsFund’s Outstanding Achievement Award in the Arts.