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Why Scrooge's Story Of Transformation Endures 175 Years After Dickens Created It05:05
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Historian Susan Wilson places her hand on a bust of Charles Dickens at the Omni Parker House, where he stayed in during his visit to Boston in 1867. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Historian Susan Wilson places her hand on a bust of Charles Dickens at the Omni Parker House, where he stayed in during his visit to Boston in 1867. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“Bahhh humbug!”

From Alastair Sim to Jim Carrey, countless actors have grumbled those iconic words in the movies and on stage over the decades. Ebenezer Scrooge spoke them first on the pages of "A Christmas Carol" 175 years ago.

Turns out, author Charles Dickens performed his classic redemption tale himself right here in Boston 150 years ago. Which got us thinking: Why does the miserly curmudgeon’s journey still hit us where we live today?

The door of the room Charles Dickens stayed in at the Parker House in 1867. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The door of the room Charles Dickens stayed in at the Parker House in 1867. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

So I headed to the Omni Parker House, a storied Boston hotel where Dickens stayed in 1867 and '68. The ornate lobby was extra-decked out with twinkling holiday lights and evergreens. The hotel's historian Susan Wilson was eager to show me what’s thought to be a haunted elevator.

“What happens periodically is that the No. 1 elevator has been rung to the third floor, it opens, and there's nobody there,” she explained.

Some people muse its Charles Dickens’ spirit beckoning people up to the third floor where he stayed on his last reading tour of the U.S. in 1867 and '68.

In front of audiences, the internationally-adored British author wouldn't just recite his words, he’d bring them passionately to life. Wilson said Dickens, who also trained as an actor, would spend hours rehearsing.

Actor Jeremiah Kissel recites lines from "A Christmas Carol" in the mirror Charles Dickens used to rehearse in front of during his stays at the Parker House in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Actor Jeremiah Kissel recites lines from "A Christmas Carol" in the mirror Charles Dickens used to rehearse in front of during his stays at the Parker House in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“He would stand in front of this actual mirror and he would practice parts, contort his face, and do all these actions,” she said. “He had a big floppy hat — he was very exotic — a cape, high boots, cravat. And people went ballistic and tried to get in to see him do this.”

Dickens was like a rock star. As the story goes, his fans even ripped off chunks off his fur coat as he walked through Boston’s streets. But his celebrity wasn’t the only draw. The message of “A Christmas Carol” also captivated 19th-century audiences. After the Civil War, Wilson said Americans were craving unity and healing, and Scrooge’s odyssey embodied the potential for transformation.

Actor Jeremiah Kissel recites a few lines from "A Christmas Carol" in the mirror used by Charles Dickens for rehearsals during his stays at the Omni Parker House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Actor Jeremiah Kissel recites a few lines from "A Christmas Carol" in the mirror used by Charles Dickens for rehearsals during his stays at the Omni Parker House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“People were in tears, it just touched everyone's heart,” she explained. “And the idea that Scrooge could in fact be so evil and so cold-hearted but then be turned around, and the idea of giving back was so important to America at that time.”

Scrooge's iconic utterances continue to resonate today. Who doesn’t love to read — or better yet, hear — his curmudgeonly rants, like this memorable line:

If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with "Merry Christmas" on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!

Actor Jeremiah Kissel has been rehearsing those words for a production of the classic play at the Central Square Theater this season. He met me at the Omni Parker House where he was awestruck to be standing in front of the hotel mirror where the author once stood.

“I'm 60 years old and I'm learning things in the last few weeks about Dickens' work that I never knew before,” Kissel said.

Kissel has been re-discovering Scrooge's journey of transformation. After a pained, isolated adulthood driven by grumpiness and greed, Scrooge declares he’ll change. The point of "A Christmas Carol," as Kissel understands it, is to take hurt and re-direct it into forgiveness and joy.

Jeremiah Kissel as Scrooge in Central Square Theater's production of "A Christmas Carol." (Courtesy Maggie Hall)
Jeremiah Kissel as Scrooge in Central Square Theater's production of "A Christmas Carol." (Courtesy Maggie Hall)

People have rooted for Scrooge for a century-and-a-half for a reason, according to Debra Wise. She's directing the Central Square Theater's adaptation and calls herself a “Christmas Carol nerd.”

"We all want to change like Scrooge," she mused. "We also want the Scrooges in our lives who are in those powerful positions to actually change to become more human."

Wise and Kissel both agree that another reason this classic character endures is because we don’t get the full story about what made him such a misanthrope so we can project ourselves onto him.

“Because all human beings have in their past things that injured them. We all have that,” Kissel shared, “some more than others, sadly, some more than others.”

Owen Fitzpatrick and Jeremy Lawrence as Scrooge at the Hanover Theatre's production this year. (Courtesy Carolyn Fitzpatrick)
Owen Fitzpatrick and Jeremy Lawrence as Scrooge at the Hanover Theatre's production this year. (Courtesy Carolyn Fitzpatrick)

It's that aspect of Scrooge that stuck with 14-year-old Owen Fitzpatrick, of Hopkinton. He wrote about it for the Library of Congress “Letters About Literature” contest, which he won for Massachusetts last year. His letter to the author is posted on the Hanover Theatre’s blog, where I found it. It opens:

Dear Mr. Dickens,

I'm not a miser, I’m not even greedy. But of all the characters in all the books I've read I saw myself in Ebenezer Scrooge.

Then Owen raises the same point as the actor and director:

You don’t tell us, Mr. Dickens, all the things that happened to make Scrooge unpopular at school. We don't know many details of what caused his behavior. Maybe you didn't want to feel bad for him because he was selfish and mean, but I can fill in the blanks. Maybe his brain was going so fast he couldn't pay attention. Maybe he couldn’t sit and always felt like he had to move...

Owen, now in eighth grade, crafted this two years ago after struggling with ADHD and being bullied in school.

“I just related what happened to Scrooge into my life, and then saw how everything went wrong and that I should just find my own ghosts and be happy,” Owen recalled.

With support from his guidance counselors and parents, Owen said he was determined to turn himself around.

“Like Scrooge, I felt like I had finally woken up,” he told me on the phone. “I earned highest honors in a bunch of classes. I made friends who liked me for who I am. Scrooge had to unlearn his old way of thinking and so did I.”

Owen told me it’s not easy, and he’s still working on changing — every day — just like good 'ol Ebenezer Scrooge.

I will try to keep Christmas in my heart, I will strive to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, the present and the future, the spirit of all three shall strive within me.

This segment aired on December 21, 2018.

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Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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