Occupy Fleet Street: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Highlights Economic Inequality

An annual holiday tradition starts back up this week at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Barbara Field’s stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” opens Thursday in the Pamela Brown Auditorium for its 37th run. 

Directed by Drew Fracher, “A Christmas Carol” stars William McNulty in his 11th year as Ebenezer Scrooge, the wealthy miser businessman offered a last chance at redemption by the spirit of his deceased partner on Christmas Eve. He is visited by the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, and must confront his loveless life and forgive himself and others to avoid dying alone and despised.

The production features traditional Christmas songs performed live by the cast and a high-flying Ghost of Christmas Past, played by Lindsey Noel Whiting of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre (Whiting played Alice in the 2009 production of “Looking Glass Alice” at Actors Theatre). But Fracher says the ghost’s impressive aerial feats won’t outshine the play’s message.

“I’ve seen a lot of productions around the country and sometimes they get lost in the technical stuff, bells and whistles and lifts and scenery that flies around. I’ve tried to simplify things and get back to the story because I think it’s a very, very topical story,” he says.

Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, when London began embracing the holiday traditions of the countryside and now-customary aspects of celebration like Christmas cards took hold. Much of how we celebrate Christmas has changed since 1843—what is figgy pudding again?—but behind the old-fashioned trappings is a story of the working poor and economic insecurity and inequality, which is why Fracher thinks Dickens’ story is more relevant today than ever.

“Last year, when I was first directing the show and the Occupy movement was happening, we were laughing that we were going to have t-shirts that said Occupy Fleet Street,” says Fracher.

“I got the dramaturgs to show me what economics were like in Dickensian London, who was rich and who was poor. It was really, really, amazingly, shockingly similar to one percent and 99 percent,” he adds. “It was crazy how close it was to what’s going on right this minute.”

Scrooge’s chance for redemption comes through the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, who finds time to celebrate Christmas with good cheer despite his meager circumstances. The youngest Cratchit, Tiny Tim, remains a cheerful and hopeful presence despite his physical frailty. The Cratchits are good people and hard workers, but they are very poor and at the mercy of Bob’s employer—and Scrooge is not a benevolent boss.  

“These people who are super poor, who Scrooge thinks are idiots, who Scrooge thinks has too many children, who Scrooge really disdains, are making the best of a potentially really bad, sad situation,” says Fracher, who finds the relationship between employer and clerk echoing the class tensions that played out during this year’s presidential election (Scrooge is the quintessential “I built that” success).

So given that context, how a person transforms from optimistic young man to merciless tycoon, and finally, after the scare of a lifetime, into Mr. Christmas is a process that fascinates Fracher.

“How many times do we get offered a chance at redemption and miss it, because we just don’t get it?” he says. “I’ve pushed storytelling a bit more. There’s a little more intimacy in the scenes. What is it about a guy who starts out as a normal human being and ends up being an archetype of greed?”

“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 23. 

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