Even a Dickens needs a break from Scrooge and Tiny Tim and “God bless Us, Every One!”
Gerald Charles Dickens, the great-great-grandson of 19th-century British author Charles Dickens, has crisscrossed the eastern half of the United States since Nov. 7 with his one-man performance of “A Christmas Carol.” And after Saturday’s two shows at the North Church in Portsmouth, N.H., he will be flying back to his home outside Oxford, England, for “a very quiet Christmas” with his wife and son. “And if a movie of ‘A Christmas Carol’ comes on, I shall probably scream and throw something at the television,” Dickens says, cackling cheerfully.
The actor otherwise professes unbroken if clear-eyed admiration for his brilliant ancestor. Gerald Dickens, 50, is descended from Henry Fielding Dickens, the eighth of the author’s 10 children. On the phone from a tour stop in Wilmington, Del., Gerald says he long avoided Charles Dickens’s material to make his own way as an actor, but a 1993 performance of “A Christmas Carol” for the novella’s 150th anniversary changed all that.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
“To be honest, I wasn’t that keen on doing it, but the event was a charitable one,” he says. “And as soon as I started working on it, it all fell into place. Every major character had their own voice and their own way of standing and their own expression and way of moving and everything else. The further I worked through the story, the more it came together. It was an amazing experience.”
Just about everyone knows the tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve, sees the error of his ways, and becomes a jolly benefactor to poor Tiny Tim and his family. It was a centerpiece of many readings given by Charles Dickens late in his life, drawing huge acclaim — including in Boston, where it had its US debut in 1867 at the Tremont Temple (then called the Tremont Theatre).
‘I think “A Christmas Carol” serves a very good purpose of reminding people there are more important things.’
Since his first performance in 1993, Gerald Dickens has delivered “A Christmas Carol” during the holiday season while gradually building a repertoire of other Dickens works, editing the texts himself, from a one-hour (!) “Nicholas Nickleby” to biographical pieces such as “Mr. Dickens Is Coming!”
Dickens sometimes takes the same stages as his ancestor — including the Tremont Temple — but also hits more modern venues, including cruise ships and, last weekend, the Borgata casino in Atlantic City. But he insists that, 20 years on, “A Christmas Carol” has never become routine for him.
“I can be exhausted and feeling like the last thing I want to do is dragging myself onstage and performing, and yet as soon as you say, ‘Marley was dead: to begin with,’ everything just kicks in and you can’t help yourself,” he says. “I don’t know where that energy comes from, but the text seems to generate it.”
Maybe it’s something to do with American audiences, too. As popular as the tale is in England, it’s even more so here, he says.
“America has taken that little story to its heart and almost made it a central part of the American Christmas,” Dickens says. “Every city I go to, there will be a production of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ whether it’s a professional production or a high school production or a community theater.”
It has seeped into our culture in other ways too.
“You watch TV, and at every commercial break there will be somebody using Ebenezer Scrooge to sell their products for Christmas,” he says, though he’s not at all offended by the repurposing of the tale.
Ask him if there’s something in the American character that makes “Carol” such a mainstay, though, and he sighs heavily. Tough question.
“I think in a society that is very fast-moving, very electronically driven these days, where everything has to be done two days before, I think ‘A Christmas Carol’ serves a very good purpose of reminding people there are more important things,” he says. “I also think American society is based on a strong sense of faith — whatever faith it is doesn’t matter, but there’s so much more of that than in England. People tend to come back to some sense of personal faith, and I think ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a very good way of doing that.”
Dickens chuckles. “I think there’s a thesis to be written there. But it’s probably already been done, hasn’t it?”
The underlying theme of the story resonated with the Rev. Dawn A. Shippee and the leadership of the North Church of Portsmouth, United Church of Christ.
“Given the message, one of my favorite messages of all time, it certainly fits,” says Shippee, who reads the book every holiday season. “Christians definitely claim it [as their own], but I don’t think you could find a religion that doesn’t claim it. Definitely we should be paying attention to the things and places where we can do some good in the world, and particularly to those who have so little.
“The scene where the children are revealed under the robe, Ignorance and Want, that just always strikes me as the moment that the story comes crystal clear about what our responsibility is,” she says.
“I am looking forward to hearing Gerald do it. I anticipate people will come away with a freshened perspective of the depth of that story.”
When Dickens greets audience members after most performances, he’s often asked to name his favorite version of the tale on the large or small screen. He has three.
The first is the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, a “classic version of the story.” Then there’s the 1984 made-for-TV movie featuring George C. Scott. “I love George C. Scott as Scrooge because he plays him so powerfully as a businessman, which is of course what Scrooge was,” Dickens says. “He wasn’t some pathetic weaselly old man cowering in a corner, he was a businessman, a financier, in the city of London at a time when London was the biggest economic center of the world.”
And the third? “I quite seriously adore the Muppets version [1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol”] because of what it has given to successive generations, introducing children to this story and making them love it, yet remaining very faithful to the original.”
The Muppets version, he says, would have meant something to his adolescent, aspiring-actor self: “If you could have told me when I was 15 that I’d be walking in the footsteps of Kermit the Frog, I would have bit your arm off! He’s a legend of televisionland!”
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.