Director’s Note: Damien Ryan, A CHRISTMAS CAROL

23 Nov 2022

Working on Dickens’ atmospheric novel and Hilary’s beautifully playful adaptation, I keep imagining what it must have been like to read the first editions of this book in the candled haze of 1843 London, a time when stories were so viscerally affecting, so necessary as an escape from the brutally industrialising world outside the frozen casements. Its vividness, its frightening and unique detail, precise descriptions of people, architecture, temperatures, rooms and streets, that even where geared toward evoking fear, always retain a comically subversive wit, Dickens’ own addiction to the theatrical and to a sense of feeling connected to his reader at all times. It strikes me how perfectly calculated his message was – he knew people would read this book alone in cold, darkened homes in the December winter (it had instantly sold thousands of copies by Christmas that year). And when they snuggled in solitude to read it, he knew they would encounter a selfish human being sitting in solitude in his winter chambers on Christmas eve about to be overwhelmed by a series of seismic visitations. To many, in what he could see was an increasingly selfish world, the book was a ghostly mirror with a pleasant title, just daring the reader to turn the page and see their refracted image. And yes they are real ghosts and yes this Ebeneezer fellow goes on genuinely supernatural journeys, horizontally and vertically, through his own life and times, but on its most basic level, he goes nowhere at all and these aren’t spectres on any level – these visitations are our own immoralities, our sins and failures, our fears and selfish, cruel misjudgements that have done real harm in the world and they walk into the chambers of our guilt, our otherwise well-fortified minds – it is not fanciful at all, it is terrifyingly personal in its purpose and an all too real possibility for all of us. If we are not kind and careful, we can all afford to worry that one day as pasts and our projected futures might walk into the room when we cannot defend ourselves.

Scrooge’s Hell is not fires and everlasting burning, it’s being hated and reviled in perpetuity by living people. That’s something Dickens must have known would frighten people. And above all, Dickens’ vision of Hell is the inability to intercede in other people’s unbearable suffering, trapped in eternal empathy as a reward for showing no empathy in life – and the theatre cleverly puts us in that powerless position in most plays, observing suffering and trauma but unable to do anything or make it stop until the curtain comes down and we encounter the choices we make in our own lives again. That is the very purpose of tragedy as a theatre form, and this story is a formal tragedy, observing all of its rules, but only imagining the fatal instruction of tragedy by giving us a glimpse of Tiny Tim’s agonising fate while leaving us a final opportunity to change it.

Christmas to Dickens’ audience had nothing to do with the material circus it is today. He was taking an opportunity to create a specific habitat for people’s generosity, a date and time when they could be encouraged to think beyond themselves and care for each other, and he was highly astute to recognise that the human race is so caught up in its personal race that sometimes we need the calendar to actually send us a notification of our humanity – ‘today’ is the day is we are generous to each other and express our love and connection. To Londoners in 1843, Christmas was not hugely significant at all, it was a lost largely rural tradition long since smote by the rumble of the urban engine. It is so important to remember that he did not create the Disney-fication of Christmas, that rode in on his back. He was surgically using a deeply religious day, Christ’s birthday, to write an humane and secular document that transcends any particular religious paradigm.

There’s an inevitable Christian bedrock there anyway in a story about charity on December 25 – but he had one passionate agenda in his mind, to change the world and to effect lasting social reform. His two most important characters, as stated by Dickens himself, were the homeless children that encounter Scrooge in the frigid midnight streets – “the boy is called Ignorance, the girl is Want”. They still live on those streets, in every neighbourhood from Ukraine to South Sudan, to just down the road from us, and we walk past them every day.

“The wealthiest one percent of the world’s population now owns more than half of the world’s wealth”, says the most recent Credit Suisse analysis of our shared global goose.

What other than selfish friends risen from the dead and a brutal night of haunting could possibly make that one percent wake up on Christmas morning and determine to use that wealth only for the benefit of their fellow creatures? We’ve had a couple of thousand Christmases and told a couple of million stories of generosity, moral awakening and the weightless ecstasy of giving – but it hasn’t happened yet – notwithstanding those remarkable people whose empathetic distribution of their wealth has effected real change in the world, such people do exist, but remain a moral minority. And Scrooge is an unusual fish, not conspicuously wealthy, not at all hedonistic or ostentatious, he is instead like a subtraction symbol, he simply removes wealth from the world and buries it under his floorboards, a security blanket for a child whose mother died young and whose father never loved him perhaps. And saving for a ‘rainy day’ does not motivate Scrooge either, he is just holding on to it. It reminds us of the Covid disease of buying up all the loo paper, hand sanitizer and rat tests in case anyone else got to them…

There was a palpable degree of anger in Dickens in writing his transcendent novel A CHRISTMAS CAROL in a fevered six-week period in later 1843. Indeed, he had set out on a very different course of lectures and gatherings to encourage social reform at Christmas time before deciding to pivot to the power of telling a childlike story to achieve his goal. He only began the novel in October of that year and it was already printed and roaring off the shelves by December 25, 1843 – it fairly raged its way from Dickens’ pen to the page – and remains one of the most reprised stories in human history. There is something essential about it, a modern myth.

Hilary’s play is about ‘involvement’ for actors, audience, crew. That is its moral imperative, as it was Dickens’ to give a shit about others, look outwardly, see and hear other people, empathise – not just in financial charity – but in an ever-dividing world, to learn to listen in arguments, in conversation, in communities, in workplaces – recognise and care for each other – we can’t sit outside of a story like this, no matter how many times we see it. It is a necessary story.

Damien Ryan

Playing 25 Nov – 29 Dec, book your tickets to this festive celebration today!