August 19th

Charactering…

 

Walter not being here, the last rehearsal was with Justin, Chris and myself, and naturally we concentrated chiefly on our scenes together.

 

Something that becomes very clear with a dramatised version of A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge is the only character who develops from what he was on his first appearance. For the actor, this presents the problem of how much he develops at each point of the play until the complete reformation at the end. Something for me to think about, and work upon.

 

But Scrooge is a wonderful character, intelligent, and with all the comic energy of the Vice in the mediaeval Mystery Plays — a figure that Shakespeare drew on in creating villains like Richard III, the difference being that Shakespeare’s villains go from bad to worse, and eventually we lose sympathy with them, as we do not with Scrooge. And of course the Vice stands behind the villains of pantomime, which Dickens enjoyed.

 

Dickens thought people were fundamentally good, which may not – alas – be true, but is surely the best way to think of them, or us, if we want to work towards a better world. And there are glimmerings of goodness in Scrooge from the beginning — he is pretty horrible, but he does allow Bob Cratchit the whole day off for Christmas, and then there is clearly what were strong feelings of friendship for his partner, Jacob Marley (feelings that were, or are — since Marley returns as a ghost to save Scrooge from himself, clearly reciprocated). Those are the seeds I start from. He is not a figure of pretty well unmitigated evil, as is the figure of Fagin in Oliver Twist, who also has the comic energy of the Vice, but whose portrayal is unpleasantly anti-Semitic and whose end is nasty.

 

The other ability an actor must have is that of presenting in a brief appearance a strong and well-formed image, so that the character makes an immediate impression on the audience. (Peter Lorre, the German-Jewish actor who appeared in the movie Casablanca, had that ability in spades.) This is what the other actors are working on, and it’s fascinating seeing what they come up with. But I shan’t say what they are coming up with, because that would spoil things…

 

Dickens is a writer who, like Shakespeare, wrote first of all for the voice, even in his novels, and in our acting version he even appears, and tells us how he would, when writing his novels, act out the words in front of a mirror. But his writing is far from being naturalistic; it is rhetorical, hugely eloquent, and has a wonderful rhythm and flow — qualities that, as with Shakespeare or Shaw, you have to trust yourself and go with, and possess the technique to be able to do so. A naturalistic approach is useless where this kind of writing is concerned, as you see from so many amateur productions of Shakespeare, as well as some professional ones. I mention Shaw, because Dickens, being a writer of prose, is perhaps closer to him than to the poet Shakespeare, and because I recall Janest Suzman (I think it was her, in her book on acting Shakespeare, which I no longer have) telling of when, as a young actor, she was having trouble with the delivery of lines by Shaw as a result of trying to make every syllable tell. John Gielgud sidled quietly up to her after one rehearsal and asked her if she would mind if he said something about delivering Shaw. No, she replied. I think you will find, said Gielgud (as I recall), that there are only one or two accents in each phrase, and if you go with those you may find it easier… She did, and lo and behold…!

 

Another thing that has become clear to me after working on this script and re-reading A Christmas Carol is that it is far from being the sentimental tale it is often taken to be; it is not a mawkish, Bill Reilly-ish lament for Christmas. It was written, as much of Dickens’s as well as Mark Twain’s work was written, out of anger at social injustice, and it is very relevant to what is happening in our societies today in consequence of neoliberal dogma about the primacy of the market over everything else. I was not surprised to hear recently that it has been attacked by Christian fundamentalists and followers of Ayn Rand.