With this modest preface, Charles Dickens presented A Christmas Carol to the English-speaking world. Dickens was 31 at the time and already established as a prominent writer of his day. The serial publication of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby had catapulted the author into national prominence. The monthly exploits of Mr. Jingle, the orphan Oliver and young Nickleby became a daily topic of discussion, the “soap operas” of the day.
But by the early 1840s, Dickens’ star had tarnished. An exhausting visit to America, followed by the harsh critical reception dealt the early installments of Martin Chuzzlewit, had left the author despondent and suffering from writer’s block. Chuzzlewit was not selling well and his extended trip overseas had been costly. Dickens needed money. To break through his unproductive depression, he began to write a “seasonal story” in mid-October of 1843. Working tirelessly, he completed A Christmas Carol in the beginning of December and it appeared in the news stalls on December 19, 1843.
In the years since its original publication, A Christmas Carol has become the best-loved of all the Christmas stories, past, present and surely yet to come. Indeed even if Dickens had failed to write any sentence except “…and so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!” his immortality would be assured.
Although A Christmas Carol came to life initially on the printed page, Dickens’ story has reached more people as the basis for other forms of entertainment than have ever read the book.
Dickens himself gave its first public reading in December 1853. The audience’s reaction to his reading thrilled the author, who as a young man had seriously considered acting as a profession.
Although in great demand over the following years, Dickens gave few public readings of his work. In the meantime, the author’s work became so identified with the struggle of good vs. evil and the importance of family and home that his readers endowed Dickens with the same high ideals he wrote into his protagonists. They saw Dickens as a warm-hearted Bob Cratchit cheerfully lifting Tiny Tim upon his shoulders. Although this image certainly sold books it was not one the author actively discouraged.
In 1858, Dickens divorced his wife of 22 years and set about him a whirlwind of scandal that threatened both his reputation and his livelihood. In response, Dickens embarked on his first extended series of public readings in the hope that the popularity of his work would overshadow any misgivings about his personal life.
The tour, consisting of 86 readings in 43 towns, was an exhaustive success. Audiences were amazed by Dickens’ versatility as he re-created the characters of his tales before their eyes. Dickens reveled in his success. His popularity on stage reaffirmed the fidelity of his public. Any trespass had been forgiven.
Meanwhile, in New York City, scarcely a year after initial publication, the first American stage production of A Christmas Carol opened at the Park Theatre. The drama critic for the New York Spirit of the Times said in the edition of December 28, 1844:
“There are but two parts in the piece – Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit – the rest being but slight personages introduced by the episode of the Miser’s dream which, to tell the truth, distracts the play by creating a long series of unconnected and pointless scenes ….”
A Christmas Carol did not resurface in America as a dramatic presentation until 1867. Dickens, then on his second and triumphant visit to the States, read Carol for the first time to an American audience in Boston's Tremont Temple. The hall was filled with laughing, weeping and applauding Bostonians. It became an American custom from that first success to give public readings of the book at Christmas.
After Dickens’ death in 1870, there were few professional stage adaptations of Carol. Dickens’ literary popularity was in decline. But the advent of the age of mass communication and entertainment at the turn of the century added another life – and in the case of A Christmas Carol, many lives …
TOM VIOLA is the Executive Director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.