At McCarter, Lauren Keating’s rewrite of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” relates Scrooge’s obsession with money to Dickens’ life story. Of the two children in the play who have symbolic names, “Want” and “Ignorance,” Dickens was a child of want.
While previous productions delighted audiences with spectacle and magic deployed by the spirits who scare Ebenezer Scrooge into generosity, Keating’s version is much more generous with psychological insights. For instance, it opens with a peddler who introduces all the characters, including Ebenezer’s obnoxious father. Ebenezer, played by Dee Pellettier, skillfully reveals his gradual change.
As a collector of antique buttons, and a member of the New Jersey State Button Society, I have been doing research on the history of button making and ran across what I believe to be a significant insight into Dickens’ childhood. In 1852, in his ”Household Words,” he described the Birmingham button factories: ‘range beyond range of machines—the punching, drilling, stamping machines, the polishing wheels, and all the bright and compact, and never-tiring apparatus which is so familiar a spectacle in Birmingham work-rooms. We see hundreds of women, scores of children, and a few men… Very young children gather up the cut circles. Little boys, ‘just out of the cradle,’ range the pasteboard circles, and pack them close, on edge, in boxes or trays; and girls, as young, arrange on a table the linen circles…”
Far from being outraged at this child labor, Dickens wholeheartedly approved. Compared to his own experience, the button making tots had it easy. After all, they were with their parents and worked only 10-12 hours a day.
In contrast, when Dickens was 12, his job (pictured above) was to paste labels on bootblack jars in vermin-infested smelly factory with long hours. Meanwhile his father was in debtors’ prison, accompanied by his mother, along with the younger children.
If naysayers object to Ebenezer being played by a woman, oh well. As Keating points out, gender differences were more accepted in Dickens time than in Victorian times. Dickens refers to “the cook and the cook’s special friend.”
If this version more openly preaches the moral of the story, so be it. That’s in the true spirit of Charles Dickens.
Correction: earlier I listed the Dickens publication as “Household Matters.” Apparently it was “Household Words.”