Sunday, December 26, 2021

Adapting the Carol

Charles Dickens first published his delightful little book A Christmas Carol in December of 1843. The first edition sold out by Christmas Eve, and it was subsequently pirated. It's real fame, though, was to come not from the book itself, but through its numerous adaptations.

According to Michael Patrick Hearn's The Annotated Christmas Carol, at least eight different stage versions of the book appeared on London stages in early 1844. Three of them opened on the same day, February 5, 1844. Charles Zachary Barnett wrote a two-act adaptation of the story called A Christmas Carol: Or, the Miser's Warning! which opened at the Surrey Theatre, while Charles Webb adapted the story for the Strand Theatre, and a rival production penned by Edward Stirling opened at the Adelphi. 

Though February 5th was just two days before Dickens's birthday, the author received nothing in compensation, since Britain's copyright laws allowed fiction to be adapted for the stage without permission. Adapters could also change the story however they liked. Webb, for instance, had Scrooge re-unite with his long-lost sweetheart at the end of the play. Stirling's script was published in 1844, but it was Barnett's that became the most famous, being published by Dicks' Standard Plays and later by Samuel French.

The Stirling version was the only adaptation of the tale Dickens himself sanctioned. Entitled A Christmas Carol; or, Past, Present, and Future, it starred the legendary O. Smith (the stage name of Richard John Smith) as Scrooge. Smith's name later became nearly synonymous with melodrama, so the acting was likely not to have been overly subtle. Edward Fitzball, who penned such famous melodramas as Jonathan Bradford, supplied the lyrics for "The Song of Christmas" which was sung during the Ghost of Christmas Present episode.

In spite of giving the production at the Adelphi his imprimatur, Dickens did not have high hopes for it. He later admitted in a letter that "O Smith was drearily better than I expected." Not high praise, but the show was a success, and Stirling's adaptation opened at the Park Theatre in New York City on Christmas Day later that same year.

Today, A Christmas Carol has become an annual theatre tradition, and my own adaptation was recently staged by the Passage Theater Company in Trenton, New Jersey. The fact is, Dickens just wrote a ripping good yarn, and it works brilliantly on stage.