A Christmas Carol: A Thoroughly Modern Haunting

Few festive stories summon the spirit of the season as much as the Dickensian classic, A Christmas Carol. Following the intervention of four ghostly visitations on Christmas Eve, a miserly curmudgeon magically transitions overnight into a benevolent philanthropist. In doing so, lead character Ebenezer Scrooge illustrates a powerful message: nobody is beyond redemption.

From 12 November until Christmas Eve, Melburnians et al can experience this perennially relevant musical at the Melbourne Comedy Theatre. The production – directed by Matthew Warchus of Matilda fame and adapted by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) –  premiered at the Old Vic in 2017 before hitting Broadway in 2019. The show went on to win five Tony awards to date, giving it credible provenance. And David Wernham, who plays Scrooge, has serious acting chops on both stage and screen.  Add a timeless narrative to the mix and the ingredients pretty much guarantee an unforgettable experience, complete with twelve well-known carols to warm the festive cockles and assist Scrooge on his redemptive journey.

But A Christmas Carol is not simply a relic of gothic Victoriana, designed to cheer the audience of the time and feed their penchant for ghost stories. It is a story that very much has modern resonance – and if it doesn’t resonate, then it should. For beneath the entertainment value and joyous outcome, the tale is a political diatribe against the ignorance and indifference of the ruling classes. In a fairly recent Guardian article it was noted that ‘A Christmas Carol is not cosy, and its angry message should still haunt us’. And angry it is, at heart. In early 1843, Dickens had planned to publish a pamphlet entitled ‘An Appeal on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child’. It never materialised, but perhaps evolved into the less openly critical A Christmas Carol, which essentially offers a similar critique of social injustice but in a more palatable form.

The consequences of our obsession with materialism is perhaps most vividly demonstrated through the character of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner who returns from the grave to warn his old friend that he must change his ways – or else. Marley, it transpires, is not resting in peace. He appears in chains, from which all manner of monetary-related items jangle. The spectre explains to his frugal friend that he is wearing the ‘chains [he] forged in life’. It is too late for Marley to repent – but not for Scrooge.

Far from being just a Christmas story, A Christmas Carol teaches the evergreen message that how we behave towards our ‘fellow passengers to the grave’ during our time on earth may well have repercussions. In a sense, Marley’s return offers an alternative ending to the parable about the rich man and Lazarus: from beyond the grave, the rich man pleads for the beggar, Lazarus, to return to the land of living in order to forewarn his family about the consequences of their behaviour. Permission is refused. But in A Christmas Carol Marley doesreturn, thus offering his friend an opportunity to escape such a fate. Any living being, it seems, can redeem themselves – and what better time to do it than the season of goodwill?

Victorian England seems impossibly far removed from modern Australia. Even in the currently dire international circumstances, Australia remains one of the richest countries in the world. But, just as in the nineteenth century, the gap between rich and poor is wide – and becoming wider. This has become more pronounced in the wake of the so-called ‘inequality virus’: the coronavirus pandemic. According to ACOSS (Australian Council of Social Sciences) the top one per cent of the population hold fifty times more wealth than the lower sixty percent of the nation combined.

To see inequalities more starkly, eight men possess the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who comprise the poorest sector of humanity. While big businesses become more profitable via means such as dodging taxes and utilising connections, the less well-off increasingly face stagnant wages, exploitative employment contracts, and reliance on food banks. Whether through ignorance (much like the London fog metaphorically blinds Scrooge) or greed, the rich are forging Marley-esque chains. Charity and community have never been more important or more in need. And so: A Christmas Carol, 178 years on, continues to function as an urgent wake-up call.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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