A Dickens of a road trip to Christmas
Gerald Charles Dickens is a busy man. For the next month, he'll scurry in and out of some two-dozen American cities. But one thing is set: He'll be home for Christmas.
Mr. Dickens will be performing his one-man show "A Christmas Carol," in which he plays all 26 characters in the famous story written by his great-great-grandfather, Charles Dickens, in 1843.
"It would be totally hypocritical to do two months of 'A Christmas Carol,' and all the messages that [story] entails, and then stay away at Christmas for work!" says Dickens, who'll join his wife and three young children back in Britain just in time to celebrate the holiday.
Gerald Dickens, who decided he wanted to be an actor at the age of nine, first read "Carol" in public as an adult in 1993. In 1996, he began touring the United States, doing readings from a podium in the same way Charles Dickens had done in an 1867 visit to America.
One night, he forgot to bring the book with him. Deciding to perform what he could of the story from memory, he found himself free of the podium and began acting out the roles of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, Mrs. Fezziwig, and the rest. Since then, he's added a few props, including a top hat and Scrooge's cane, which can also serve as Tiny Tim's crutch.
"A Christmas Carol" has put lumps in throats for 158 years and been retold in countless ways. (Coming through Heathrow Airport near London, Dickens saw "The Flintstones Christmas Carol" for sale, he says with a chuckle.)
What's the appeal? "It's a very simple message about what Christmas stands for, without being tied in to one particular religion or another," he told me in a phone interview last week, the morning after
arriving in the US. "It is that message of redemption, that good can come out of anyone.... And it's a very gentle telling of that message. It doesn't bash you with moral arguments. It's loving, it's gorgeous, it's funny."
Dickens says the redeemed Scrooge sums up the story, when he vows, " 'I shall honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year' - the message being: 'Let's not just be good and friendly the one day. Let's do it for 365 days a year.' "
With Sept. 11 fresh in mind, audiences may be especially receptive to the message, Dickens says. "I have a feeling this year it's going to be even more intense. [It's] a time when people are desperately looking for the good triumphing."
While Gerald Dickens doesn't feel any mystical tie to his ancestor while onstage, he does feel a certain closeness.
"When I'm performing anything by Dickens, and especially 'A Christmas Carol,' I seem to have an enormous strength in the performance, an energy that I don't necessarily feel doing other things," he says.
And he gets surprising inspirations while on stage. "Sometimes you think, 'I wonder if that will work. Well, let's try it,' " he says. "And it does. And it just seems natural to do without having to direct it or rehearse it. Instantly a thought comes in, 'That's probably going to work. Never tried it before, but, hey, let's try it now.' "
Dickens has performed "Carol" for families in their living rooms; at Boston's historic Tremont Temple, where Charles Dickens read it aloud in 1867; and even in a 3,000-seat auditorium in Toronto ("The thrill you get from something like that, you can't put into words").
He finds each setting unique. "One audience is maybe more intense and goes for the pathos, the dark side of the story. It can be an incredibly dark story," he says. "Where another audience may be very lively and robust and enjoy the humor and the grotesque characters and the fun side of it. You just get driven along."
Growing up, Gerald didn't read Charles Dickens except when forced to at school. He remembers agonizing through "Oliver Twist," paragraph by paragraph. That all changed on New Year's Eve 1980, when he saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's staged version of "Nicholas Nickleby."
"It was so fun. and, more importantly, so theatrical," he says. "And that's when it all clicked. I understand now. These books are fun. They're not boring and stuffy. They're lively. They've got wonderful characters."
Gerald Charles Dickens in 'A Christmas Carol' tours the US through Dec. 23. For dates and locations, visit www.jackprises.com.
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