For many years, my wife and I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, home to Trinity Repertory Theater. For 43 years, Trinity Rep has staged Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in December and January in its theater in the round, where actors and audience members mingle during the performance. The shows are typically sold out and provide Trinity with over half of its annual income.
Trinity Rep is known for creative adaptations of the plays it presents. This year, for instance, Scrooge wears a Covid inspired face mask and sleeps in a room festooned with electronic devices. Over the years, Ebeneezer Scrooge has been played by a woman of color. Jacob Marley has come flying in high above the audience suspended from a trapeze wearing a white sequin costume that shimmers in a spotlight. Every year, it features a chorus composed of young people drawn from the local community.
The message of A Christmas Carol is clear. It is a plea to stop being mesmerized by the allure of commerce and start paying heed to the plight of our fellow passengers here on Spaceship Earth. Yet somehow, Dickens’ message of hope never seems to sink in. The play is celebrated far and wide as the quintessential Christmas parable but there is little evidence that people actually change their behavior as a result of viewing it.
Ebeneezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley are avaricious business partners who thrive on squeezing profits from the poor. When asked for a donation to help those less fortunate, Scrooge bellows, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” He is assured there are still such vile institutions but many would rather die than go to them. “Then they had better do it and reduce the surplus population,” he sneers in reply.
It doesn’t take a very active imagination to see echoes of slumlords like the Trump and Kushner families in the words Dickens penned in 1843. Nor does it require a great intellectual leap to envision the thousands of children ripped from the arms of their parents and locked up in ICE prisons this Christmas. How dare those wretched urchins apply to the great and powerful US for help? Don’t they know that heaven helps those who help themselves?
On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, who is staggering under the weight of a heavy chain. Scrooge looks closely at it and observes it is made of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” Marley warns that he fashioned the chain by his own actions while living and must now wear it for all eternity as penance for his earthly misdeeds. “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” Scrooge says. “Business!” Marley exclaims. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
That is the heart of Dickens’ message — charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence. Captains of industry believe they are insulated from the harm their businesses does to the community or the Earth provided they are amply rewarded and build value for their shareholders. They all believe themselves to be “good men of business” but they have abdicated their responsibility to their fellow humans. Their chains in the afterlife will be heavy indeed.
Toward the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge confronts the Ghost of Christmas Present, who spreads his voluminous robe to reveal two bedraggled children huddled at his feet. Dickens writes:
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude. “Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge. “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
Analogies can often be stretched beyond the breaking point, but if there is a clearer analogy to the Trump maladministration, I can’t think what it might be. For four years, America’s national leader and his henchmen — aided and abetted by Republicans in Congress — have showered taxpayer funded largess on corporations while rolling back regulations designed to protect the people from the detritus of industries that pollute our air, our land, and our waters, making the citizens of America sick and shortening their lives. The damage is especially high in the poorest communities and communities of color.
Humanity is our business, not commerce. Industry should serve the needs of the people, not the other way around. The way to make America great again is to pursue national policies that benefit the least among us. If that is socialism, then so be it. Socialism is the foundation of the New Testament. No less a teacher than Jesus — whose birth we celebrate this day — was a socialist. Yet if He were to appear today and begin preaching on a street corner somewhere in America, there is every chance He would shortly be arrested — or shot — and charged with sedition under the Espionage Act.
Humanity is our business. Let’s dismantle our prisons and workhouses. Let’s empower all Americans, not just some. Let’s pass a constitutional amendment making a sustainable environment our highest national priority. Let’s also get over this nonsense that corporations have all the same rights as individuals. They do not. Corporations have eternal life — an attribute that no living person has ever enjoyed. They must be expected to serve the public good, not private interests.
The struggle will be long and hard. The opposition will be fierce. Rod Serling, creator of the television series The Twilight Zone, one offered this advice to society. “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs, and explosions, and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy; and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children, and the children yet unborn.”
The past 4 years have been a frantic search for a scapegoat. The damage done will echo through our society for generations. Quite simply, we are better than that. Let’s take the message of Charles Dickens to heart and work to apply it in our daily lives in the coming year and every year thereafter.
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words,” wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “Watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” Our destiny begins with our thoughts. America’s destiny begins with the thoughts of its people. We need to change our thinking on what kind of society we wish to have and today is an excellent day to begin.
Note: This year’s performance of A Christmas Carol by Trinity Repertory Theater is free to stream online. Here’s the link. You are encouraged to make a donation when you register and I ask you to please consider doing so. Trinity is one of America’s oldest repertory theaters and it is struggling mightily during this year when the pandemic has made it impossible to present plays in front of live audiences. Thank you and a merry Christmas to you all!