Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Timeless Tale

By Beth Terrell

Last week, my friend Allan Barlow flew into Nashville from his home in Seattle, Washington. We've known each other since junior high school, took drama and band together in high school, and kept in touch through college, where he majored in theater. He worked as an actor for the next 26 years, eventually settling in Seattle with his wife and their two lovely daughters, of whom he is immensely and deservedly proud. We exchanged the occasional email, not nearly enough contact with someone I loved like a brother. But like all the best friendships, it was like no time at all had passed, and we picked up where we had left off, as if we had stepped straight from 1983 and into the present. True friendship is timeless.

On Saturday evening, my husband and I went to see Allan perform a one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It was fascinating to watch him slide effortlessly from one character to another and back to the narrator. I laughed, I cried, I saw the whole story in my mind as clearly as if each of those characters had been standing in front of me. I loved it so much I went back the next afternoon and saw it again. Although he has done dozens, maybe hundreds, of performances of various versions of A Christmas Carol over the years, he says he never gets tired of it. Apparently, neither do we.

Actors as varied as George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, and Mr. Magoo have played Scrooge. Henry Winkler, the Fonz, did an Americanized version called An American Christmas Carol. Bill Murray put his own stamp on the tale in Scrooged. The muppets did a version in which Kermit played Bob Cratchit; in the Mickey Mouse version, the curmudgeonly Scrooge McDuck played his namesake; and most television series eventually get around to doing at least one episode based on the well-known tale. The equally timeless It's a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart, had its roots in Scrooge's story, as does Adam Sandler's modern fantasy, Click. Like friendship, a good story is timeless.

So what is it about this story that engages us so? Why can we watch it over and over again in all its many permutations and never grow weary of it? What is it about this simple story of forgiveness and redemption that strikes such a deep chord in our hearts? Perhaps it's Jacob Marley's act of grace: he arranges for Scrooge's "reclamation," even though he has no reason to believe he himself will gain anything by it. Perhaps it is the goodness of ordinary men like Bob Cratchit and Scrooge's nephew, Fred, who drink the health of a miserly old man who doesn't deserve it. Perhaps it's because, in Scrooge's transformation, we find hope that we can become better than we are.

Maybe it's just magic.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that in the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, Dickens tapped into something every writer dreams of. He must have hoped his words would live on after him, but he could not have known that this simple holiday tale, written in 1843, would still be being told and retold a hundred-and-sixty-plus years later, or that it would become so much a part of our culture. Could any writer hope for more than to touch as many lives and hearts as Dickens did when he created that "tight-fisted hand at the grindstone," that "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" called Ebeneezer Scrooge?


Jean Henry Mead said...

A wonderful article, Beth. Thank you. I enjoyed it!

Jaden Terrell said...

Thank you. I have always been a sucker for this story. One of those that makes you say, "I wish I'd written that!"