Sunday, January 11, 2009

FROM "HUMBUG" TO "HORSE HOCKEY"--Making the familiar startlingly new

Everyone is familiar with Charles Dickens' classic story, "A Christmas Carol." After all, there have been dozens upon dozens of film versions, TV versions and radio versions of the story. "A Christmas Carol" in the most dramatized literary work in the history of live theatre--meaning, it has been dramatized more times than any other story ever written--ever! Theatre companies around the world have stayed in business by producing, year after year, their own particular production of Dickens' classic story.

Scrooge's catch phrase, "Bah! Humbug" has become as much a part of Christmas as jingle-bells and Santa Claus.

Characters from "A Christmas Carol" haven been depicted on Christmas cards and in Christmas art for well over 160 years. For instance, during the holiday season who hasn't seen a drawing somewhere of the crippled child Tiny Tim riding on the shoulders of a redeemed and smiling Scrooge as the old man walks through the snow covered streets of old London? We're all familiar that classic image.

But did you know that this famous scene--dramatized in so very many film, theatre and Tv versions of the story--actually is not found in Dickens' original book?

Yes, we all are very familiar with "A Christmas Carol"....

...Or are we?

In the 1980's, award-winning playwright Rob Lauer read Dickens' original book--and was astounded by what he found. Having grown up seeing film, TV and theatrical adaptaitons of the story, Lauer assumed that he knew Dickens' story all too well. He soon discovered he was very wrong. Said Lauer:

"The book was much darker than I ever imagined, and the humor was often biting. I always thought that the story was overly sentimental and sweet; the original book is not. Most of the movies and TV versions of the story lift their dialogue straight from Dickens' book--but only parts of it. I began to get the impression that when some wrote a 'new' script for a 'new' version of the story, they must have drawn upon earlier scripts written by other dramatists instead of going back to Dickens' original book.

"There were very moving incidents in Dickens' original book that I had never seen dramatized. For instance, when Scrooge seens himself as a young boy, left to spend Christmas alone at school, there's a lengthy episode about Scrooge's youthful love of reading books--particularly 'Robinson Crusoe" and "Arabian Nights." Later Scrooge is shown what became of his former fiancee; he is shown how happy she eventually was after leaving him, and marry a loving man and having children with him. Scrooge sees the family together at Christmas, enjoying one another's company, showing their affection physically with hugs and kissess; and Scrooge--seeing for the first time the kind of life that could have been his, and which he will now never know--becomes heartbroken and distraught. I thought the scene was incredibly tragic, moving and dark; that it was a scene crying out to be dramatized. And yet I had never seen that episode--so pivotal in the book's plot--dramatized.

"What really impressed me was the quality of the storytelling itself--Dickens' narrative voice. His descriptions of the characters, their inner thoughts; of the loctaions, of the events--these are a pure joy to read. That narrative voice is completely absent from most film, TV and theatre adaptations of the story. Reading the original book for the first time, Dickens' narrative voice seemed to add an entirely new and refreshing context to the familiar dialogue that I had heard year after year in films and plays of the story.

"I was determined that if I ever had the chance to write a new version of 'A Christmas Carol' I would do my best to capture that narrative voice, and that I would present the episodes in the book that most dramatizations have ignored."

That chance came in 2002. Lauer has been hired as the Artistic Director of "Swamp Gravy"--the nationally acclaimed "official folk-life play of the state of Georgia."

(Above: Photos from the 2002 production of "Swamp Gravy.")

The theatre in which "Swamp Gravy" was presented was Cotton Hall--a former cotton warehouse in the tiny town of Colquitt, Georgia. The warehouse had been built in the 1930's as part of the New Deal, but by the 1960's had been more or less abandoned--used only for storage. In the early 1990's when the Colquitt Miller Arts Council (with grants from the Georgia Council for the Arts and the NEA) began producing "Swamp Gravy," the old cotton warehouse was transformed into a 400 seat theatre that would serve as the production's permanent home. Unfortunately "Swamp Gravy" was the only production presented in Cotton Hall, which meant one of the country's most unique theatrical venues stood empty most of the year.

Lauer proposed that the Colquitt Miller Arts Council begun producing several professional shows a year, featuring actirs cast of out New York. Learning that some members of the arts council had entertained the idea of presenting a Christmas show at Cotton Hall, Lauer suggested that a new version of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" be presented--this time set in Depression Era Georgia.

"A Southern Christmas Carol" premiered on December 3, 2003.

Determined to remain true to Dickens' oirginal stiry, Lauer went through the book paragraph by paragraph and concept by concept. Where Dickens' story was set against the class structure of 1830's Engalnd, Lauer translated it against the class structure of the rural deep South under Jim Crow law and the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Where Dickens' story focused on British bigotry against the poor and the uneducated, Lauer hinted at the racism found in the American south during the 1930's. For every character representing some part of London's social order in the 1830's, Lauer found a 1930's American and Southern counterpart.

"My objective was to take a story that everyone mistakenly assumes they already know, and bring it to life in such a way that it appears to be something completely new and original," said Lauer. Based on the reaction of theatre critics and audiences, he succeeded.

So what about Scrooge's favorite catch-phrase? "Bah! Humbug!" was never a common figure speech among Americans--especially Southerners.

"I did some research and discovered that 'humbug' came into use in England in the early 1700's," said Lauer. "A 'humbug' is defined assomething is that's false, that's ridiculous and completely unbelievable. In common American slang "humbug" means BS.

"Of course, I couldn't have Scrooge cursing in a show that would have families with small children in the audience, so I began to think about the way my grandparents--both from the rural South--would express themselves when they felt like cursing. Southerners are very inventive with language; I think it's a holdover from the British and Scotch Irish who originally settled the region.

"When I was a small child I was taught that the slang word I should use for--well, for 'manure' was 'hockey.' And I remembered that as a little kid I heard some adults say 'Horse Hockey' and 'Bull Hockey' instead of BS. You called something a lot of "Horse hockey" when it was obviously false, stupid or foolish--when it was what the British would have once called a 'humbug.' And so it came to pass that in 'A Southern Christmas Carol.' Old Man Scrooge dismisses Christmas by barking, 'Bah! Horse hockey!' When Scrooge first spat that phrase out on opening night, the aucdience errupted in laughter and applauded; it was completely unexpected; it had a certain amount of shock value while at the same time it wasn't offensive. Most importantly, every Southerner in the audience knew exactly what it meant. They reacted to it in much the same way that British readers first reacted to 'Bah! Humbug!'"

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