Tuesday 4 December 2007


Eddie McNamee (Right) who plays Ebenezer Scrooge in my new dramatisation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, opening tonight at Greenwich Playhouse, is the latest in a long line of actors (from Lionel Barrymore to Michael Barrymore) who have taken on the role of the famous Christmas Humbug.

But what few people know is that Dickens had a very specific model in mind for his famous skinflint.

Ebenezer Scrooge has the following exchange with the charity collectors who call at the premises of Scrooge & Marley on that fateful Christmas Eve:

"At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it...
I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population..."

The inspiration for this chilling philosophy was drawn from the writings of the English political economist, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who wrote one of the longest-titled books in the history of publishing, to wit: An Essay on the Principle of Population or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness with an enquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal of the Evils Which it Occasions.


Here's a sample of Malthus' gloomy speculation on the fate of humankind:

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.

The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands.

There are now those who believe that Dickens misunderstood and misrepresented Malthus' thinking and that the actions of Scrooge or any man - mean or generous - can no more affect the fate of humanity than they can alter the rising and falling of the tide.

But Dickens wanted to remind his readers that Christmas, more than anything else, was a time to consider the welfare of those less fortunate.

As his nephew, Fred, observes:

"...I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round - apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."


SharonM said...

I suppose we should all strive to make the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves better, not just at Christmas (or Chanucah - see below), but all year round.
I hope the play is a great success Brian.
And can I wish any fellow bloggers to whom it may apply Happy Chanucah tonight!

Boll Weavil said...

I think the core of Malthus' philosophy was that population growth would be checked by the ability of a society to sustain itself so if there wasn't enough food,the surplus population would die off and redress the equilibrium.Dickens attacks Malthus directly during the visitation of Christmas Present when he suggests that he actually looks at some of the suffering involved in this 'natural' stage of depopulation and sees the people behind the statistics.Good point Charlie but I still don't think we've done that !

Boll Weavil said...

Btw, my post is to continue Mr B's comments rather than to enlighten Mr B himself. As he is our leading light on the text,there might have been an element of grandma and egg sucking in that....
Good luck to the production although I can't help thinking it needs some songs ! I still have the arrangements of how the music should be used in my head so one day maybe....

Brian Sibley said...

LisaH - Happy Chanucah! And for anyone who doesn't know: Chanucah (or Hanukkah) is the Jewish 'Festival of Lights' which commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC at the time of the Assyrian-Greek Empire.

Read can more about this festival here.

Brian Sibley said...

BOLL (1) - Yes, thanks for that amplification.

And, as you rightly say, the Spirit of Christmas Present comments on Scrooge's Malthus-like philosophy with considerable passion:

"Forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? ... Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust."

Brian Sibley said...

Boll (2) - Songs?? Well, yes... The running-time for this production had to be rather shorter than on it's last outing (commercial expectations, apparently) and the songs - along with one or two scenes or parts of scenes have had to be cut... But I'm sure that, one day, someone, somewhere, WILL reprise the version with your songs...

SharonM said...

Many thanks for the Chanucah wishes Brian (will try not to overdose on the doughnuts). Thanks also for the link to the Chanucah site - we can have the tune playing in our office all day.
As for your play - today Greenwich, hopefully the West End one day.

Anonymous said...

Malthus is such an optimist. By his reckoning, there will be a population adjustment before we can do any serious damage to the environment ...