Joy to the World: Historic Holiday Theater on National Stages

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former entertainment writer and critic for the New York Daily News.

I know.  I know.  When Thanksgiving arrives it is time to think of all the football on television—pro, college and high school.  Not for theater aficionados who love the stage and love history, though.  This coming holiday season has a number of history plays, from 1900 orphanages to 1802 New Orleans parties to 1830s London to 1970s gunfire in Afghanistan that should please anyone.

No holiday theater season for history buffs would be complete without a Christmas play and a number of theaters across the country are producing different versions of Charles Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol.  The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his haunting midnight journeys with the ghosts through the merry olde London of the mid-nineteenth century, the temperature bone rattling and he snow falling slowly from the sky, never fails to delight theatergoers, young and old.

One of the longest running A Christmas Carol productions is at the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, N.J.  The old Gothic theater has been staging the play for over twenty-five years and its fans come back again and again, with their children and grandchildren.  The old stone theater, with its large lobby and marvelous auditorium, and the campus’ dozens of stone gothic buildings, looks a lot like nineteenth-century London and that might be one of the reasons why the play is so successful there year after year.

This year’s version opens December 5 and runs through December 26.  There are evening performances and numerous matinees for the kids (a noon and 4 p.m. matinee on Christmas Eve).  The McCarter production is adapted from the Dickens’ story by David Thompson.  Michael Unger directs, and the fabulous scenery is by Ming Cho Lee.  I have attended McCarter’s A Christmas Carol, on and off, for twenty-five years.  My favorite performance was on a chilly night way back in the mid-1980s.  I was sitting in the theater with my wife and young son watching the snow fall on London on the set at the end of the play.  Unknown to the people in the theater, it had started to snow outside.  The ushers, God bless them, ran down the sides of the theater and flung open the huge old wooden exit doors, so you could see that it was snowing outside as well as inside—it was snowing for Christmas all over the world.  The play ended a few moments later.  I swung my young son up on to my shoulders and we marched outside, laughing, as the snow fell gently on our heads.

There is a nice touch of British history in A Christmas Carol.  The audience learns much about mid-nineteenth century London family life, finds out a little about rules of the workplace, the overcrowding of the city, the dress and dining habits of the population and what the holidays meant.  It skips over the activities of the city government, though, and does not mention much about the terrible crime wave of that era or the growth of the criminal class.  Even so, it is a nice trip through time to holiday England and a welcome meeting with the lovable Tiny Tim.

Another joyous holiday tale that has become a classic, as a film, is A Christmas Story, the Jean Shepard story of little Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun (“you’ll shoot your eye out!”).  Over the years, several theaters have turned the film script into a play.  One of the better productions this holiday season is at the Actor’s Theater of Louisville, where the comedy, written by Phillip Grecian, played to sold out houses last year.  The play opened November 9 and runs through the end of the month.

The Actor’s Theater of Charlotte offers Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some), by Michael Carleton, Jim Fitzgerald and John Alvarez, with music by Will Knapp.  It is an annual hit.  The play is a compilation of different holiday stories, all laced with a large dose of humor.  It opens December 1 and runs through the 18th.

The folks who run the Gorilla Theater, in Tampa, Florida (no on the snow there), are fed up with the commercialization of Christmas, so they are getting back with Christmas Stopping.  The comedy fires its darts at the organizations and individuals who have turned Christmas into a nearly three-month-long shopping and toy extravaganza.  The dark comedy opens November 18 and runs through December 12.

The Laguna Playhouse, in Laguna, California, is presenting Daddy Long Legs throughout much of December.  The play, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and book by John Caird, is the story of a girl, Jerusha, who lives in an orphanage in 1900.  Over the course of more than a dozen years, an unknown benefactor pays all of her bills.  His only request is that she write him a letter once a month, knowing that he will never write back.  She grows into a beautiful young woman and then the benefactor appears to surface.  The play runs next week through the end of the holidays.


The New York theater has its share of Christmas plays and its annual Nutcracker ballets, plus the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show, with the fabled Rockettes, but the holiday season will be highlighted by two non-holiday shows set worlds apart—A Free Man of Color at Lincoln Center and The Great Game: Afghanistan, a trilogy by the Tricycle Theater Company, at the New York Public Theater.

A Free Man of Color is a history lessons for us all.  Veteran playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) dug deep into the history of New Orleans to come up with the story of a wild and frantic town that existed in 1801, on the eve of the purchase of the Louisiana Territory by the United States from Napoleon Bonaparte.  Jacques Cornete is a powerful, well-connected man about town living the high life in the city, which is a Sodom and Gomorrah on the Mississippi at the time.  The play, directed by George C. Wolfe, chronicles an explosion of not just history, but racial relations in the Creole capital of America.

The Public Theater’s The Great Game: Afghanistan trilogy starts in 1842 and continues through last week’s headlines.  The ambitious history project begins with “Invasions & Independence,” the story of Western involvement in the country from 1842 through the rest of the nineteenth century.  Part two is “Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban,” covering the years 1979 (the Soviet invasion) through 1996.  Part three, “Enduring Freedom,” traces U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001.  The play, nominated for the prestigious Olivier Award in England last year, will be staged at New York University’s Skirball Center, in Manhattan.  The ambitious trio of dramas will be directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham.  The plays are the work of writers Richard Bean, Lee Blessing, David Edgar, David Greig, Amit Gupta, Ron Hutchinson, Stephen Jeffreys, Abi Morgan, Ben Ockrent, Simon Stephens, Colin Teevan and Joy Wilkinson. The plays can be seen individually or as an all-day trilogy on weekends.

The theater will also offer post-performance discussions for theatergoers.  They include discussions on reporting in Afghanistan, December 1; government in Afghanistan, December 9; rights and development in the country, December 17; and a separate, full night public forum on America’s involvement there on December 14.

There are true Christmas stories that have been turned into holiday plays, too, such as All Is Calm: the Christmas Truce of 1914, that runs December 16-20 at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis.  The musical, written by Peter Rothstein, is based on an actual event that took place in the battlefield near Ypres, Belgium, on Christmas, 1914, at the start of World War I. Germans, British, and French were dug in, fighting endless trench warfare.  That Christmas Day, someone on the British side lit a Christmas tree and rested it on top of one of the trenches in the war-torn area.  A few minutes later, there was loud yelling on the German side and hundreds of German soldiers began singing ‘Silent Night.”  Men jumped out of both trenches and walked gingerly towards each other.  Suddenly, a truce was declared in honor of Christmas.  Soldiers from both sides ate and drank together, sang Christmas carols and even played a soccer game.  In some areas, the truce lasted one night and in others up to five.  The musical is based on the little known incident. It will be broadcast live on Minnesota Public Radio and the European Broadcast Union.

Also in Minneapolis is a play based on, well, space history.  A Klingon Christmas Carol, that runs Nov. 27–Dec. 13 at the Mixed Blood Theater.  lStar Trek fans and others have attended this unusual and unique Christmas show for several years now and have by all accounts enjoyed this slice of historical pop culture (remember, the Klingons first appeared on the small screen in 1967).  The play is the story of three holiday ghosts who encounter a Klingon army general.  Oh, in case you did not know it, “A Christmas Carol” in Klingon is “Qi SmaS Quch Daglajjaj!”

Chicago, the Second City, is second to none in its holiday theatrical celebrations.  The Goodman and Writers’ theaters are each staging productions of A Christmas Carol.  The Goodman’s runs from November 20 to December 20 and the Writers’ from Dec. 13-23.  Another version is at the Metropolis Performing Arts Center (through December 24).   In an unusual production, the American Theater in Chicago is staging  It’s A  Wonderful Life: the Radio Play.  It is based on the Frank Capra movie and presented as an old 1940s radio play.  It is an interesting look at radio history.  From the late 1920s to the 1950s, radio networks presented thousands of plays in just this fashion.

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater is staging its unique production of A Christmas Carol for the thirty-sixth consecutive year (Pabst Theater).

 Between dates on this long list of history plays through Christmas, theatergoers can hang their stockings with care…

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