Holiday Theater from the Past

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 editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Credit: Wiki Commons.

In December of 1864 the Civil War was winding down, but there was no surrender by the Confederate army. Hundreds of thousands of young men had died and many more had been wounded. The nation, north and south, struggled to survive amid battles and cannon fire. Many Americans reflected on the Christmas spirit that year as the war droned on around them.

That is the atmosphere of A Civil War Christmas, a new holiday play, that opens December 4 at the New York Theater Workshop. It is one of a surprisingly large number of history plays tied to the holiday season around the country.

“I wanted to stage this play because when you watch the calamities of Christmas, 1864, you think about the troubles we have today. We are still a very divided country, as the election just proved, just as we were divided in 1864. It’s always good to look at a play about the past so you can reflect on what’s going on today. We learn from all history plays,” said Jim Nicola, the artistic director of the New York Theater Workshop, which is producing A Civil War Christmas.

And, too, Nicola added, there is always interest in the Civil War. “This play has a lot in it about Abraham Lincoln, that Christmas close to the end of his life, about the first Christmas tree in the White House, Union supporters, rebel soldiers, slaves and black freedmen and women. It is story about all of them, with Christmas as a backdrop,” he said.

“History is not just a mirror in which we look into the past to see a reflection of ourselves now, it is a collection of inspiring stories for us,” added Nicola. “We are in a deep recession now, so we like plays and movies about the Great Depression. We got out of that and we will get out of this, eventually.”

A Civil War Christmas is just one of many holiday history plays around the country. In New York there is A Christmas Story, based on the 1970s movie (“you’ll shoot your eye out, kid”) that has been produced around the U.S. for several years. The Radio Music Hall’s Christmas show is not only celebrating its long history, but the 85th anniversary of the fabled Rockettes dance team. Elf, based on the movie, opens this month.

There are unusual Christmas plays, too. A number of theaters around America are staging the radio play version of Frank Capra’s Christmas classic film It’s A Wonderful Life. One of them is the Irish Repertory Theater, in New York (December 10 opening). Another is the Buck’s County Playhouse, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, re-opened in September after being closed for many years (the show opens in early December).

The Bucks County Playhouse show is historic, set at Christmas, 1946, just like the movie.

“I did not want to stage a holiday show that you put on every year, such as A Christmas Carol. I did not want to do yet another Nutcracker. I was talking to a friend of mine, an actress, a year ago and she asked me if I had seen any of the productions of It’s A Wonderful Life as a radio show. I was intrigued. I first saw the movie on television in, oh, the early 1960s. I loved it. I was a big Donna Reed fan as a kid. My friend explained to me how the radio play focuses on the story and everything is really filled in with the imagination of the audience and their own remembrances of the movie, and everybody in the country has seen that movie,” said Jed Bernstein, the producer at the Bucks County Playhouse. “It’s a Wonderful Life is really a tribute to all that Christmas stands for. It is about close families, neighbors helping neighbors, small towns, good times, hope, triumph of good over evil, and a clever old angel, too.”

Bernstein added that there are many small towns around New Hope, Pennsylvania, that are very much like the town in the movie. “In fact, Doylestown, our neighbor, used to have a radio show, WBUX and our play could have been staged on their radio show, for their small town audience,” he laughed.

The Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C. has joined the growing list of theaters staging White Christmas, based on the Bing Crosby movie (with Danny Kaye). The play has done well in every part of the country in which it has been staged.

Annie, that just opened in New York, takes place at Christmas, 1933, and finishes with a sensational Christmas party. In The Sound of Music, at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, the Von Trapp family celebrates Christmas amid other holidays as its story of Nazi oppression in Austria unfolds.

Numerous theaters, such as the Pioneer Theater, in Salt Lake City, Utah, are staging A Christmas Carol. That play, based on the Charles Dickens’ story, has been a holiday favorite at New Jersey’s McCarter Theater for over thirty years. Now, kids who saw it back in the 1970s are bringing their own kids to the latest performances of the drama, set in the middle of the nineteenth century in London. Audiences learn much about London in that era, from the lives of the wealthy to those of the poor.

In some cities the holidays are celebrated from neighborhood to neighborhood. Chicago, as an example, has a half dozen different Christmas plays within its borders. The Drury Lane Theater has the standard A Christmas Carol from November 23 to December 22 and the Goodman will stage it through December 29, but the Piccolo Theater has Bah! Humbug! A new version of the Dickens classic. Over at the Greenhouse Theater, producers are staging a little known Dickens holiday story, The Chimes. Not to be outdone, Cadillac Palace theater has Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch that Stole Christmas and the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center has a play called Christmas Bingo (yes, Christmas Bingo).

Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts, is staging a unique Christmas play, Santaland Diaries, the story of a man who played Santa in a department store.

The wildest Christmas of all continues to be Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, where the Commedia Beauregard Theater again presents its Klingon Christmas Carol, the wacky version of the Christmas story presented by a cast of Klingons from the Star Trek world. The entire play is presented in the Klingon language (Klingons who live in the area will, of course, not need a translator). Now, one might say that this is not a play about Christmas in history, but one could also argue, with some back up, that this might be the past in Klingon history.

No matter what play you see, or holiday themed opera, ballet or concert, a very Merry Christmas to all!

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