“The Chimes” is Charles Dickens 1844 novella that concerns the disillusionment of Toby “Trotty” Veck, a poor working-class man. When Trotty has lost his faith in Humanity and believes that his poverty is the result of his unworthiness he is visited on New Year’s Eve by spirits to help restore his faith and show him that nobody is born evil, but rather that crime and poverty are things created by man. (from Goodreads, 3.5 of 5 stars)
I am in ninth grade and my brother Jeff, an eighth grader, has his first big starring role on stage: Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, presented by Loveland Junior High. For weeks he works to memorize his lines, our whole family learning most of them by proximity. (“There is more of gravy than of the grave about you!”) During the production, I half-expect to be distracted by the voice in my head declaiming the lines in unison with the actors on stage. Instead, I am mesmerized. I actually forget that my brother is playing a part – he IS Scrooge on that stage. Sure, I like Alistair Sim’s (and Patrick Stewart’s and Albert Finney’s) Scrooge – it is quite a role for an actor, after all. But in my heart, Jeff’s is my favorite portrayal of Ebenezer.
It is a year of anxiety, strife, and divisiveness. My brother, now in his middle years, has spent his life creating meaningful theater. Lampost, the theater company he and his wife, Marsha, direct and operate, offers a wide slate of performances and experiences. But most years for the last thirty, they have presented a Christmas production. Many have been musicals, most written by, directed by, and starring Jeff and Marsha – along with various assorted cast members (now including my niece Rachel and her husband Jordan).
For 2016, Jeff has returned to Dickens. This time, the inspiration is The Chimes (described above). Although Jeff wrote this musical several years ago, this is my first time seeing it. My friend Sara and I are thrilled to be in the audience as the lights go down. A sequence of vignettes show characters in period clothing responding to the news of the day, taking us backward in time to 1844. Jeff serves as Master of Ceremonies, introducing the setting and characters. Approximately five minutes into the production, Sara leans over and whispers, “Your brother is a genius!”
England. A time of disparity between rich and poor, a time sometimes referred to the Hungry Forties. Many accept the notion that the poor deserve to be so, a result of their lack of industry and/or inferior character. Charles Dickens, seeking inspiration for his latest Christmas story, follows the story of Mary Furley, a poor woman sentenced to hang for a failed suicide attempt that results in the drowning death of her child. Politicians and arrogant “champions of the poor”, who see the disenfranchised residents of London as sub-human, also provide fodder for his tale.
“I am in great hopes that I shall make you cry, bitterly, with my little Book,” Dickens says, and when he reads it to a group of friends who know – and share – his outrage at England’s Poor Laws, one of them writes, “There was not a dry eye in the house.” (http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2012/12/the-chimes-charles-dickens-new-years-carol)
I fall in love with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Poor Scrooge, such a lonely, bitter, greedy man. I do not identify with his worldview, the stingy old miser. But I am enamored of the thought that he can be redeemed, can see the error of his ways and, even at an advanced age, can change; that it isn’t too late for him to fall in love with the world and the wonderful, unique and diverse individuals who populate it. There are no debtors’ prisons or workhouses in Loveland, Ohio in the 1970s. Still, I understand that one might be moved to desperate acts by an abusive system – I understand the rage expressed by the Ghost of Christmas Present to peoples’ indifference, if not outright inhumanity.
Watching Scrooge/Jeff’s joy on finding Christmas in his heart, I feel it in my own.
I watch with awe as the story of The Chimes is revealed through my brother’s adaptation and direction. He makes quite a case for the similarities between 2016 and 1844: the anxiety, the unrest, the disparity and polarization.
“The chimes represent time, and the main themes of the story are summarized in the three wrongs they accuse Trotty of committing:
• Harking back to a golden age that never was, instead of striving to improve conditions here and now.
• Believing that individual human joys and sorrows do not matter to a higher power.
• Condemning those who are fallen and unfortunate, and offering them neither help nor pity.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chimes)
As was Scrooge (A Christmas Carol was published just a year before The Chimes), Trotty Veck is deeply impacted by the vision he is given of a world desperately in need of whatever warmth or good he can offer. Old Trotty, too, discovers that there is life yet to be lived – and love yet to be shared.
1974-2016. Forty two years separate these two performances starring my brother. On a personal level, that’s forty two years of direct inspiration from a sibling who lives his vocation with unwavering love and conviction – forty two years of using his talents to impact the world. But there’s something here that transcends the merely personal, too.
Driving home after the show, through the dark Iowa landscape so far removed from the streets of London where I spent the past two hours in my imagination, I can’t help but think of all the things that separate me from Scrooge and Trotty Veck…much more than the years (172 of them) between myself and Dickens, their creator. The world is so substantially different now: we fly, we visit other planets, we map genomes, we can kill our enemies with exquisite precision. Yet, the world is also the same in many ways: the greed, the selfishness of privilege, and the false virtue used to cloak them; the political divide, where both sides neglect, in favor of their “platforms”, the living breathing people who populate the gulf between them. That love can bridge what divides us is also true now, as it was then.
I think how like Dickens’ protagonists I am. Past my prime, caught up in my own busyness and jaded perspectives, in need of revival. I doubt I will be visited by three ghosts – whether in the form of human-like wraiths or the spirits of chimes. Luckily, I have Scrooge and Trotty Veck – and a brother who can bring them both to life in my here-and-now. These three stand in for the fabled ghosts, and show me much of what I need to know about taking a new path; about softening my heart to those who need what I can share; about redemption despite my ever-advancing years.
Luckily, these three help me to believe the Spirit will find a way to grace us all if our hearts are willing and open to change.