What the Dickens?
Joe Dowling explains the Guthrie’s witty new A Christmas Carol
Q: What prompted you, as the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, to swap out the popular warhorse for a fresh version?
Joe Dowling: It was simply time. There was nothing wrong with the adaptation that Barbara Field wrote for us back in 1975. But after 35 years, we wanted another look at the original book and to get a writer who is of a different generation.
Q: You found clever Crispin Whittell.
JD: He’s in his early forties, originally from England, now in Los Angeles. I read a couple of his scripts, including Darwin in Malibu, imagining a meeting of Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley in a beach house, and he’s very witty and very clear. And he has an affinity with Victorian England.
Q: There will still be three ghosts, right?
JD: Of course, and the story is set very much in Victorian times. But there’s a lot of humor in it. Yes, Scrooge is nasty in the first part, but he’s wry, too. There’s the residue within him of someone who could have been an excellent person. And while most versions of Carol start with this long narration—“Marley was dead, to begin with”—Crispin skips all that, and we jump right into the action.
Q: Did you keep some favorite scenes?
JD: I first told Crispin, “I’m not even going to give you the original script.” But then I had to tell him, “Oh, I miss that bit. Oh dear, what about this one?” He was very gracious.
Q: Why do you think people return year after year for this story?
JD: When Dickens wrote it, there were no financial safety nets, there was no social security. And Dickens said, “We need to look after each other.” It’s about coming together. And that’s a message we need to hear. No matter which way political events go, we’re not alone in any of this.