My name is Sam Weller. No Samuel, just "Sam," a reverential nod to my paternal grandfather's nickname. But even as I arrived into the world in the midst of the infamous Chicago blizzard of 1967, my parents were acutely aware of the Dickensian origins of my moniker. "Sam Weller" was a wildly popular character in Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers, published in 1837. Prior to the novel, Dickens had published the story as a serialization titled, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Sam Weller appeared in the tenth installment and, because of his wit and humor, his arrival in the story is widely regarded as having brought Dickens widespread acclaim. I often joke that I am grateful that my parents didn't name me for another popular Pickwickian--"Mr. Jingle."
Because of this literary nomenclatural connection, it is somewhat of a requirement, I suppose, to have at least a passing interest in the Dickens oeuvre. My first exposure came, as it does for so many, through the innumerable cinematic adaptations of A Christmas Carol, airing endlessly on the television screen of my childhood. I had a 13-inch black and white TV in my Southern California bedroom, with a bad antenna that provided snowy reception at best. I recall being distinctly more frightened of Alastair Sim's Ebenezer Scrooge than of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present or the Spirit Yet to Come. Mean old men are very real to ten-year-old boys, manifesting daily in the form of school principals, balding math teachers, corner grocery store owners and neighbors on the other side of the proverbial 8-foot fence.
As I grew older, the Dickens story became ever-more captivating, on the screen, then, of course, through reading the original, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, published in 1843. There are few stories of redemption as fulfilling as the Christmas epiphany of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Over the years, as a writer, I have written about the stage adaptation of the Dickens classic at Chicago's renowned Goodman Theatre on several occasions. The Goodman is one of Chicago's preeminent theatres in a town certainly known for exceptional theatrical productions. I interviewed actor Tom Mula, who played the role of Scrooge from 1991-1998 about his own novella, Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (Adams Media, 1995). I even pondered the fate of the many child actors who donned the pint-sized newsboy cap and the little crutch playing "Tiny Tim" at the Goodman over the years, tracking down a number of them for the National Public Radio program, All Things Considered.
This year, I decided to introduce two of my three daughters to the play, my oldest, 12 and my middle child, 9. I realized they were ready for the element of fright (A Christmas Carol is a pretty scary ghost story, after all), but, moreover, I realized they were very much ready for the element of humanity at the heart of this mythic work of British literature. Scrooge's story, like the best works of the dark fantastic, use the genre as a means to reflect on contemporary humanity.
My family lives on Chicago's north side. My daughters and I took the elevated train downtown. It was a chilly night, with a mix of rain and snowflakes coming down in tiny diamonds. As the train crossed over the Chicago river, my girls had their hands pressed up against the windows, looking at all the skyscrapers illuminated red and green. It is always magical to see kids today enamored by simple things like holiday lights and train rides. My kids--Gen Z, iGen, post-millennial--whatever their generation will eventually officially be stamped (MTV officially deemed those born after 2000 "Founders," but this smacks of a well-past-its-prime music television network attempting to be in touch with the social zeitgeist). Regardless, kids amidst the constant contemporary flurry of social media and relentless 8:30 to 3:30 iPad curricula need, want, desire to slow down and enjoy the simple life, not in pixels but in honest to goodness 20/20.
We walked from the Chicago Transit Authority stop to the Goodman and the energy was electric. The Goodman is in Chicago's theater district, marquees aglow on every block. We took our seats and my girls didn't know what to expect other than a Victorian grumpy-old-man Christmas narrative. But the Goodman production did not disappoint. Now in it's 39th year, the show was fresh and vibrant, yet entirely faithful to Dickens. The set design was spectacular, from Scrooge's lending office, to the ever-eerie Marley doorknocker and beyond. Actor Larry Yando, now in his ninth-year as the old curmudgeon, has the delicate balance of Ebenezer down cold--mean, tragic, subtly comic, the perfect unlikable protagonist for the audience to cheer on. Scrooge is, down deep, sympathetic and, as I looked at my two girls midway through the performance, they got it. They were enraptured. My eldest girl steers clear of sad stories and she endured this one, knowing full well that a tremendous narrative payoff was, indeed, in store.
I wanted my girls to like A Christmas Carol, yet, frankly, I wasn't sure they would. Would the old English dialogue be off-putting? Would the story line in the age of nanosecond editing and CGI narratives prove to move at the rate of continental drift?
Not so. As I looked at them, they loved it. They were completely drawn in and when Scrooge proclaimed that he was, at last, happy, and he ran out in to the London streets to share his newly discovered generosity, my daughters were transfixed.
When the play was over and we filed out of the theatre it was late. But the city was still abuzz with holiday energy and pedestrians moving quickly along down the wintry city streets. And we climbed the steps to the elevated train platform and when the train arrived we boarded and reveled in its warmth, like a bakery shop.
We sat down and began the ride home and my nine-year-old dark-haired darling turned and said, "I didn't know plays could make sense."
I smiled at this and knew instantly it was a reference to her annual all-school theatrical production with over 100 kids, all with a speaking parts, a chaotic, if sweet explosion of unintended narrative surrealism.
"You liked it?" I asked.
Both girls nodded as the train swayed and wound its way north on this chilly winter night.
And then both girls looked to me and asked, "Can we go see another play?"
And I sat back and felt a sense of deep parental accomplishment. I thought about it: When young kids in today's world ask a question like that, I knew exactly how Tiny Tim would respond.