A Christmas Carol: Backgrounder

To bring to life our Baltimore-based adaptation of Dickens’ classic, some historical research was needed. The cultural references and  ideas related to the time period and locations of the play are essential to actors and production designers.  Vintage photos, definitions of unfamiliar words, reference websites, and historical timelines are consulted.  When we put all this together, we call it the Dramaturgy Report. The actors and production team study this as a reference and sometimes inspiration for their performances and designs.  Gerrad Alex Taylor, Director of A Christmas Carol, provided his Dramaturgy Report, which we are sharing to give you an insider’s look at inspirations for this year’s production. Welcome to our world!

America in the 1840s

  • By June 1, 1840, the U.S. population increases to 17 million, a 33 percent increase from the decade before.
  • There was much domestic unrest, and revolts abroad in Europe and Asia, which probably allowed for easy foreign politicking between the U.S. and the surrounding territories of Great Britain, France, and other European countries in Canada.
  • Martin Van Buren, 8th President of the United States, won the 1836 election with the endorsement of popular outgoing President Andrew Jackson but could not effectively fight against the “Panic of 1837.”
    • Recession saw prices and wages go down while unemployment went up. Lasted for about 7 years.

Baltimore

  • In 1797, Baltimore Town and Fells Point merged and incorporated as the City of Baltimore. Baltimore quickly became the largest city in the American South. By 1840, population was 102,000.
  • There was a pressure felt to keep up with the merchant standards of New York City in the North.
    • Baltimore faced economic stagnation unless it opened up routes to Western states as N.Y. had done with the Erie Canal.
    • In 1827, plans for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were introduced creating the first chartered railroad in the U.S.
    • Following the success of the B&O railroad, in the 1830s other railroads were built in the city extending to Canton area, Owings Mills, Havre de Grace, Westminster, Hagerstown, and parts of Pennsylvania.
    • The Baltimore-Washington telegraph line was established alongside a B&O route in 1843.
    • Slavery in Maryland: In Maryland, slavery decreased steadily after 1810, as the state’s economy shifted away from plantation agriculture. There was no use for slaves in many areas, so many people were being freed. Some were finding work in Baltimore’s shipyards and related industries with little friction from white workers; some free persons and enslaved persons worked side by side. The location of Baltimore as a border state allowed many slaves in the area to run away and find freedom in the North, as Frederick Douglass did. Therefore, slaveholders in Baltimore turned to manumission (the eventual freeing of a slave) as a means of cooperation.
    • On the eve of the Civil War, Baltimore had the largest free black community in the nation.
    • A flood of German and Irish immigrants swamped Baltimore’s labor market after 1840, which contributed to blacks being pushed into deep poverty. An avalanche of Irish immigrants, escaping Ireland’s Great Hunger Famine, hit Baltimore in the 1840s; many promptly went to work for the B&O railroad.
    • The major religions in the city would have been Roman Catholic and Methodist.  Several Catholic churches from the period are considered landmarks today.  The Methodist community worshiped in smaller groups but were a large population in Baltimore (the Methodist Episcopal denomination in America was founded on Lovely Lane in Baltimore on a corner near our theater).  There were also various Jewish communities and Evangelical Lutherans that came to the city by way of German immigration.  For our story, the Cratchits are probably Methodists.

 

Dickens’  A Christmas Carol

  • Full title of the novella:  “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” published December 19, 1843, and sold out by Christmas Eve.
  • Dickens wrote the novella during a time when new popular British Christmas customs were being explored. Christmas trees were adopted by Queen Victoria. Singing Christmas carols was a new popular fad. This era saw a renewal of the Christmas holiday.
    • Egg Nog? No one knows exactly how or when this drink became a holiday tradition, but journal entries dating back to pre-colonial times have identified this drink, spiked with rum in Great Britain and then whiskey in the Americas, as a staple of the season.
  • Dickens’ own history of growing up working in a rat-infested shoe-blacking factory influenced all of his works. We see elements of child labor and the consequences of debt in this story.
  • Michael Slater, Dickens’ biographer, states that this story was “intended to open its readers’ hearts towards those struggling to survive on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and to encourage practical benevolence, but also to warn of the terrible danger to society created by the toleration of widespread ignorance and actual want among the poor.”
  • Dickens’s sister-in-law wrote how he “wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner, in composition.”
  • By the time of the first edition of publication, Dickens found himself in debt to his publishers, and needed a hit to compensate for past losses. The book continued to sell well by the end of 1844.
  • It has never been out of print and is Dickens’ most popular book in the U.S.
  • Dickens went on to do public dramatic readings of this story because of its high demand and popularity.
  • There have been adaptations:
    • The line, “…Tiny Tim, who did not die…” was added during the printing process and was not originally part of the story.
    • The novella was adapted for the stage almost immediately.
    • Some of Dickens’s scenes – visiting the miners and lighthouse keepers – have been forgotten by many. Other adaptations add scenes—such as Scrooge visiting the Cratchits on Christmas Day–which are not in the original story. In our Baltimore adaptation, Scrooge sees watermen at the harbor.
  • The phrases “Merry Christmas” and “Bah! Humbug!” were popularized by this story.
  • The noun of “scrooge,” referring to a miser, was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 1982.

 

Sources:

  1. Harwood, Jr., Herbert H. (1994). Impossible Challenge II: Baltimore to Washington and Harpers Ferry from 1828 to 1994. Baltimore: Barnard, Roberts. ISBN 0-934118-22-1.
  2. White, Jr., John H. (1980). A history of the American locomotive: its development, 1830-1880. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications. ISBN978-0-486-23818-0.
  3. Cook, Roger; Zimmermann, Karl (1992). The Western Maryland Railway: Fireballs and Black Diamonds (2nd ed.). Laurys Station, Pennsylvania: Garrigues House. ISBN0-9620844-4-1.
  4. Christopher Phillips Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1791-1860(1997)
  5. Rice, Laura. Maryland History In Prints 1743-1900. p. 77.
  6. https://americasbesthistory.com/abhtimeline1840.html
  7. Wikipedia.org
  8. Photos by Teresa Castracane and Jean Thompson

 

Click here for tickets and details about our production of A Christmas Carol.