Script adapter David H. Bell reflects on a career filled with the seasonal classic
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” -Ebenezer Scrooge
No one keeps Christmas all year round quite like David H. Bell.
As we chatted in early October, I made a comment about how early it was to be talking about Christmas events, and the man who has been expanding and developing his latest A Christmas Carol adaptation for the past straight year was gracious enough to not say, “You have no idea.”
Having worked on 50-ish productions of A Christmas Carol in his career, the Northwestern University professor has adapted the book for the stage six different times and seen that the original text is laden with fodder enough for any number of script iterations. This includes the script Alliance Theatre had been using for the last twenty years.
“The wonderful thing about Dickens is it is filled with the descriptions of London, descriptions of people on the street, like, a word or two of a vignette that Scrooge is passing by,” Bell explains. “So there are the bones of a lot of different stories that already inhabit the book. And there are many, many descriptions that exist that we’ve never imagined as an integral part of this show. So if we kind of shift our lens slightly and elaborate on some of those vignettes in the original Dickens story, suddenly the entire story can be illuminated in a very different way.”
A Wonderfully Rich Process
While the Alliance Theatre’s current script is making its debut this year, it has been in development for five with collaboration from Bell, director Leora Morris, former director Rosemary Newcott, and Artistic Director Susan V. Booth.
“When we started, we would read through the book and Susan, Rosemary, and Leora would all find sections and go, ‘Ooh, this is interesting! Is there something in this that we might want to follow or explore?’” recalls Bell. “It was a wonderfully rich process by which we grew the show to what it is now.”
Looking specifically to narrow down Marley’s notion that “mankind was my business,” Booth anchored their interpretation on the idea of what it means to be a family in Victorian England.
“She was very excited about really focusing on the family issues and somehow putting families, specifically the Cratchit family, more center of the story, as opposed to being characters you don’t really see much,” Bell says. “And so I got very excited about the possibility of seeing how family groups in Victorian England can impact the story in various different ways.”
The Life Journey
As someone who has worked on so many versions of the show, Bell has used the scope of his career itself to inform his adapting experience this time around.
“The biggest tool we have as creative artists is ourselves and the life journey. The journey one makes over 35 years definitely impacts the way you would approach any story.”
Bell recalls that when he first took a crack at adapting A Christmas Carol for the Ford’s Theatre, he primarily related to the Christmas Past version of Ebenezer. Now that he is closer in age to Scrooge, it seems like an opportune time to be revisiting the story.
“The part of Scrooge that I related to was about career-driven ambition,” Bell says. “It was so easy to talk about his ambition and his desire to be part of a mechanism that is commerce in London when I was 35 and embarking on a big career in the theatre. It is a very different story now that I’m 72 and I am having a dialogue with family about people who are no longer with us, people who have endured, people who now are closer than they were 35 years ago. All of that creates a really interesting background from which to interpret one of the greatest stories ever written.”
Bell could very well continue to find new ways to interpret this story for the next 35 years, pulling only from what Dickens himself wrote.
“I could have found other interesting lenses through which to look at the story,” he says, “because the story is not only that complex, it is possessed with something you may not remember if you haven’t read the story recently, which is a wonderful sense of a kaleidoscope. You see fractured images all over of what it feels like to be a Victorian in 1843 on Christmas Day. And that kaleidoscope offers entrance into different portals of ways to tell the story and to reflect the story. And they are all part of the original imagination of Charles Dickens!”
This piece appears in Alliance Theatre’s November/December ’21 issue of Encore Atlanta.