As Alive as a Door-Nail
Ben Whiting’s Passion for Charles Dickens from The Boardman Review Winter 2022
“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard. I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
The first edition of possibly the most famous ghost story in the world (including four colour and four black and white illustrations by John Leech, priced at an affordable five shillings), was essentially self published without fanfare on December 19th, 1843 — moving all 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve. No one was happier or more surprised than the desperately poor 31 year-old Charles Dickens who wrote it, and the allegorical novella went on to have 14 more printings before the end of just its first year in circulation.
There were millions of copies sold even while Dickens was still alive, before dying later at age 58 in a headline splashed around the globe on the front page of every newspaper. Perhaps jealous, American Mark Twain wasn’t a big fan, calling A Christmas Carol “nothing but glittering frostwork.” It mattered not, the people loved it.
“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”
A Christmas Carol came at an urgent and unknown zeitgeist, when the traditions of the past were falling apart quickly and the social divides were more extreme than ever. There were those with more wealth than is imaginable side by side with those in poverty. Dickens himself was haunted by the ills of society around him, and he captured it all over six weeks of intense writing, fueled by long walks at night through the city of London. It was a moment of troubles, and ordinary people found comfort and reassurance in his tale of regrets, revelations, and a kindness that was in short supply. The story of hope captured a nostalgic society on edge.
One-hundred and fifty-seven years later, across the world and time, those same five staves and 30,953 words would change another life when a young Ben Whiting heard them performed out loud for the first time at the age of 18. “It was a bare stage with one wreath, nothing particularly fancy about what they’re wearing. It was just that they told the hell out of the story, they were setting the text on fire … and it’s like your head has been taken off your shoulders, readjusted and put back on. And now you see things a little differently.”
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”
That chance encounter with Dickens in Atlanta set Whiting on a path that would eventually see him studying acting, living and working in Chicago as a performer, and traveling around the world with his many crafts as a sometimes magician, actor, and keynote speaker. “If I hadn’t encountered the story there at that time, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” he shares.
Now at age 39, he’s still trying to understand and work out his enchantment with A Christmas Carol in Prose, which he brought to life again in his third staged adaptation working with Parallel 45 Theatre, for one performance only at the Historic Barns Park this winter, and directed by their Artistic Director Kit McKay. Perhaps no one single work has had more adaptations, impostors, and versions — and Dickens himself as a writer was addicted to revisions, never stopping working on his material. It’s something Whiting can relate to.
Even preparing and doing script work is an experience for him, “When I read the original texts from start to finish, I get the exact same goosebumps. I can feel the hairs coming up on my arms, it’s just a fountain of emotional truths.”
“… the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave …”
Passion projects are the ones you keep returning to, and Whiting has been working his for over a decade now. His dramatizations of A Christmas Carol have been for three, then seven actors, and now in this latest, Whiting himself will perform all of the main characters along with leading the evening as narrator and maestro. It’s his own unique abridged experience, in the tradition of the author.
The ongoing project comes from years of research and play, and his admiration for a series of epic readings that Dickens himself made of the work, traveling late into his life to share his special oratory version with audiences around the world over 120 times. That tradition of an experience with no fourth wall, and an emotional bond between storyteller and audience, is something always on Whiting’s mind.
“Well into his old age, Dickens was still traveling and reading the story. And people would talk about him being covered in sweat and just getting into it. Emotionally for him it was still all there,” Whiting says. “This is not my story, or any single individual’s, it’s a community story. In what he did, and what I’m doing, it just can’t happen without an audience. And that’s one of my absolute favorite things about this.”
Whiting tells me that Dickens would start these readings by asking the audience to imagine they were more or less sitting in their living rooms, around a warm communal fire, hearing the tale freely. “He would invite them to feel these emotions and give expressions to them. Cheer, laugh, cry, whatever you want to without any fear of disturbing him,” Whiting says. “Dickens would tell them, ‘there’s nothing I can enjoy more than knowing that you are going on the journey with me.’ And so I’m asking too. I’m asking the audience to engage with their imagination. And I don’t think personally there’s anything we can create on a stage that can compete with that.”
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone — a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
I push Whiting about Scrooge, easily one of the most complex characters ever created in fiction. “Darkness was cheap and Scrooge liked it.” Dickens’ genius in fabricating a soul both repulsive and familiar (in which all of us can see others’ or recognize our own shortcomings, warped priorities or regrets) may sadly be more relatable today than ever.
For Whiting, what resonates most are the enduring truths, “I think in a time when there’s so much us versus them, tribalism, and defining ourselves by the things we hate … the ability to change your perspective and define ourselves by things that we love makes us realize that whether you’re Bob Cratchit on one side of town, or whether you’re a Scrooge — there’s a spirit that humans have that is inherently good.”
“But is there?” I ask, reminding Whiting that Ebenezer doesn’t exactly come to his better angels willingly, needing to be visited and scared by literal death and spiritual torture in order to change (and then, in a fit of overcompensation, tries to undo his rotten past rather quickly). “He’s pushed, no question!” Whiting spars, quickly slipping into his passion for text work and what the narrative tells us.
“Scrooge is pushed back to this kind of state of grace. But the question is what made him this grasping, clutching, covetous, old sinner? The world did. His world bred the need for material possessions of wealth, prioritizing yourself over other people, which could have come to him from his partner Jacob Marley or it could have come from his childhood, and there are some clues in the story. So what led to that? My guess is we can’t judge Scrooge until we’ve walked a mile in his shoes. And we don’t know what that journey is. But if we give him the benefit of the doubt, we can show him the grace that he finally finds at the end of the story himself.”
It’s a more complicated and interesting way to approach the famous curmudgeon, and an example of Whiting’s boundless enthusiasm for the story, fed by years of revisiting books like The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn and listening to recordings of Patrick Stewart’s readings. Even with this latest abridged theatrical version, it’s hard to imagine that he’s finished with his ongoing relationship to this tale that spun his own life in a different direction, and continues to fascinate him today.
“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”
As the actor prepares for yet another creative morality match with the author and storyteller he admires so much, Whiting pauses at the end of our interview for a beat longer than usual, and then adds, “I believe the number one driver of happiness is the quality of the relationships with the people in our lives. And I think Dickens did a masterful job of teaching us that.”
Abridged pull-quotes from A Christmas carol in prose: Being a ghost story of Christmas London by Charles Dickens, selected by the interviewer.
Ben Whiting is an award-winning magician, actor, and playwright turned international keynote speaker. He’s performed in over 30 countries and on television, and today combines his backgrounds in leadership development and corporate entertainment to help organizations create cultures that achieve the impossible (while having a lot of fun). Featured in Entrepreneur Magazine and The New York Times, his clients have included Apple, Google, American Express, and Amazon among others.
Joseph Beyer is an idea agitator who supports storytellers and arts and culture organizations. He played the turkey boy in John Tammi’s production of A Christmas Carol at Hope College when he was a young child, the strongest memory of which was the terror of crossing backstage and passing the Ghost of Marley in the wings. His first copy of the book was given to him by his dear aunt, Professor Kathleen Verduin, as an opening night gift.