Calling someone ‘a Scrooge’ should be a compliment: Lessons learned from playing Ebenezer Scrooge

L-R: Mori Kessler as the Ghost of Jacob Marley and John Kessler as Ebenezer Scrooge during the 2017 Dickens Festival production of “Scrooge,” St. George, Utah, November 2017 | Photo courtesy of John Kessler, St. George News

FEATURE — It often seems much easier to remember the man Ebenezer Scrooge was at the beginning of his famous story rather than the man he became.

L-R: John Kessler as Ebenezer Scrooge and his daughter, Julianna Kessler, during the 2008 Dickens Festival production of “Scrooge,” St. George, Utah, December 2008 | Photo courtesy of John Kessler, St. George News

Those were the thoughts my brother John and I had as we sat down to discuss the primary character of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and how playing the part of Scrooge – as well as directing the play “Scrooge” for the annual Dickens Festival – had shaped John’s opinion of the once-crotchety old miser.

“He and the Grinch, both of them get such a bad rap,” John said. “I guess it’s just human nature to remember the worst in ourselves and other people that we discount the good that’s been done or the change that has occurred in a person. It’s sometimes harder to recognize or appreciate.”

For about 18 years, my brother was involved in the annual Dickens Festival that hits the Dixie Center St. George the week following Thanksgiving. Originally he played the part of Scrooge and then was asked to direct the hour-long condensed version of “Scrooge” for the festival.

For the majority of his time with the festival, he directed the play and stepped away from playing the titular character so other actors could “share in the glory.” He eventually returned to the role, perhaps for a final time, for the 2017 production.

As a participant in the show myself for many years as the ghost of Jacob Marley, I was pleased to have the first opportunity to act opposite of my brother.

Given his experience with Scrooge’s role and story, I wondered what lessens and themes he might have taken from it over the years.

After sitting down with John for this article, I learned that he had pulled the themes of redemption, charity, forgiveness and change from the traditional Christmas story. After all, Scrooge was a man who seemed beyond redemption and yet found the ability to have charity and forgiveness toward himself so he could change in the end.

L-R, Mori Kessler as Marley’s Ghost and Roy Eckman as Scrooge in “Scrooge” during a previous Dickens Festival production of “Scrooge,” St. George, Utah, Dec. 3, 2014 | File photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

As far as Scrooge’s change for the better, many versions of the story point to him being “scared straight,” John said. However, he also wondered if Scrooge may not have already been pondering a possible change on some level but needed the intervention of Marley and the three ghosts to push it forward.

This is an interesting point for me, as I played the part of Marley for five years with the festival. My brother originally convinced me to audition for the part and also introduced me to the book “Jacob T. Marley” by R. William Bennett.

The book outlines Marley’s life and his search for redemption following his deathbed realization that what he had become had helped mold Scrooge into the miser he was. With his final breaths, he attempts to tell Scrooge how sorry he is for what he had done, but Scrooge only sees it as the incoherent ramblings of a dying man.

Perhaps seeds of change were planted in Scrooge’s heart then, and it took seven years after Marley’s death for them to finally sprout.

L-R: John Kessler as Ebenezer Scrooge and Trey Paterson as the Ghost of Christmas Present during a previous Dickens Festival production of “Scrooge,” St. George, Utah, December 2008 | Photo courtesy of John Kessler, St. George News

This is actually consistent with one the themes I took from Scrooge’s story: the importance of friendship and support. While we can do many things on our own, sometimes it takes the push and support from those around us to move forward, even if we don’t necessarily want to at first for whatever reason.

In Scrooge’s case, it took a friend coming back from the grave to warn him and provide a chance at redemption before it was too late.

From an acting standpoint, my brother said the culmination of the journey set off by Marley’s appearance is his favorite part of the Scrooge play.

He referred to it as Scrooge’s “repentance scene,” when he’s on his knees and begging to heaven for forgiveness. He proclaims that he has changed and now wants the chance to show it.

“I love playing and feeling the change that comes through Scrooge at that time,” John said. “I love when the everyone else is carried away in it too.”

During the 2017 production at the Dickens Festival, while Scrooge pleaded for his life, Marley stood nearby, as if waiting to usher him into the underworld, as wraiths in cloaks slowly made their way toward Scrooge with chains.

Instead of placing them on Scrooge, however, as the music turned from a melody of sadness to one of hope, the wraiths withdrew – and even took the chains off Marley as they retreated.

Just as Scrooge found redemption at the end, so did Marley. Through helping Scrooge, he helped himself.

“We all have those dark moments when we’re pleading, begging God for help,” John said, adding that the help we’re begging for can come through others.

Following this scene of redemption, Dickens writes of Scrooge that “it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Dickens also wrote that Scrooge became a great help to others, which matches the first name he was given, John said. The name “Ebenezer” is a Hebrew term for “rock of help,” he said. In the Bible, the prophet Samuel set up a stone as a monument in recognition of God’s aid.

Promotional photo of John Kessler as Ebenezer Scrooge for the 2017 Dickens Festival production of “Scrooge,” St. George, Utah, November 2017 | Photo courtesy of John Kessler, St. George News

“Scrooge became a rock of help for those around him,” John said.

For my brother, playing through Scrooge’s change is something of a spiritual experience, as he said it helps him connect to God with a greater sense of gratitude. Indeed, he said one really couldn’t disconnect the spiritual values, particularly those of a Judeo-Christian variety, from Scrooge’s journey.

“To do so would be foolish,” John said. “The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of Christ. It’s in the name.”

He said even the last famous words of the story – “God bless us, every one!” uttered by Tiny Tim – give the impression of being a prayer and a plea from Dickens.

As for other lessons learned from being and directing Scrooge, John said he’s learned more about the qualities of being patient with himself and others and loving people in the moment.

John said people need to remember the ending of “A Christmas Carol” more than the beginning.

“Remember, Scrooge is the good guy.”

So as we find ourselves on the doorstep of Christmas Day, with a new year not far behind, perhaps we can all learn a little something from Scrooge’s journey and make a change for the better.

The opinions stated in this article are those of the author and may not be representative of St. George News.

This story was originally published in St. George News’ 2018 Christmas Eve edition.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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