Many of our earliest memories of Christmas are rooted in stories that made sugar plums dance in our heads. I remember being enthralled by having “’Twas the Night before Christmas” read to me, and later relishing Dr. Seuss’s tale of the Grinch (voiced by Boris Karloff) trying to steal Christmas.
Left: Thomas Nast, Merry Old Santa (1863).
Storytelling is essential to the spirit of Christmas, and the Washington Stage Guild decided this year to celebrate that spirit with a show that cobbles together several favorite Christmas stories in a holiday production called A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Other Stories. Dylan Thomas’s story takes center stage, but Artistic Director Bill Largess has also included Louisa May Alcott’s short “Merry Christmas,” Charles Dickens’s “What Christmas Is as We Grow Older,” “A Medieval Puzzle,” and A.A. Milne’s “King John’s Christmas.”
The production has two actors—Vincent Clark and Laura Giannarelli—and the set for all of the stories, by Carl F. Gudenius and Kelvin Small, is a charming Victorian living room decorated with a Christmas tree, presents, Nutcrackers, a table festooned with a decanter and glasses of sherry, and a Currier and Ives print of “Sleigh Life.” It captures exactly the right mood for conveying the stories being told.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas first recorded “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” for the BBC in 1937. On an American tour in 1952, he was commissioned to record five of his poems for a Caedmon LP; the poems didn’t fill the entire recording, and Thomas suggested his Christmas story to complete the record. But the heavily-drinking poet couldn’t remember the story’s title, nor all of its words. After some scrambling, someone found a 1950 copy of Harper’s Bazaar that had published the text, and Thomas managed to record “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” for the LP. Although selling only modestly at first, the story became his most famous work and made Caedmon a successful recording company. Thomas would die a year later at 39, but his 1952 LP was selected in 2008 for inclusion on the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. The citation credits this recording with launching the audiobook industry.
Left:Vincent Clark and Laura Giannarelli
Charles Dickens’s “What Christmas Is as We Grow Older” is a sobering view, written in 1851 after the deaths of his father and daughter. Dickens’s fondness for ghosts is best-known in his A Christmas Carol, but here he embarks on a darker examination of how Christmas memories encompass suffering and trauma as much as happiness. His own childhood—he was abandoned and miserably poor as a tyke—was an inescapable part of his life, and in this story he remembers his own harrowing past as essential to everything that “worked together to make me what I am.” (Quote in Matt Reimann, “Charles Dickens and Christmas,” in Books Tell You Why online, 12/3/14).
Right: Cover, Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens, WJ Whitman Publishing (1939-40).
The production next has an amusing “Medieval Puzzle,” in which the audience is asked to guess the meaning of ERO CRAS. The Washington audience at the performance I attended cleverly shouted out Jesus’s promise– “I will be there.”
The final story is A.A.Milne’s “King John’s Christmas,” which first appeared as one of the 31 poems published in Milne’s 1927 book, Now We Are Six. This story is all about bad King John and his Christmas list. Laura Giannarelli reads, “King John Was not a good man,/And no good friends had he.” He put up cards on his Christmas mantle—only from himself!– and never got any presents. Vincent Clark’s depiction of bad King John is a delightful romp, especially when he finally gets the present he most desires: a big, red India-rubber ball!
Left: “The King Gets His Crown!”
Giannarelli and Clark give superb performances throughout as they range across these Christmas classics. The Dickens is the only story that doesn’t fit as well—its unrelenting darkness seems discordant here. But on the whole, the entire production is filled with the uplifting spirit of Christmas. There are carols interspersed throughout, with the audience encouraged to sing along.
As adapted and directed by Bill Largess, the show is intended to honor the art of storytelling itself. It happily succeeds by showing how essential these stories are to the whole experience of Christmas. They are a gift indeed.
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Other Stories’ will be at Washington Stage Guild through December 17th. www.stageguild.org.
Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery