This piece was first published a year ago. Seemed appropriate to give it another go round this holiday season. With a few updated references. Enjoy... TJ
A few years ago I asked a regional theatre’s artistic director what the biggest trends were in the plays people send him in hope of production. His immediate and weary answer: Christmas. Home for the holidays plays, plays that take place at the North Pole, with Santa and Mrs. Claus (and elves) as characters. Inevitably, each play ends with someone learning “the true spirit of Christmas.”
Think of it from a playwright’s point of view. A Christmas Carol is the most produced play in North America, quite a ways ahead of its closest competitors for the top spot. If you were to write a play that came to be considered a “Christmas classic,” it’d get produced year after year. All over North America. Ch-ching!
Think of it from an artistic director’s point of view - or a producer’s. The Christmas season is one of the rare occasions when regular people actually go to the theatre. Maybe it’s because of having participated in school Christmas concerts as children (or watching them, as parents). Maybe it’s the notion that going to the theatre is a bigger event than bringing the family to a movie, or watching Christmas specials on TV. And if the play is actually about Christmas (and has an uplifting message about the true spirit of the season), what could be a better excursion to make everyone feel like they’re spending quality Yuletide time together? At $20 - $100 a ticket! Ch-ching!
Think of it from an actor’s point of view. Jobs! Gimme! Ch-ching!
So look at how these combined impulses play out. Here’s a fraction of the Christmas themed plays The Reader - Chicago’s alternative weekly - has in its listings this week: Mrs. Claus! A Holiday Musical, Season's Greetings, two different productions of A Christmas Carol, White Christmas, two different productions of a live radio play adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life (where the actors speak into old timey microphones!), The Nativity, The Nutcracker, Santaland Diaries, It's Christmas Charlie Brown, Joy!, Christmas in Chicago, Another Night Before Christmas, The Christmas Schooner, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, and Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose (another live radio play).
I don’t know any of the people involved in any of these productions. Maybe all of them overflow with genuine desire to spread the spirit of Christmas. But it smacks of disingenuousness to me.
Think of any recent Christmas song by a pop star - Something About Christmas Time by Bryan Adams, for instance. Why is it so hard to imagine Mr. Adams pacing around his house, so overwhelmed by his love of the season that he just had to write and record this song? Why is it so much easier to picture the keenly calculated goal of regular airplay every December for decades to come? (and it’s worked so far - that song has been showing up on the airwaves ever since 1983) Same with Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time by Paul McCartney. Same Last Christmas, by George Michael. Same with any Christmas song performed by Michael Buble, Clay Aiken, the Jonas Brothers, Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, NSYNC, Run DMC, etc etc.
Cut it out! All of you! You’re filling the world with unfelt mediocre art! You’re getting third rate stuff into people’s heads when they’ll give anything the benefit of the doubt because it’s about Christmas. It’s the equivalent of a gift someone gets you that you didn’t want and don’t really like but have to pretend to be thankful for and can’t return because you’d be an awful old Scrooge if you dared suggest there was anything wrong with anything related to Christmas. Well, bah, I say. Bah!
A Christmas Carol ends with a bitter old miser realizing that people and relationships are more important than money. It’s a Wonderful Life ends with a disheartened idealist learning that his friendships and good deeds are far more important than the money he could have made or the adventures he could have had if he’d followed a different path. Santaland Diaries ends with David Sedaris watching a Macy’s Dept. store manager arguing with a customer on Christmas Eve, telling her “Don't tell the store president I called you a bitch. Tell him I called you a fucking bitch, because that's exactly what you are. Now get out of my sight before I do something we both regret.” Over-commercialization is the anti-thesis of the Christmas spirit. Everyone complains about it. And no one does anything.
I’d love to see one of these playwrights, or directors, or producers, or songwriters have an epiphany - maybe induced by the visitation of a ghost or three - that their manipulation of the season for profit is a grotesque distortion of the exact message they’re purporting to spread. Maybe they’d wake up and run through the streets, energized. To hell with the dictates of the marketplace! It’s the spirit that matters! It’s that pure leaping impulse from the bottom of the soul that grabs you by the heart and makes your eyes bulge with the thought “This thing must be!” - that’s worth pursuing, that’s worth dedicating oneself to, that’s worth sending out into the world, whether it coincides with an overcommercialized celebration of the Solstice and the perceived birthday of a Jewish prophet or not. And if that kind of truly inspired creation filled the theatres and the airwaves - wouldn’t we all be better off? Wouldn’t that be the equivalent of God blessing us, every one?