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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Theatre For Thought, December 10, 2011

joel fishbane

Don’t tell my rabbi, but I have a particular fondness for the Christmas season – and yes, it is the Christmas season, no matter how many people say “Happy Holidays”. Christmas is the event that will define the next three weeks of your life; even if you choose to ignore it, you can’t escape the fact that you still have to choose to ignore it. It’s there and it’s not going away. Unless, that is, you’re in a theatre. 

The explanation I received, via some wag in a chat room, was that most musicals are written by Jews.

Theatre has a rough relationship with Christmas. We have Christmas movies, Christmas television, Christmas ballet, even Christmas opera. But there is little Christmas theatre, notwithstanding the countless rehashes of A Christmas Carol or the pageants where some poor child is stuck playing the back end of a camel. 

I became aware of this phenomenon after trying to create a Christmas-themed musical compilation as a gift (aren’t you glad you’re not on my Christmas list?). I assumed the compilation would be easy: yet despite my extensive collection, even I had some trouble coming up with a 11-track CD (for the complete list, see below). The explanation I received, via some wag in a chat room, was that most musicals are written by Jews. But this isn’t an excuse: White Christmas, the most famous holiday song of all time, was written by Israel Isidore Baline, otherwise known as Irving Berlin. 

Musicals aren’t the exception. Christmas is practically ignored in the rest of the theatre world, beginning with the classical texts. The Greeks can be forgiven, given they were writing years before Christianity was a gleam in its Savior’s eye. Closer to the present, Henrik Ibsen used Christmas in A Doll’s House as a way of ratcheting up the symbolism (and the tense discussions of money). Bernard Shaw hardly mentions it at all – not surprising, given that he once declared that Christmas was “forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation” and that “on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred.”

...there remains no Shakespearian work which is the classical equivalent of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The holiday survives only obliquely in Shakespeare – most notably in the title of Twelfth Night, named for the evening after Christmas when it was first performed. Berowne mentions the holiday briefly in Love’s Labor’s Lost and there’s an even more obscure reference in Hamlet after Marcellus spies King Hamlet’s ghost: 

It faded on the crowing of the cock
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savour’s birth is celebrated
This bird of dawning singeth all night long   (I.i).

Christmas is mentioned a few other times, but there remains no Shakespearian work which is the classical equivalent of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I’d say this accounts for Shakespeare’s universality, but then A Charlie Brown Christmas is pretty universal. It’s stayed popular for almost fifty years. 

Who wants to think about Christmas shopping in the spring?

The playwright’s antipathy to Christmas probably has to do with theatre’s shelf life. A Charlie Brown Christmas can be dusted off and enjoyed once a year, but theatre practitioners crave the extended run and know a Christmas-themed play will probably close in January. A case in point is James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, which takes place during one nasty Christmas in the court of Henry II. The show opened in March, 1966 despite its themes; perhaps because of them, it closed three months later. Who wants to think about Christmas shopping in the spring?

Closer to home (and our own time period), Ned Cox and Alexander Haber recently gave Montrealers a blatant Christmas-themed play with Four Minutes if you Bleed. Complete with carols, sitcom shenanigans and a wisdom-spewing Santa Claus, it is credited with getting me into the holiday mood nearly six weeks before December 25th. But even this show may have to wait a year for a remount: as much as I love seeing Neil Napier dressed as Santa Claus, I might not be so accepting in July (sorry Neil!). own theory is that it’s because artists hate thinking about the holidays.

The theatre, then, remains one of the few places that has stayed relatively immune from the Christmas juggernaut. Aside from a few digressions and the occasional song in a Broadway show, Christmas remains more or less off limits for the theatrically inclined. I’ll leave you to decide why, although my own theory is that it’s because artists hate thinking about the holidays. It’s a rough time for us, given that we traditionally abhor commercialization, spending money and seeing our parents.

And for those who want to give the perfect gift to the musical lover in your life, here’s that Broadway Xmas compilation I created so many moons ago:

1. A Greenwillow Christmas Carol (Greenwillow)
2. Be a Santa!  (Subways are for Sleeping)
3. Twelve Days to Christmas (She Loves Me)
4. Hard Candy Christmas (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas)
5. Christmas Bells (Rent)
6. Surabaya Santa (Songs for a New World)
7. We Need a Little Christmas (Mame)
8. I Don’t Remember Christmas (Starting Here, Starting Now)
9. Christmas Child (Irma La Douce)
10. Turkey Lurkey Time (Promises Promises)
11. A New Deal for Christmas (Annie)

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