One of the most beloved Yuletide stories over the past 150-plus years has been Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, an examination of how reminders about the true meaning of the holiday are sometimes necessary, maybe more so lately than in Victorian times. Today, we can experience its moral tale in print as well as through Hollywood films, playful TV adaptations, animated offerings and theatrical productions. But there is also a treasure trove of recordings once performed as live radio dramas that still survives thanks to the internet.
Dickens published the novella in 1843, having been affected by the treatment of the poor at the time. It was his fourth Christmas tale. Ninety-five years later, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater presented a radio adaptation as part of The Campbell Playhouse, an experimental radio series specializing in the reworking of literary classics.
The December 23, 1938 broadcast was the eighth installment of the series following the controversial War of the Worlds adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel that had New Jersey residents panicking over a Martian invasion. The script for A Christmas Carol was written by Howard Koch, who had also adapted the Wells tale. The cast included several actors that had performed in the War of the Worlds broadcast, some of whom Welles would select to accompany him to Hollywood to appear in Citizen Kane, his debut as film director and a project that would rewrite the rules of cinema.
Dickens was a favorite of Welles, who told Peter Bogdanovich that the author was one of only a few whose novels were written as stage dramas: “you see, Dickens was an actor—and he was not a writer who acted, he was an actor who wrote.” Patrick McGilligan, in his book Young Orson, reports that Welles “presented radio adaptations of Dickens’s stories as often as those of any author.” In fact, only a month before the Christmas Carol broadcast, Welles had aired an adaptation of the author’s Pickwick Papers.
Lionel Barrymore, an esteemed stage and screen actor of the day, was set to play Scrooge in the 1938 radio broadcast but fell ill prior to the air date and had to cancel. Welles, with Barrymore’s blessing, assumed the role and, according to McGilligan, “offered a Christmas Carol of great warmth and atmosphere.”
One year later, on December 24, 1939, Welles revisited A Christmas Carol with a radio broadcast that featured Barrymore as Scrooge and Welles as narrator. The production featured Christmas carols throughout the radio play, providing, as Bret Wood notes in his bio-bibliography on Welles, “musical transitions and constant reminders of the holiday setting.”
Wood observes that Welles’s narration is “minimally applied but injected with as much emotional involvement as any of the characters within the drama.” Welles adjusted his approach to narration based on the work at hand, and for this version of A Christmas Carol he is “more than a describer of locations or narrative bridge,” Wood writes.
“…with his voice sinking in somber moments and raging during more intense scenes, he gave a distinct point of view,” Wood reflects, “making the normally objective outside commentary suddenly subjective, and as much a part of the story as its characters…Welles wanted to be more than the host or storyteller, more than an actor within the story.”
Such nuance helped define the art of radio drama, but in our age of podcasts and audiobooks, there seems to be neither room nor interest in what radio once provided. Yet, those dramas of yesteryear still exist on the internet, and they include both productions of Welles’ Christmas Carol. They can be found on the Indiana University Bloomington website, YouTube and at archive.org. This Christmas, consider using the magic of your imagination, guided only by the voices and sounds of a bygone era.