It’s opening night and I’m limping on stage to inform the audience that a member of the Dickensian 1% has kicked the bucket. His name was Marley and he’s dead, I tell them, dead as a door nail. What exactly is a door nail and why it’s not a coffin nail or a nail nail I cannot remember. But listen, dear audience, Marley is dead, weird stuff is going to happen in this play, and there’s a geezer coming out here after me who’s a butthead.
I think that about covers it.
Okay, I may have paraphrased there (forgive me Charles), so for those of you who are literary sticklers and refuse to recognize the work I’m referencing because I haven’t quoted it exactly right, let me state it explicitly.
The play is A Christmas Carol and at the tender age of 14, I’m motherfudging Tiny Tim.
Adapted from the novella written by Charles Dickens, the play is about an old, wealthy jerk named Ebeneezer Scrooge who, thanks to the ghost of his aforementioned deceased business partner Marley, experiences a night of ghosts that convince him to change his stingy ways. In this particular stage adaptation I’m in, the second highest billed role is that of Tim “Tiny” Cratchit, a poor child with an unspoken illness. To date, I’ve never played a different character onstage. Make of that what you will.
Despite being opening night, this isn’t my first time channeling the youngest Cratchit.
Four years before this night, there’s another production of A Christmas Carol. Actually, it’s the first production for me. I played the role twice. The second time I didn’t go to the auditions because I thought my theater days were over. That night I got a call from the director asking me to reprise the role. Of course I said yes. He also asked if I’d gotten a growth spurt and if my voice had dropped. I replied my deepest no.
I’m still waiting for that growth spurt.
But the first time I get to play Tiny Tim, at the appropriate age of 8, I go through the audition process and, thanks to the hefty bribes that are customary in community theater, win the part. Just kidding about the bribes. Maybe.
While I’m sure the director would say it’s due to my innate talent and intense gravity I bring to every role, the fact I’m a short, skinny, disabled boy probably helps too. For once, what I look like on the outside doesn’t ruin the dreams I have on the inside. When one’s difference gains a purpose, destiny can be felt on one’s shoulders. Or in this case, destiny is a crutch under my arm, directly beneath the shoulder. That’s right, the costume includes more than just knickers and a hat. Besides the usual getup for the time period, the role comes with an extra piece of flair.
Tiny Tim gets a pimp cane.
Okay fine. That’s a minor deviation from the truth. The pimp cane is actually a prop crutch.
It’s never been made clear to me, not then and not now, what exactly poor Tim Cratchit is supposed to suffer from that his costume requires a crutch. Why is his affliction so nebulous? Experts claim it’s probably kidney failure or rickets, but in my mind, Tiny Tim broke his hip whilst pick-pocketing with street urchins in Paris before it fell to the revolution. I should mention that Dickens’ work tends blur together for me so I understand if you feel differently about this take on Tiny Tim.
Characters are always up for interpretation.
The first performance of the play doesn’t happen in the month of December. It doesn’t happen in the month of November either. Instead, the play is set for the last weekends of October. If you recall, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story more than it’s a romantic comedy, or anything else, so the idea behind the scheduling, as far as I am aware, is to encourage the spookiness of the supernatural element. To help with the scare factor, the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (the future) is portrayed by a giant Grim Reaper.
Like many of you, when I think about Christmas, I think about symbols of death.
Also, cinnamon rolls.
Death plays a significant part in A Christmas Carol. After seeing the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, Scrooge is confronted by the grim reaper of Christmas Future to show him the error of his miserly ways. Alone in the cemetery with the mute specter, Scrooge faces his tombstone. When told that no one is sad about his passing, Scrooge breaks down. He puts on a cape and black cowl and makes a solemn vow to fight crime.
Okay, that’s just my interpretation.
Others, like Dickens, might describe the scene as a revelation, or a paradigm shift for the old codger. Just in time for Christmas Day, Scrooge goes from stingy rich guy to man of the people. That’s the magic of the story, borrowing from the magic of Christmas, and all of it heavily relying on the surety of our mortality. Fear not, those of you who worry about old British biddies, Scrooge doesn’t visit the underworld alone.
In the fourth act, I’m dead too. Dead as a fingernail because I know what those are.
The other big factor in Scrooge’s conversion is his voyeuristic look at what life is like for the Cratchit family in the future. The dad of the family, Bob Cratchit, works for Scrooge and doesn’t get paid much. He has a family, the youngest is Tim, and in this the darkest timeline shown to Scrooge by the grim reaper of Christmas Future, the sweetness incarnate that is Tiny Tim has ceased to be.
It’s also never been made clear to me, both then, now, and probably the future too, what the hell kills the little guy off. I’m guessing it was an opium addiction, though.
Sitting in the green room just offstage during these scenes, I can’t help but feel a connection to another literary figure, Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Listening offstage to my onstage family mourn my theatrical passing, I conclude attending one’s own funeral is something few of us will ever get to experience.
Besides having profound thoughts that will come in handy nearly two decades later, sitting offstage I also feel a sensation more real than I had signed up to feel. Stuck in my chest, there’s a strong pull to be as close as I can to my stage family while they grieve my demise. Having spent the past months rehearsing together, the short-term affectation I feel for them is at its zenith. That’s not to say I’m paying rapt attention either. The silence of the scene encourages the mind to wander. Remembering the dutiful boredom one feels when waiting for people you care about, I can’t help pondering the future too.
Peaking as a specialist performer before the age of 15, there’s probably not another chance in this life for me to play Tiny Tim again. I can live with that. The most famous line, when the Cratchit family is enjoying their meager dinner, as seen by Scrooge and the ghost of Christmas Present, is “God bless us, everyone.” I always hated that line because there’s immense pressure not to screw it up. The other bit that annoys me, after everything has been made better, Tiny Tim cheerfully exclaims to his family, “We’re going to have a turkey!” That one gets my olives into a twist because I vastly prefer chicken over turkey.
Thanksgiving, you’re on notice.
Those lines, I won’t miss. What I will miss is performing the last scene of the play. Tiny Tim opens and closes the production with a monologue delivered to the audience. When the curtain rises, Tim is telling us about Marley’s death, kicking off the story. Before the curtain falls, Tiny Tim walks back on stage to tell us about how much better things are now that Scrooge has changed. Perhaps as a nod to the narrative imperative of showing, not telling, the story to the audience, the biggest visual indication of change for us is that the second time Tiny Tim walks out on stage, he walks without a crutch.
Miraculously, he has been healed. I, the performer, still have a congenital syndrome that no amount of second monologues will make better. The irony is lost on me at the time, but I’ll find it when I’m older.
Giggles aside, pretending everything is fine and that we’re all going to be made better is part of the holiday tradition. Ignoring the slight embellishing I’ve given Tiny Tim, there’s a great responsibility inherent to the character. Functioning neither as the hero nor the villain, nor the love interest, Tiny Tim protects the audience’s innocence. He believes he will get better. He believes in the goodness of family. He believes the spirit of Christmas. And at the end of the play, when the curtain falls, we, the audience, find ourselves believing in those things too.
Imagine how different the story becomes if Tiny Tim is a pessimist.
Not unique to persons with disabilities, there’s a need in most of us to feel useful, to feel like we have purpose. Born the way I am, the quest for a purpose hasn’t followed an orthodox route. It probably never will. But for a few months of my youth, I knew on the subconscious level where one feels the call of fate, that I was doing something right. I remember what it felt like to have confidence about where I stood onstage, and in the world around me. This year has been a hard winter. Where we go in the years to come, I cannot say because I was sworn to secrecy about the future. In truth, what guides me is the desire to live the kind of life that doesn’t require four ghosts to fix. It’s probably the most we can ask. And if the next time you think about Tiny Tim you remember the ideas in this essay instead of just a poor disabled boy, then my work with him is truly done.
But if you’re still a Scrooge in need of atoning, Tiny Tim can always use more themed underpants. Happy Christmas, ya urchins.