When the Miser Met the Martian: A Sci-Fi Dickensian Drama

December 14, 2020

This special holiday lecture by Associate Professor Marty Gould (University of South Florida) is presented as part of the 2020 Dickensian Holiday Weekend. 

Inventively reimagining Dickens’s Christmas classic via popular interest in interplanetary communication, Richard Ganthony’s play A Message from Mars gave A Christmas Carol a timely update. A product of the “Mars Mania” of the 1890s, the play is an example of very early science fiction arising, as its title suggests, from the same cultural impulses that inspired H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. In the play, a Martian messenger comes to earth to redeem a selfish man. Through a series of visions, the Martian transforms this emotional miser into a more generous human being. The first successful dramatization of the Carol in more than 20 years, Ganthony’s play established some of the conventions that would become common to adaptations of A Christmas Carol well into the twentieth century. The text’s exploration of selfishness as a social ill and of the individual’s responsibility for the welfare of others is a timeless subject, given perhaps increasing relevance in today’s selfie-taking, economically divided society.



Hello. I’m Marty Gould, associate professor of English at the University of South Florida. I am delighted to have this opportunity, at the invitation of JoAnna Rottke and Courtney Mahaney, to participate in this virtual Dickens event.

I’m speaking to you today from my home in Tampa. Christmastime in Florida always feels to me a bit unusual. After the punishing heat of summer, we can finally leave our air-conditioned boxes and enjoy the outdoors. It’s 75 degrees, but the neighborhood yards are twinkling with holiday lights and stuffed with inflatable snowmen. All the trappings of traditional Christmas are there, but it feels just a bit out of place. Everywhere I turn, I see the familiar holiday images, surprisingly located and with a slightly different spin.

And my talk today is about exactly that: the unexpected appearance of a familiar Christmas story. I’m talking, of course, about A Christmas Carol, one of the most frequently adapted novels of the nineteenth century. Through a steady stream of adaptations on stages and screen, Dickens’s tale of Christmas spirit(s) has made “Dickensian” the hallmark of the holiday season. Thanks to this creative industry, Scrooge has become as much a part of modern Christmas as Santa himself.

While it may be hard for us to imagine Christmas without a bit of Scroogian humbuggery, decking our halls while watching any one of the dozens of films that have remade this holiday classic, Carol-mania is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the nineteenth century, the Carol was not the seasonal theatrical staple it had become by the beginning of the twenty-first. After an initial blossoming of dramatic interest in the story in the 1840s, A Christmas Carol was largely ignored by dramatists. Theatrical records show there were just a few dramatizations in the 1850s, even fewer in the 1870s, and but one in the 1880s. Having shared the stage with Faust at Edinburgh’s Albert Theatre in early January 1886, Scrooge and Marley more or less vanished from the stage until the early years of the twentieth century.

So why did A Christmas Carol, which had been relatively unpopular with Victorian playwrights suddenly, at the dawn of the twentieth century, become such fertile and favored material for theatrical—and cinematic—appropriation?

There are many ways we might answer that question, but today I want to attempt an answer by looking in an unexpected place and at a play that is probably unfamiliar to you, A Message from Mars. Written by American playwright Richard Ganthony and making its mark on the transatlantic theatrical scene when it premiered in 1899, A Message from Mars capitalized on fin de siècle speculations that Mars might be inhabited by intelligent beings and with the related discussions of the possibilities of interplanetary communication. The play includes the core ingredients of A Christmas Carol : a miserable, selfish man; an otherworldy being carrying a moral message; a profound personal transformation; a jolly holiday ball. It’s all there—all the things that make up the delights of A Christmas Carol—only, like Christmas décor in Florida, somewhat surprisingly placed.

A Message from Mars premiered in November 1899 at the Avenue Theatre in London’s West End. Two years later, following a very successful run of more than five hundred performances in London, the play and its star performer, Charles Hawtrey, were brought to New York’s Garrick Theatre. Over the next twenty years, A Message from Marswould play to audiences across the globe. There were revivals in London and New York; performances in Australia, New Zealand, and India; traveling companies that took the show to cities across England and the United States. It was filmed three times: in New Zealand in 1908, in England in 1913, and in the US in 1921. The first successful dramatization of the Carol in more than 20 years, Ganthony’s play established some of the conventions that would become common to adaptations of A Christmas Carol well into the twentieth century, including in particular the substitution of a single supernatural agent in place of the multiple ghosts whose visits Scrooge must endure.

Reviewing A Message from Mars in 1899, The Saturday Review offered an insightful assessment of the play’s formula for success:

The sentiments of forty years ago, an up-to-date setting, and Mr. Charles Hawtrey—three things which are very near to the heart of the public! The selfish young man of the period…The good spirit, hailing from Mars, can and does work all kinds of miracles and illusions on the stage…There is also a struggling inventor, a long-lost daughter, and a ragged child who, being asked whether he is happy, says, ‘Happy? What’s that?’ In fact, I have never seen a play so obviously stamped with the scarlet seal of success.

As this review explains, A Message from Mars wraps mid-Victorian sentiment in a modern package. It deploys the comedic talents of a popular actor as a counterbalance to the pathos of such stock melodramatic figures as the long-lost daughter and the ragged child, an unmistakably Dickensian urchin possessing insight beyond his years. The stage illusions add fresh visual delight to a rather familiar tale. In short, A Message from Mars was that perfect balance of past and present, a deftly managed adaptation that updated a familiar story, allowing Dickens to speak to a modern audience.

A Message from Mars was an instant success. J. H. Barnes recalls the scene on the street outside the theatre following the play’s premiere on November 22nd 1899: “Never have I heard such general praise for a new play! Hardened Press men were raving about it, and the paying public, wiping the honest tears from their eyes, were shaking each other’s hands hysterically, and (in one case) looking for beggars to be charitable to on the spot. Its success was unequivocal and emphatic.”

Before going any further, I should perhaps give you a brief summary of the play. It begins with Horace—the Scrooge figure, played by comedian Charles Hawtrey—returning home at the end of the day. It’s cold outside, and all that Horace wants to do is to relax by the fire and read the copy of the Astronomer magazine he just bought. Opposed to this plan is Minnie, Horace’s ward and fiancée, who wants Horace to escort her and her aunt, Martha, to a ball. Horace refuses, saying balls are, essentially, humbug. Minnie and Aunt Martha accuse him of being selfish—miserly in his affections, if you will. Horace, Scrooge-like, merely insists that he wishes to be left alone, so that he can attend to his scientific “business.” Arthur Dicey, a rival for Minnie’s affections, arrives and offers to escort the two ladies to the ball. Before she leaves, Minnie returns her ring to Horace, breaking the engagement because she finds him too unbearably selfish. 

After Minnie leaves, Horace is visited by a Tramp looking for work. Horace offers him no assistance. We will see this Tramp later in the play.

Horace then falls asleep reading about Mars in his magazine. The article speculates that the red planet may be inhabited by intelligent beings attempting to make contact with earth. As Horace sleeps, the lamp next to him is transformed into a man wearing a cape. The man awakens Horace and identifies himself as a messenger from Mars, come to earth to redeem the most selfish man on this self-centered planet. The Messenger, who occasionally gets Horace’s attention by delivering painful electric shocks, explains the Martian philosophy of “otherdom”; that is, the commitment of oneself to the needs of others. Horace, like Scrooge, resists the intrusion of his benevolent visitor, and so the Messenger forces Horace out into the streets to learn his lessons in otherdom.

On the streets, Horace is confronted by a series of people in need. Each time, the Messenger forces Horace to give to these people—his coat, his money—everything he has. Horace is also taken to the scene of the ball, where he overhears people sharing their opinions of him as selfish, unpleasant, and of a not very scientific mind. Still, Horace clings to his sense of social superiority, forcing the Messenger to reduce him to the status of a beggar in rags. In this guise, he runs into the Tramp again, and the two men bond as they try to survive on the cold streets. Stricken by the cold, the Tramp is in danger of dying, and Horace pleads for the power to save his life. Seeing that Horace finally has someone else’s needs at heart, the Messenger restores him to his former state, allowing Horace to awaken from his dream. 

Minnie and Martha return home to find Horace giving over every room of his house to people who have just lost their homes to a fire. He has even gathered together all of his own coats to give to these neighbors who now have nothing. Seeing that he is a changed man, Minnie pledges herself to him again, and the two agree that they will help the Tramp get back on his feet and find his family.

As you can see from this summary, it’s a feel-good story, with plenty of echoes of A Christmas Carol. In1899 the Manchester Guardian said that A Message from Mars “has a seasonably Dickensish air about it…. it is obviously suggested by the ‘Christmas Carol,’ with a dash of Mr. Wells’s War of the Worlds thrown in.”

The play’s employment of a supernatural agent whose mission is to guide a reluctant and unpleasant individual through a series of humbling encounters with other people as part of a conversion experience is, of course, the central formula which A Message from Mars borrows from A Christmas Carol: take one Miser/general grumpus, add a supernatural agent, stir in  unflattering visions of the self, and you end up with a moral conversion of the individual that results in broader social improvement.

Horace’s scientific orientation approximates Scrooge’s privileging of fact over fancy. Confronted by Marley’s ghost, Scrooge wrestles with sense and reason, insisting that the apparition is more likely a symptom of indigestion than a messenger from beyond the grave. Like the novel’s skeptical reader, Scrooge must be made to believe in the unbelievable; he must come to accept as real that which seems utterly fantastic. This is precisely the point raised in the novel’s opening paragraphs: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” This is why Ganthony makes his man in need of redemption a scientist, a man who eschews the frivolity of parties for the facts of planetary science. Ganthony emphasizes the full extent of Scrooge’s miserliness, which extends beyond his financial tight-fistedness. Like Horace, Scrooge refuses to “make merry” with others, and he insists on being left alone. For both Scrooge and Horace, being miserly with time, attention, and affection are the most serious, the most hurtful forms of selfishness; both men, it seems, need a lesson in “otherdom.”

As a result of Horace’s selfishness, his betrothed, Minnie, breaks their engagement, an obvious echo of the scene from Scrooge’s past, when Belle returns her ring to Scrooge. Minnie tells Horace ,“I was never blind to your faults. I had hoped I might help you conquer them, but I realize now that the task is beyond me. A stronger spirit would have to be invoked.” This reference to the “stronger spirit” necessary to redeem Horace’s character simultaneously recalls the Christmas Carol’s ghosts while anticipating the arrival of Horace’s own otherworldly spiritual guide.

A Message from Mars foregrounds the significance of the lost romance in Dickens’s text. Scrooge’s memory of Belle and his painful return to the scene of his broken engagement is the moment in the text in which we first see Scrooge choosing to love himself and gold over another person. It’s an early-life opportunity for Scrooge to learn a valuable lesson in prioritizing personal relationships, in putting others first. It is a lesson in “otherdom.”

A Message from Mars arises from an astute reading of A Christmas Carol, selecting those incidents that are most central to Scrooge’s transformation: if you’ll remember, in the past Scrooge revisits his old employer, Fezziwig, on the night of the Christmas ball he throws for his employees. This scene challenges Scrooge’s ideas of the proper boundaries of “business,” and makes him feel the effects of being an outsider. He also watches as his betrothed, Belle, breaks their engagement, representing an important loss of human intimacy. In the future, Scrooge sees his own cold, unmourned death, and wishes to alter that future. Following his transformation, Scrooge “adopts” Tiny Tim and somehow manages to keep him healthy and alive. These are the elements that Ganthony focuses on within his drama, so that even with its obvious alterations, A Message from Mars follows the essential journey Scrooge undertakes with the aid of his supernatural visitors: there’s the scene of the ball, the broken engagement, the vision of oneself as seen by others, the vision of oneself in the future, all of which leads to the miraculous, redemptive personal transformation. As one reviewer put it, the play “holds the mirror up to selfish man and makes him see the thing he is in order that he might become the thing he ought to be.”

Yes, okay, I get all that, I hear you say. But why Mars? How did Ganthony get from ghosts to Martians? And why were Martians somehow more palatable to theatrical audiences than Dickens’s ghosts had been? Well, Mars loomed large in the public imagination in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Advances in optics created telescopes powerful enough to detect some of the planet’s surface features. What the telescopes couldn’t fully resolve, the human imagination filled in, fueling speculations about the animal life that might inhabit the planet.

In 1877, Mars was closer to Earth than it had been in decades. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (you may know this story) described a pattern of lines on the planet’s surface. To Schiaparelli’s eye, these lines appeared to be channels, so he called them “canali,” a word unfortunately translated as “canals” in English. This translation would inspire frenzied speculation about the engineering feats of the thirsty inhabitants of Mars’s drought-stricken cities. People imagined Mars as the home of a technologically, perhaps even morally, advanced society, working together to solve their global environmental crisis.

Mars came into opposition again in 1892, sparking fresh interest in Mars, and this included the somewhat uncomfortable thoughts the Martians might be observing us as thoroughly as we were observing them. Both War of the Worlds and A Message from Mars capitalize on the Mars Mania of the 1890s. Wells’s novel and Ganthony’s play similarly posit that Mars is a world not unlike Earth, inhabited by a race of intelligent and potentially superior beings who take a particular interest in the people of Earth, whom they observe through powerful telescopes. In both case, contact between the peoples of Earth and Mars begins with observation: it is, essentially, initially a visual phenomenon, perhaps fitting given that an inhabited Mars was a visionary development, made possible—perhaps even necessitated by—the imprecision of nineteenth-century telescopes that left the surface features of Mars incompletely resolved. If we consider this fundamentally visual dynamics of fin de siècle Mars Mania, it is easy to imagine how it intersected with the transformational fable of A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge’s moral redemption is achieved through a series of visions. Scrooge’s ghostly visitors act as a sort of spiritual telescope, bringing the world—unseen or poorly perceived—into sharper focus.

This, of course, is the transformative dynamic of A Christmas Carol.  Scrooge is moved emotionally by what he sees in the past and the present, but it is the image of the future, of his own un-mourned end, that fully jolts Scrooge out of his cold complacency. He finally, fully recognizes the inhumanity of uncharitable behavior only when he sees himself in the hands of selfish people who are motivated by greed and whose human sympathies are dulled by calculating rationalism. Following this chilling vision of his own future, Scrooge is returned to the present, a changed man, resolved, moreover, to change the future—to “sponge away the writing on the stone,” as he says—by becoming a different sort of man in the present.

Gathony handles in a slightly different way this final, crucial encounter with the miser’s own mortality. It is the Tramp, not Horace, who is in danger of dying in the snow. Cold, starving, shunned by society, the Tramp sinks to his knees. At this point, Horace, whom the Messenger has reduced to rags, has befriended the Tramp. The two men have worked side by side in the snow in the hopes of making some money so that they can buy a bite to eat. Seeing his ragged companion on the threshold of death, Horace begs for the power to save him, to restore him to life. And this moment does double-duty in the play: Horace is showing concern for another human being and doing all he can to save him: he is putting into action the Martian philosophy of “otherdom.” But it’s important to remember that Horace, too, is a man of the streets at this point, and in the Tramp’s move towards death, Horace sees a vision of his own future, what will become of him if no one reaches out to help. So Horace sees the spectre of his own death as he works to assist another person in need. And these two things complete his education and demonstrate that he has learned his lessons in otherdom, allowing him to return to the waking present, where we then witness, in the final act, his new commitment to selflessness, as he generously offers aid to strangers who have lost their homes to fire. 

As the reviewer for the Atheneum observed,

not until he finds himself starving and in rags in the stony-hearted streets, and hears his applications for aid or employment dismissed with the airy commonplaces of political economy he himself has employed, does [Horace] learn to feel for others.

The play’s exploration of selfishness as a social ill and of the individual’s responsibility for the welfare of others is, perhaps, more relevant now than ever. In today’s economically divided, pandemically quarantined society, it is perhaps necessary to be reminded that other people exist, that other people matter, and that we should occasionally put down the selfie stick and see ourselves as other people see us. Perhaps that’s why we return to A Christmas Carol again and again, year after year, in all its various guises. The unexpected messengers—be they ghosts, goblins, or groundhogs, angels, or even Martians, bring us back to Dickens as they urge us to see, and become, our own better selves.    


marty.jpgMarty Gould is Associate Professor of English at the University of South Florida. His research interests include nineteenth-century literature, the cultural expressions of Empire, Victorian visual culture and theatre, and literary, theatrical, & cinematic adaptation.


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