The original story of A Christmas Carol was written by Charles Dickens and published on December 19th, 1843. On December 24, 1939, The Campbell Playhouse production company produced a radio epside of A Christmas Carol narrated by Orson Welles and staring Lionel Barrymore. Below is the original audio recroding of A Christmas Carol, feel free to take a listen!
When considering the lasting effects of Campbell Playhouse's radio retelling of A Christmas Carol, it is important to acknowledge the role this new media played in embedding the tale in American Christmas culture. A Christmas Carol has become a staple in the American home at Christmas, with countless film renditions from the cartoon Disney adaptation to the largely similar retelling of the tale, "It's a Wonderful Life" (Munby 52). However, prior to the first edition of Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore's radio performance in 1935, A Christmas Carol was almost entirely associated with the British imaginary of Christmas and had not taken root in American culture (Richards 337). Although the Campbell Playhouse performance of A Christmas Carol was nearly a word-for-word retelling of the tale, this new media performance endeared the narrative to American audiences like never before.
In questioning how Campbell Playhouse was able to entrench A Christmas Carol in American culture, it is important to consider the previously unseen ability of the radio to bring immersive media experiences to the living room of middle-upper class American households. Adorno argued that the radio "gave life to the material objects of the bourgeois home" (Adorno qtd. in Jenemann 89), allowing for complete captivation of the listener through becoming enveloped in the experience of the household coming to life.
While the role of the radio itself in bringing A Christmas Carol to American homes cannot be ignored, it is equally important to consider the social context of the time. For an American in deep economic depression, much of A Christmas Carol's content would have lent itself to interpretation and remodelling to suit a distinctly American narrative. President Franklin Roosevelt's endorsement of the tale is evidence of this transition, as he "found solace in reading the redemption of Scrooge and the triumph of Bob Cratchit" (Munby 52). In this sense the story was reconstructed largely as one of redemption, where Scrooge's dynamic nature perhaps became a larger focus than the dark undertones of poverty and the failures of liberalism so explicit in the original text. Paul Davies provides further support, arguing that A Christmas Carol was Americanized through becoming a reassuring narrative that intended to foster the belief in the American public that large corporations were capable of redeeming themselves. (Davies qtd. In Richards 337). Davies goes on to argue that Roosevelt used A Christmas Carol as "one of the guiding texts of the New Deal" (Richards 337), in that it was reconstituted to allow for the encouragement rather than criticism of capitalism by promoting the notion that morality could be maintained through the dispersion of wealth in the form of donations and community aid at Christmas time. This method is undoubtedly evident in the Campbell Playhouse rendition of A Christmas Carol, as can be heard when Ernest Chapel of Campbell Soups addresses the audience before the retelling begins. Chapel states that Campbell soup is indebted to their "friends", the American Audience, and this performance of A Christmas Carol is a means of giving back, "a Christmas present". Here, not unlike Scrooge in the end of the tale, Campbell's soup manages to construct themselves as benevolent and determined to give back despite the vast wealth and class discrepancies of the time. Through analysis of Campbell Playhouse's A Christmas Carol, it becomes clear how the narrative was embedded in American culture through appropriating and reconstituting its social commentary to fit within American capitalist ideals.
"A Christmas Carol." Perf. Lionel Barrymore and Orson Welles.Campbell Playhouse. 1938. Radio
Jenemann, David. "Flying Solo: The Charms of the Radio Body."Broadcasting Modernism. Gainesville: U of Florida,
Munby, Jonathan. "A Hollywood Carol's Wonderful Life." Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British
Richards, Jeffrey. Films and British National Identity: From Dad's Army to Dickens. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997. Print.