Web exclusive: Interview with Playwright Tom Mula

Playwright Tom Mula’s inspiration for Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol originated in a conversation over french fries with a ten year old girl. Hazel Flowers-McCabe—the daughter of Mula’s friend, director Terry McCabe—came to see Mula in a matinee of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol. At lunch after the show, Hazel confided that she thought “Marley got a raw deal”—that, if Scrooge got a second chance, why shouldn’t poor old Marley? This resonated with Mula, and he spent the next few years bringing this neglected aspect of the story to life.

What was your relationship with the story before you wrote Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol? Did the inspiration to write a version of A Christmas Carol with Marley as the main character all come from your conversation with Hazel?
I’ve loved the Dickens story all my life. My father gave me an LP of the Lionel Barrymore radio version and I used to play that all the time as a kid. My first professional association with the story was playing Jacob Marley at 14 in my neighbor’s tire chains. Playing Scrooge at the Goodman, which I did for seven years, was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Hazel gave me a push in a direction I was already going—I had always felt sorry for Marley. Her remark started the wheels turning and the story started to come on its own. I was getting parts of it in dreams, and I knew that if I didn’t write it, somebody else would. The story seemed to want to be written. The basic seed of the idea is from Dickens: Marley says to Scrooge, “You have a chance and hope of escaping my fate, a chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.” Dickens tells us that Marley arranged for Scrooge’s chance at redemption, while Marley himself was doomed to clank around in his chains for eternity. This seemed unfair, and I thought the story was worth investigating. I’ve always felt that part of the reason the story came so quickly was that Dickens had some unfinished work.

What was the difference in the way you approached adapting the world from Dickens’s novella versus creating the afterworld that we don’t see in the original?
Marley needed a compelling reason to do this. Dickens created a wonderful illustration of the doctrine of karma in Marley and Scrooge being condemned to wear the chains they forged in their own lives. I based my afterlife on Dante’s Inferno, and on the Hindu idea that the attachments that we form in life (by attraction or aversion) are the ones that stay with us in the afterlife. So people are bound to the things they inordinately loved—or hated.

What made you decide to adapt the novella into a play?
As an actor, I had done a one man show of one of my favorite books, The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney. That book is kind of a pile of fantastic instances and it seemed that a way of giving it coherence was to do it with one actor. A director friend came up to me after a show and thanked me profusely. When I asked why, she said, “Because so much happens in the audience’s imagination. They become co-creators, they create the experience along with you. We’re grateful for that.” I wondered if Marley would work that way, and I found that it would. I ended up performing it for a couple years at the Goodman and took it out on tour. But at that time, it was 100 minutes of text, and that’s formidable. It took me six months to learn it even though I had written it. I thought, more people are going to be interested in this if I don’t make it such an appalling task. At Cincinnati Shakespeare, Jasson Minadakis and I found that it worked well with four or five actors. And that’s made it very attractive to a large number of companies. I didn’t write JMCC with anything other than the intent to get the story told, but it’s become this lovely tradition with a life of its own. It’s been a real blessing in my life.

How do you think it affects the storytelling to change it from a solo show to four actors playing all the parts? Did you ever consider doing it with a larger cast?
In an excellent production, there is no difference. The audience still gets the pleasure of creating this imaginary world. I’ve seen productions where they’ve chosen to do a very realistic set and gone a lot more towards a traditional production—it’s not really how this script works. I also feel like one of the big attractions of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol is that it’s giving theaters the opportunity to do a holiday production with name recognition that is entertaining and fun and moves an audience and makes them laugh and cry and doesn’t require a cast of 20 and 18 sets. I think it’s a great strength in JMCC’s favor, so I’ve never been inclined to do a bigger version of it.

Do you have a particularly special memory of A Christmas Carol as a part of your holiday traditions over the years?
Oh, there’s a million. Scrooge was a personal myth for me. I’m sure every audience member who really invests in the story has this experience: I saw the Albert Finney version in college, and when I came out of it, it was snowing. I walked down the quad with tears streaming down my face. When my friends asked why, I said, “Well, if rotten old Scrooge can be forgiven, then so can any of us. There’s hope for us all.”

If you enjoy the theatrical version of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, the illustrated novella and Mula’s newest book Hackers of Oz, (a modern sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L.  Frank Baum) are both available at Amazon and at BarnesandNoble.com!