Monday, November 29, 2010

A CHRISTMAS CAROL blog 4: David Rogers (Miner)

This is my second year in the part of the Miner in Alan Ruch’s haunting musical montage and trio entitled “Travels.” In years of my youth I performed in other versions of A Christmas Carol. As a teen I played Peter, and as a young man, I played Bob Cratchet beside my father’s Scrooge. I have seen many versions of A Christmas Carol, both plays, films, and musicals – some wonderful, some not. And I have more than once read the short book. Yet when Matthew Wiener called me last year and offered me the part of the “Miner,” my response was “for what show?” “The Miner? Where is he in the story?”

Even today, when friends ask me what part I play, they always look confused when I answer “the Miner.” And then I inevitably explain that in Dickens’ book, during Stave III, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a brief scene of miners in the North who, despite awful living conditions, still found joy in the Christmas season. But until The Actors Theatre’s version, so far as I know, the “miners” scene was never depicted in any film or stage version of the story. I suppose at first blush the scene was just too brief or too unimportant to use. That is, until Michael Grady, Matthew Wiener, and Alan Ruch thought about it more carefully – perhaps understanding how important this brief scene really was to Dickens’ social message and Christmas lesson. I’m so glad they gave it a second look.

This year, as I reprise the role, it has more meaning for me. The entire world watched and cheered at the miracle of the 33 Chilean Miners, who after 69 days jubilantly emerged one-by-one from the half-mile-deep mine – a place we were convinced would be their tomb. This past month we learned of the tragedy of 29 New Zealand Miners killed in a massive underground explosion. We shudder when we try to imagine the dark claustrophobic horror those miners endured.

Yet dangerous as mining seems today, mining was far more dangerous when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. In all of Dickens’ books, readers discover repeated themes of poverty, suffering, greed, and social responsibility. Dickens exposed the victims of the industrial revolution – those that the greed inherent in the system had displaced and driven into poverty. Perhaps none of Dickens’ books more directly argued that the wealthy members of that society were obligated to provide for the poor and destitute than does A Christmas Carol. And though the book is set in London, still Dickens didn’t forget about the miners of the north when he flew Scrooge up there for a brief look.

In the 1800’s, mining was the lifeblood of Britain’s world-dominating manufacturing industry. Black coal powered the industrial revolution. At the peak years of production, the coal miners of Wales and England hauled over 200 millions of tons of the fuel annually from the dark depths of that cold hard northern earth. Mining conditions have been noted as the worst of all working conditions of Victorian England. Many writers, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem The Cry of the Children, wrote horror stories of children -- as young as 4 years old -- working 16 to 20-hour days in the dark-black underground coal mines. They often worked for barely enough money to afford food. Many wrote of the horrid conditions these children were forced to endure. Browning’s shocking poem describes the mine as a dark, ruthless place that robbed children of their innocence and their soul – making them yearn for early death as an escape. In the 1840’s, many reformers tried to expose the awful mining conditions and the mine owners’ exploitation of children. Browning’s poem includes a powerful plea for change: "How long, O cruel nation, / will you stand to move the world, on a child’s heart" (Browning 153). This plea was echoed by other social reformers, including Dicken’s brief portrayal of his Christmas miners in Stave III.

My thoughts of mining this year led me to do a bit of research into my own family’s history with mining. I have known that my ancestors were miners, and that some of my ancestors spent time in English and Welsh mines in the 1800’s. So for this blog, I did a bit of research for something more specific. (Actually, the research was easy, I just asked my Mom). Here is what I learned: John Kirton, my paternal great-great grandfather (b. 1863), was born in Westmore, Northumberland, England, worked in a coal mine in Scofield, Carbon, Utah, and was killed in an underground mining explosion exactly one-hundred and ten years ago. Thomas John Rees, my maternal great-great-great grandfather (yeah, that’s THREE greats) (b. 1816), grew up in Wales, Great Britain, and mined coal in both Great Britain and in Wales, Utah after immigrating as part of the Mormon migration west. Thomas Benjamin Davis, also my maternal great-great-great grandfather (1822-1889) was also born in Wales, Great Britain, and mined coal there. In 1856 he worked for a year in the coalfields in Scranton Pennsylvania so that he could earn funds to move his family to Utah. He then worked in a Wales, Utah coal mine most of his later life. And my great grandfather, Leon Ray Brown (1885-1929), a mine foreman in the Bingham Utah copper mine, died in the mine when he was younger than I am now. His daughter, my grandmother was born in that mining town of Bingham, Utah, and told me stories of her mining-influenced childhood there. I guess I am a miner in more ways that one.

So this year, I will step out on stage to sing the part of the Miner – Dickens' Miner, Micheal Grady’s Miner, Matthew Wiener’s Miner, Alan Ruch’s Miner – and my family’s many miners. When I do, my thoughts will be of them, and of the miners in Chile, in New Zealand, and of the children of Browning’s poem. When Scrooge points at me with my axe, coat and lantern props, and asks Christmas Past “who’s that,” I will know far better what the real answer is: I am playing the part of a miner. It is a part of my family’s history and a part of Dickens’ profound desire to change his world for the better, and his belief that Scrooge and others -- who had caused these atrocities -- could change. And I will play the part of David Rodgers – a third-generation college graduate who has never once been inside a mine – and who owes much of that to my mining ancestor’s hard work and belief that they could build a better world for their children. And I will owe it to Browning’s and Dickens’ and other good-hearted people’s social movement that changed the world, and proved that humans could repent, abandon greed, and lift the lives of others.

So Merry Christmas to you from the Miner and his family. And this year may God bless us, everyone. But especially the miners.


Maria said...

Thank you, David, for sharing your perspective on this oh so important detail in Dicken's story and ATP's wonderful rendition. When my mother, a retired nurse, saw me in this production, I had the privilege of portraying the Nurse. It meant so much to her to see her experience depicted as a part of the message of this familiar holiday entertainment.
Maria Amorocho - "Past" - 1993,2001-2005; "Nurse" - 2001

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog..

Christine said...

Thank you for this perspective on the miners in Dickens' story! I'm doing a new adaptation for a small Maryland theater, and didn't realize anybody besides me had included the miners--I think the often-overlooked sections of Dickens' novella are fascinating. I appreciate the historical background you've given here.

Christine said...

Hey--looks like the Alistair Sim film version includes the miners; I did not remember.