November has turned into December. Keegan and I each have multiple small roles in a dramatic adaptation of A Christmas Carol. We are phantoms of the past and people of the present. Ebenezer Scrooge first threatens us, then showers us with munificence. I haven’t been in a play in decades. It’s intimidating to share the stage with several highly accomplished actors many of whom are less than half my age. I take my cues from them in more ways than one. At times, it’s overwhelmingly apparent that I have the least talent of anyone among us, but then I remember that I often feel this way, too, in the presence of my students. It’s a form of humility that’s as unhealthy as it is vital; it both gnaws at and spurs one on. You feel you aren’t good enough, so you strive to do better, and you do do better, but your doubt also threatens to spiritually emaciate you in the process. There are as many real phantoms swirling about the stage at any given moment as there are phantoms being portrayed upon it.
I love the show, but most of my favorite things about being in a play are turning out to be either things that happen before the run begins, like the feeling of walking into the empty theater for a night’s rehearsal and taking a seat in a folding chair with your rolled-up script in your hand, or things that happen in the wings, backstage, and in the dressing room once the show’s underway. For instance, I love the faint feeling of being some kind of grotesque starlet each time I sit down in front of the mirror to check my hair, put on my top hat, or fasten my cravat. As I watch myself in the mirror I am beset with meditations; works of 19th century British literature drift through my mind like cemetery vapors. I strike myself as some kind of decrepit gothic professor in whom a young girl with aspirations to fame on the stage lurks, Hyde-like, ready to come out, only here Stevenson’s appearances are reversed: it’s Dr. Jekyll whose form is unappealing, old and forbidding, while Hyde would be young and beautiful. I reflect on the Victorian obsession with appearances and what they belie: Dorian himself and the picture of Dorian; and on the same era’s obsession with reform: not just in the sense of moral improvement, but in the sense, too, of metamorphosis, simply taking a different form. Jack in the city and Ernest in the country. The Island of Dr. Moreau. The arduous transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, brought about by divine intervention. Divine comedies and strange, wonderful lives. Peering into the looking glass, I wonder at my own doubleness, or rather, at the many ways in which I am double. My reflection in the mirror, meanwhile, more innocent and simply dying to perform, casts aspersion on such mental shuffling and instead focuses exclusively on ridding itself entirely of its own mind that the spirit may take its place and a good show be put on, like make-up. The call comes: “Five minutes, please!”
In a play that features several ghosts and multiple phantoms, my favorite sight of ghostliness in the entire production is one that almost only I get to see. When “places” are called for the start of the show, I leave the dressing room and make my way up the stairs to the stage left wing, where I have to carry a coat rack onto the stage at the end of the play’s first scene (the shift is from a London Street to the counting house of Scrooge & Marley, from an exterior to an interior). Each night I diligently take my position beneath the underwater blue and green naked bulbs that cast an eerie, quintessentially backstage glow throughout the theater’s recesses. There are dark curtains between me and the stage, and the old building’s peeling wall rises high above me on the other side; these kinds of theaters always seem so much vaster on the inside than it looks like they could be from the outside, the interior somehow greater in size than the exterior. Stationed in the black folds of the wing and ready to act, I’m at the top of a short flight of stairs that go down into a very small foyer curtained on the far side from me, where on the other side of this curtain, let’s call it a veil that separates two realms from one another, is the house itself: a side aisle ascends past rows of patrons in seats on the right all the way up to the now quickly emptying lobby. In a minute the play will begin.
Each night when I get to my initial perch, Scrooge is already there, in my vicinity, at the bottom of those few stairs, in that small foyer. Joel is preparing himself. It’s just me and our stagehand in the stage left wing at this time, and I’m not sure if the stagehand has noticed what I myself have seen each evening. The most haunting, ghostly sight of the entire play, for me, takes place right here, as I look down the stairs at a dark, hulking, faceless figure. Scrooge is facing me, but he is also facing the floor, so that I can see only the top of his black top hat with its black brim. He wears a black cape that broadens his shoulders, and he carries a black, silver-handled cane. His hands are the only part of his body that I can see, and aside from the hands and the cane’s handle, everything else is black, a conglomeration of shadows in the form of an early Victorian nightmare, looming and menacing, bringing to mind the bats of Mirabell, the folds of their wings. It’s unclear to me if Joel knows I’m staring at and enraptured by him for these few minutes each evening; he never looks up until he begins climbing the stairs to take his position for his entrance, and even then he doesn’t look at me. Yet still it seems that already he is performing, already he is Scrooge, and when he finally does begin to slowly climb the stairs, the stagehand and I give him a wide berth. He’s more intimidating himself than any of the ghosts who will soon frighten him into reformation.
I have three roles in the play: Solicitor #1, Man #3, and Fezziwig. I had hoped to play Marley, but as someone who hasn’t been in a play in two dozen years, since I was the doctor in Flowers for Algernon during my senior year in high school, I was very happy just to have been cast. As Fezziwig, my scene comes in one of the episodes where the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge pivotal episodes from earlier in his life. Here, too, while I do enjoy my time on stage, I derive greater aesthetic satisfaction from the few moments in the wings just before I make my entrance along with all of the other attendees of Fezziwig’s warehouse party. In order to be ready to enter on time, I once more walk up the stairs from beneath the stage, where the dressing rooms are, this time at the outset of the first of the Christmas Past flashbacks, when Scrooge is shown himself when he was just a little boy, long before he serves as an apprentice to Fezziwig. As I walk slowly up the stairs, I hear the music that plays softly over the scene; it is ethereal and wintry, like lightly falling snow crystals, and it puts me in a trance each evening. After a group of phantom children run off the stage, Scrooge looks at the Ghost of Christmas Past and says, “They’re going home for Christmas,” and the ghost replies, “Not all of them.” One boy is left, sitting at center stage, reading a book, alone. Scrooge, in his nightgown, looks down at the boy and says, “It’s me, isn’t it?” While these things are happening on stage, I’m in the wing, stage left, watching and waiting for my cue to enter with a drink cart for the next scene’s party. But each evening, at this moment, as I wait in the wing, I am also Scrooge myself, nostalgically reflecting on my own past, standing in the shadows and the deep blue light, looking up at the high ceiling of the theater, into the darkness. There I can just make out the little boy whom I once was, himself now but a phantom of memory, too, though here, too, strange reversals occur, as when I was young I had friends and company and seldom felt lonely; it is only now that I spend a great deal of my time alone, reading. Forms of doubleness continue to multiply: I am simultaneously someone who is in the play and someone who is watching it, being affected by it even as I am an actor in it. Does this make for bad acting on my part? Shouldn’t I be “getting into character” at this point instead of undergoing a miniature existential crisis each evening as I watch the play? Nevertheless, this is what art’s supposed to provide: a moment of catharsis and of contemplation, deep reverie and sadness for lost time, an appreciation for the beauty of all fleeting things, and for the fleeting nature of all beautiful things.
Each evening, at this point in the show, I emerge from a well-lit underworld into the blue light and dark green blackness of backstage and stand quietly next to my drink cart, sequestered in the wings, looking out on an older, confused man in a nightgown standing over a young boy in school clothes who reads from a book and who isn’t real. Phantoms beget phantoms, and I think of Rudy Bloom at the end of the “Circe” episode of Ulysses. Tears brim in my eyes each night.
Dickens’s novella is written in five “staves,” not chapters. A stave is the set of five parallel lines, on and between which musical notes are written, where Dickens’s use of this term to designate the sections of his tale indicates that he wants us to think of it not only as a work of literature, but also as a piece of music, quite literally a carol. Additionally, the fact that there are five staves, and not three or four, calls to mind the five-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays, making A Christmas Carol a drama, too, something of a morality play, in fact, in addition to being both novella and musical composition. It is a hybrid form.
Merrill’s “Chimes for Yahya,” meanwhile, is his own version, and something of a parody, of A Christmas Carol, in which he positions himself as a Scrooge-like figure in a present-day Athens on Christmas Eve, and in which he, too, like Scrooge, will be taken back to moments in his past that will then induce contemplation the result of which will be a kind of transformation, or edification, or the attainment of a new kind of clarity in the present. The poem is written in nine sections, corresponding to the nine chimes for which it is named, making this work of literature, like Dickens’s novella, a kind of musical composition, or rather, a musical instrument in this case. But Merrill’s poem echoes less the five-part structure of Shakespearean drama than the tiers of Dante’s underworld, which number nine. “Chimes for Yahya” is the fourth of nine poems in the first section of Divine Comedies; in the Inferno the fourth circle of hell is reserved for those who, in life, were irresponsible spenders and hoarders, where the figure of Ebenezer Scrooge has since come to epitomize the paradox of wasteful hoarding. No doubt Merrill’s own relationship to money, and perhaps even more so his father’s relationship to it, drew him to the figure of Scrooge, a figure that likely provided a wise reminder to be generous with whatever wealth he possessed, a reminder Merrill himself heeded throughout his life.
But not always. “Chimes for Yahya” begins with the poet refusing to be generous with his wealth, as, woken up on the morning of Christmas Eve in Athens to the sound of children singing and ringing homemade bells outside, he slams the window down in anger rather than bestow upon them the sought for coins that would then prompt them to move on to the next house. Stealing himself against the fact that this will keep happening all day long, the poet tries to get on with his day, but soon finds that he can’t: “bells keep ringing in my head.” As he walks up to his rooftop terrace, “thirty years pass” and he recollects an episode from his young adulthood when he was sullen and depressed (“Looked back on now, what caused my sufferings? / Mere thwarted passion—commonest of things.”) and found himself in Isfahan, Iran, jaded and disillusioned. Much of the poem is given to Merrill’s recollection of this episode in his life, to the time he spent with Yahya, an important personage in the region, and his loyal retainer, Hussein, and to how this time spent among strangers who quickly became friends helped him snap out of his self-indulgent despair. In short, Yahya acts, as the Ghosts of Christmas do, as a guide who leads Merrill to a perspective for lack of which he was suffering greatly. And in the poem’s present, Yahya is a ghost, having died a year after the events recollected occurred. Sitting on his rooftop terrace listening to the bells of the city’s churches chime as he reflects on his own past, Merrill accidentally brushes against the set of nine chimes that were given to him by Yahya as a gift before he left Isfahan—and so Yahya once again, this time in a more literally ghostly manner, jars Merrill from the unhealthful disposition we see him steeped in at the poem’s outset, grumpy and ungenerous. In his newfound zest Merrill doesn’t do anything like track down the two young girls who woke him up in the morning, with the intention of bestowing a small fortune upon them as a means of making amends for his earlier rude behavior, but he does make reparations of a kind precisely by writing the poem, which is itself a generous Christmas gift, nine “Chimes for Yahya” in exchange for the nine chimes that Yahya bestowed upon him all those years ago, when he was little more than a sad boy who felt alone in the world and was in need of love.
Like many of Merrill’s narrative lyrics, “Chimes for Yahya” takes place in more than two different temporal settings. That is, Merrill is often not content with a simple division between present and past, the structure needed for the simple flashback, but instead requires multiple past episodes, two at the least, to bring into relief the contours of the past itself, or the fact that the past is multiple and yet still one thing, massive and yawning. “Chimes for Yahya” works this way, as, for instance, does “Lost in Translation.” Of the poem’s nine “chimes,” the first, eighth, and ninth, and the beginning of the third, take place in Athens, in the poem’s present. The rest of the third, plus the fourth, fifth, and seventh, take place in Isfahan, memories of which have been ignited in the poet’s mind by the sound of bells ringing on Christmas Eve. But the second and sixth chimes are still as yet uncounted for: the latter takes place a year after the events in Isfahan, when the poet learns by way of a letter from Hussein of Yahya’s death; and the former recalls a Christmas memory from childhood, also triggered by the bells of Athens’s churches. More than one memory at a time can float up from the blue-green depths, called forth by seemingly insubstantial emissaries.
The childhood memory is important, and involves the same “mademoiselle,” Merrill’s governess, who figures so prominently in “Lost in Translation.” JM recalls how as a boy he would entreat his governess to reveal to him beforehand what his parents had bought him for Christmas, making for a situation on Christmas morning in which the boy would have to feign delight upon unwrapping gifts that were not a surprise to him: “I’ve seen it, memorized it all.” The treasure’s “delusive novelty” leaves the boy unable to be content with his present(s), where this is the same thing we see the poet as a young man suffering from in Isfahan over a decade later, and a malady the mature poet is still afflicted by some 30 years after that, haunted and governed by what he already knows, the present spoiled by knowledge that renders stale what otherwise might delight. From a young age we begin to steadily lose the capacity to be surprised; we not only become disillusioned, but we also lose our susceptibility to pure, unbridled joy: Scrooge skipping about when he realizes that he hasn’t, in fact, missed Christmas. It is fitting, then, that in Merrill’s poem it is a surprise that is partially responsible for the young poet’s being shaken out of his malaise in Isfahan, where etymologically, a surprize is a culinary dish that promises little upon first appearance but that when opened abounds with all manner of variety. In Isfahan the surprise takes the form of a practical joke played by Yahya and Hussein at the expense of an anthropology student from Berkeley who is in Isfahan working on her thesis.
Her name is Gloria. As she sits at the table after dinner one night with Yahya and the poet, a piercing scream off in the distance interrupts “our flow of spirits.” Yahya explains that it has come from a woman in labor, at which news Gloria becomes excited at the prospect of witnessing her first childbirth in two years in Isfahan; it will be vital to her studies. After making initial protestations, Yahya relents and leads both poet and anthropologist to the outside of a room in which lies a “veiled figure writhing on a carpet.” The two of them press their faces against the window in wonder: “‘Wow,’ breathed Gloria, / ‘Smell that smell. They gave her opium.’” But the opium comes, in fact, from Hussein’s personal stash, and he is the writhing figure on the ground who, still disguised, after the “delivery,” places in Gloria’s hands a bundle that contains—“not a wriggling white / Puppy!” It is both a practical joke and a mock Nativity scene: the miraculous birth transmuted into the genre of playful grotesquerie.
The recollection of the miraculous, even if it was a mock-miracle, might serve just as well as the miraculous itself to stun us out of our habitual attitudes into a wisdom we then pray might be as lasting as it is relieving.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1904 (reprint).
Merrill, James. Divine Comedies. New York: Atheneum, 1976.