Having just completed a run of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I’m now Scrooge in the Vermont Theater Company’s version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Other than both being works of enduring importance from mid to late 19th century, the two seem, on the surface to have little in common: One a tale of horror, replete with violence and unmitigated evil, the other a classic tale of redemption.
Yet both play on striking similar themes: Dr. Jekyll makes his pact with the devil to be able to let loose his most vile impulses and finds himself trapped in the nightmare that, having become the evil Mr. Hyde, he cannot ever return to being the good doctor. Scrooge has made his own pact with the devil, setting the accumulation of wealth above all other things, love and human compassion foremost among them. He is trapped in his own nightmare world where he must endure the pain of the loveless world his actions have created.
While Scrooge is able to redeem himself, both he and Dr. Jekyll must face the consequences of their choice to pursue anti-human ends. When Jekyll realizes he can never escape from Hyde, he kills himself. Scrooge must face that his lost loves are gone forever, that he must spend the rest of his life atoning for the damage he has done by turning away from humanity.
Most importantly, both tales center on the question of choice: Do we, as human beings, choose our destinies by our actions. In this sense, for all the religiosity of both tales (Jekyll for his attempting to play God by toying with good and evil; Scrooge for his “un-Christian” lack of good will toward his fellow humans), pose a more basic existential question: Are we the people we choose ourselves to be. And for both, the answer is a clear “yes.” This underlying existential dilemma gives both stories a universality that transcends ties to specific religious beliefs.
There are other parallels: Both Jekyll and Hyde and Christmas Carol are tales of transformation. The former from good to evil, the latter the reverse. Both show crucial psychological insights that pre-dates Freud: that people contain both good and evil within them, that dreams and fantasies may reveal our Janus-faced dualities, that, ultimately we must choose whether to be compassionate and empathic, or, alternatively, hateful and destructive, and that this choice is demonstrated by our actions, not what we say. There is no middle ground, no justification for failing to connect to the humanness in others. For Jekyll it is too late, he has acted so heinously as Mr. Hyde that he can only destroy himself to atone for his hatefulness. Scrooge is luckier. His nightmare awakens him before he has completely destroyed all hope of change, giving him the opportunity to live be, as he says, “a different man from who he was…a different man from who he would have been” were it not for his nightmarish visitations.
In our current world where so many things are explained away by everything from unhappy childhoods to neurochemical imbalances in the brain, it’s refreshing to go back to dramas in which people make their choices, good or bad, and live with the consequences of those choices.