Monday, December 19, 2011

#KlingonXmas -- A Klingon Christmas Carol

If you act quickly, you can see the familiar Christmas Carol in the original Klingon at the Greenhouse Theater in Chicago this year -- of course, if you miss it this year, there's always next year: it's in its second year in Chicago (it played for a few years in Minneapolis before that), and it's sure to return as it is incredibly popular, and with good reason.

Here on Earth, we tend to regard the "original" version of this story as the one penned by Charles Dickens in 1843. But we're not particularly married to the original. A Christmas Carol has been adapted a remarkable number of times, and is probably one of the most adapted stories in all of stage, film, and television history. Last year's Doctor Who Christmas Special was a version of A Christmas Carol that included a crashing space ship, cryogenic chambers, and flying sharks (it also included time travel, but with "ghosts" of past, present, and future a de rigeur part of most productions, combined with the entire time-traveling premise of Doctor Who, it's hardly worth mentioning...) The "Scrooge" theme has become such a part of our storytelling culture, though, that when I first watched it, I actually missed that it was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at all (yes, yes, the title: I didn't look). I discovered it was an adaptation of Dickens's story only when a student pointed it out to me.

Anyone familiar with the Star Trek universe knows that the Klingons are an aggressive people who take what they love by force. This is why you haven't truly experienced Shakespeare until you've read it in the original Klingon (2:55 if you want to skip to the toast), and this is also why the Vulcan who narrates the Klingon Christmas Carol refers to this production as the predecessor of the Dickens version. To do otherwise would be to challenge the honor of an entire Kronos-full of Klingons and no good can possibly come of that -- or, at least, it would be harder to get around to the actual play, what with all the oaths and bat'leths and bloodshed.

More important than "who came first," though (and I admit, if any Klingons are reading this, that the Klingon version surely came first), is the remarkable adaptability of the story itself. Abstracted from its cultural specifics, it's a story of an old person who has fallen so far from the values of his people that he has become something alien, something between a joke and a monster. Through an examination of his own past, the present of those who know him, and of the future world without him (in which no one has a good thing to say or a drop of respect for the rotting heap that once he was), this old person is renewed, and finally (and joyously) connects with the others of his kind: he reaches out to them, and in return they love him -- whether with toasts and kisses or toasts and sparring.

Whether we particularly value "generosity" (Humans) or "honor" (Klingons) is almost beside the point. The Scrooge (or SQuja') cannot connect with his own people until he sets aside his desire for financial (or physical) security and parts with some of his money (or safety). What is really valued is not the generosity or the courage, but the willingness to change oneself to become a part of the larger group, the community. (What great Klingon warrior once said, "no man is an island...?")

It's hard to imagine a time and place where the specifics don't ring true: Dickens's 1843 Scrooge asks why the poor children can't all be sent to prisons and workhouses. The Klingon SQuja' suggests that the children of fallen warriors can be sent to Rura Penthe. In 2011 Newt Gingrich thinks poor children should be set to work as janitors. In 1793 Marie Antoinette suggested (or didn't) that they just eat cake, and today I've heard there's also a man with equally reasonable advice for "poor black kids." In other words, being a jackhole knows no time and place. But this story, unlike any other, holds out hope that even the most unredeemably repulsive fool could come to understand his culture's values, and be redeemed.

To a person who values his own wealth above all, Scrooge's actions at the end of the story are foolish -- he throws his money around, and at people who he knows (for the ghosts have shown him) talk bad about him and make fun of him when he's not around. To a person who values his own health above all, SQuja' is just as foolish: an old man, hunched and weak, he willingly throws himself into a fight he can only lose terribly. Rather than continuing to lie, he admits he never truly passed his rites of ascension, and goes through them again beside (tiny) TimHom -- he admits, in short, that he is a child. But this is the only way he can become anything more.

He must lower himself in order to rise.

This isn't a particularly Christian or English belief -- it's universal. It's so universal that, far out beyond the stars, across the starry expanses of our galaxy, each year on the Feast of the Long Night, Klingons too celebrate in part by reminding themselves of this story of a man called SQuja', who was a coward and liar, without honor, who sat counting gold like a Ferengi while his wife died in glorious battle, who continued counting while others sang her songs, who did not seek out her deserved revenge, who was, in short, no Klingon at all -- and yet, to him Kahless came, three times during the night, and given this chance to redeem himself, he did.

There would have been silence upon his death; now, the warriors will howl.

--

Next year, the Commedia Beauregard is producing Bard Fiction: Pulp Fiction translated into Elizabethan English. :)

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