Since the Madoff scandal hit America, Dickens’ CHRISTMAS CAROL is becoming a play about Madoff—by default. And going by the most recent events, the question arises, will there be redemption for Bernie Madoff in 2011? After all, Madoff was worse than Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ infamous character. Unlike Madoff, Scrooge was not involved in any criminal activity—he simply milked the system for all he could get out of it and was so self-absorbed in hoarding money that the very thought of charity and giving to others perturbed him.
A few days ago, I saw a powerful production of A DICKENS CHRISTMAS with Jared Reed. It took place at the Hedgerow Theatre near Philadelphia, famous for its old stone walls, original windows, and the raw, exposed bricks from the former grist mill of the 1800’s. It was converted into one of the most original theatres in America. Enhanced by eerie lighting effects, the theatre made for a spectacular backdrop to this play, where the acting blended with the background, reflecting the inner world of the characters. I pictured Madoff on stage whenever Scrooge manipulated and exploited others.
THE GHOST OF THE PAST
Watching Reed transform himself from young victim to exploiter, I experienced Dickens’ wide-ranging panoply of human beings that he had brought to the stage in over 400 popular readings to thousands of enthusiastic audiences, which even included literary stars like Longfellow and Emerson, who came to see the great English novelist on his tours through the United States in 1867. Reed rekindled one of these socio-literary events in most dramatic ways, keeping the audience spellbound at the Hedgerow, America's oldest continuously operating residential repertory theatre.
The multi-talented Reed and co-director of the Curio Theatre went beyond a mere reading. He breathed life into each character in such a way that he conjured up a whole Victorian medley of Dickensian characters, all of whom had a lot in common with our own foibles and joys, our own strengths and shortcomings—an extraordinary experience to see the transformations of character and characters, all performed by one actor who would Jekyll and Hyde himself from Tiny Tim, the innocent boy, to Scrooge, the heartless exploiter. Reed showed his interpretation of the eternal Scrooge, a deeply flawed character whose life centers around money—with total disregard for anyone but himself.
Dickens describes the villain perfectly: “Scrooge was the ogre of the family. The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party.” The name of Madoff, the modern Scrooge, casts the same dark shadow on life. Geoff Nunberg, in his National Public Radio feature, wondered whether Madoff is “a scoundrel or a sociopath.” Time Magazine quoted Richard A. Shweder, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, referring to Madoff as an “incubus”—an evil spirit who overpowers sleeping people. And in a letter to the editor of New York Magazine, Madoff has been cursed as “a puke upon society.”
Born to a plumber who became a stockbroker, Madoff morphed himself into one of the wealthiest Americans, who lived like a Middle Eastern potentate, thanks to the biggest fraud committed by an individual in US history. His success depended on the gullibility of others. Lured by the promise of abnormally high interest rates, large organizations and millionaires flocked to him like moths to a flame, begging him to accept their dollars. The greedy fantasies of his numerous victims fed the sociopath and financial illusionist who fooled the IRS and fiscal watchdogs for years.
THE GHOST OF THE PRESENT
After seeing one of the most remarkable productions of A DICKENS CHRISTMAS and witnessing the hardened Scrooge, who, at long last, repents, I left the Hedgerow Theatre, wondering whether Madoff would ever experience such an epiphany. And then, the news hit the airwaves around the world:
“[Madoff’s] eldest son, Mark, has gone to oblivion, having hung himself from a dog leash on the second anniversary of his father's outing as perpetrator of a $20 billion con,” as reported by Froma Harrop, who presented one of the most incisive interpretations of this American tragedy:
“Whatever the case, a desire for revenge must have also driven Mark's carefully timed self-destruction. Mark may have wanted to exact the ultimate pain on his father. Sadly, one can't be sure that Bernie Madoff had feelings to be hurt. […] We may never learn all [Mark] knew, but there is little doubt that his father used him. Like other Madoff victims, Mark lost money. Unlike them, he suffered the cruelest form of betrayal. He was his father's saddest victim.”
In A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Scrooge was haunted by Marley, his former business partner who repented, albeit from the grave. Will the spirit of the late Mark Madoff become the Jacob Marley of Bernie Madoff’s life? They both worked as partners in a financial institution, which Dickens’ Marley labeled as “our money-changing hole.” Ebenezer Scrooge and Marley, like Mark and Bernie Madoff, became successful businessmen.
And just as Jacob Marley preys upon Scrooge's mind in numerous ways, haunting him mercilessly through three different ghosts, so Mark Madoff’s suicide may prey upon his father’s mind for years to come until the American Scrooge will repent and ask for forgiveness.
When Marley comes back from the grave, shackled, he explains that the heavy chains, dragging from his body, are the ones he built himself in life through the bad deeds he committed. Similarly, Mark Madoff, struggling with his failure to find peace of mind, may have felt condemned to walk the earth for all eternity for his father’s sins, never to find rest or peace—a depth of feeling that seems to have escaped Bernie Madoff so far, at least by all the accounts we have of him.
THE GHOST OF THE FUTURE
When challenged by the spirits, locked deep inside the cell of his own mental world, Scrooge hears the noise, knocking at his conscience, but doesn’t want it to be true: "It's humbug still! I won't believe it." Dickens allows Scrooge to show that, deep down, he was a good man, albeit misguided throughout most of his life. Now that he has visited three hells by meeting three spirits, he has come to his senses: "Am I that man who lay upon the bed? No, Spirit! O no, no! Spirit! hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Madoff. According to Steve Fishman’s exhaustive article in New York Magazine, Madoff, the modern-day Scrooge, shows no conscience yet. On the contrary, he ignores the plight of his victims, even mocking and vilifying them in a most vulgar way, full of himself, dripping delusion, anger, and self-pity: “‘Fuck my victims,’ he said, loud enough for other inmates to hear. ‘I carried them for twenty years, and now I’m doing 150 years’.”
If only Bernie Madoff had listened to his inner voice as a father of a son who suffered greatly from emotional pain. Marks suicide two years after the day of his father’s arrest reflects Marley’s suffering seven years after his death around the same time: “At this time of the rolling year. I suffer most.” Maybe Madoff will get haunted by the spirit of his son Mark on that fatal day. The suicide of his son might finally bring in the future for Bernie Madoff. Who knows, he might allow a potent paradigm shift to occur within the cell of his mind, letting go of ridiculing and taunting his victims and turning a leaf in 2011.
Charles Dickens’ famous CHRISTMAS CAROL has become the Madoff story, which shows the greed and corruption of our own time most powerfully. This famous tale is ultimately a story of redemption, where Scrooge, having been confronted by the spirits of the past, the present, and the future, and having seen the damage that he has done, experiences an existential change in which he tries to make up for his many sins throughout his life. Marley, Scrooge’s former partner, haunts the selfish miser: “O blind man, blind man! [. . .] Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”
As if that were not enough, Scrooge gets challenged to the core of his existence by the condemnation of one of the three spirits: “It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions." In despair, Scrooge begs for mercy: “Remove me from this place! [. . .] I cannot bear it! [. . .] Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!"
Will there ever be a day when Madoff and the many manipulators in politics and the world of finance around the globe learn from Jacob Marley? Perhaps, like Scrooge, they might be willing to redeem themselves and pay back the moral, if not the fiscal, reparations they owe, thereby contributing toward a tikkun olam, a healing of the world—not only during Hanukkah and Christmas, but all year round.
Or am I too optimistic? Only time will tell, long after America’s oldest residential repertory theatre has closed its grist mill doors on this production and has mounted many post-Madoffian plays.
I suspect the Madoff story remains a work in progress.