Christmas in July? Why not? Preston Sturges wrote and directed a movie with that title which was released in 1940. In the movie, an office worker wins $25,000, which allows him to marry his sweetheart and take care of his old mother. (Isn’t that what we’d all do with a few extra dollars?) For Sturges, as for most of us, the word Christmas evokes joy, surprise, glamour and family – and Sturges was smart enough to put it right in his title.
The fact is, plays and movies – comedies especially – have a tendency to work best when they’re structured around a unifying event. The event can be a wedding (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a dinner (see Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You and Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors), a bachelor party (see The Hangover), a neighbor’s party (see Chris Durang’s new Tony-award winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – and congratulations to Chris!); and of course the granddaddy of all unifying theatrical events, Christmas.
It makes sense: it gives the playwright and the audience (1) something to work towards (2) the event itself, and (3) the aftermath. It creates form; it’s a kind of instant architecture. Not surprisingly, there are loads of plays set around Christmas; two of my own favorites are A Tuna Christmas by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, and Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came To Dinner. Others that come to mind are Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and the musical Annie.
Not long ago, I wrote a comedy-mystery-thriller called The Game’s Afoot; or Holmes for the Holidays, and early on, I decided to set it on Christmas Eve. As I worked on it, from first draft to second and second to third, I realized more than ever why Christmas is such a boon to drama. The play is about a famous actor from the early 1900s named William Gillette, known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes; it’s set in a castle in Connecticut (which really exists); it has a séance; it has a murder (or three – I won’t give it away); it has flash cars and ’twenties jazz – but what it also has, thanks to Christmas, is built-in tension.
What I realized in writing The Game’s Afoot is that Christmas not only brings conscience, religion, fellowship – and built-in architecture – to the table; it also brings out all those family tensions we feel all year ’round but never quite express in the same pointed way until Santa is on his way to our house.
Family squabbles, family jealousies, old wounds, fresh competition: this is the stuff of plays both comic and tragic; and it is certainly the stuff of murder mysteries. When the idea came to me to set The Game’s Afoot at Christmas time, it felt like a gift all by itself.
The world premiere of the play was at the Cleveland Playhouse, and, during the run of the play, as I watched the audience enjoying the proceedings with a lot of laughter and a lot of screams, I also had a small epiphany: I realized that audiences enjoy feeling part of Christmas all year long. So why not do shows like this one all year ’round? In fact, the unexpected aspect of the venture adds just the right spirit. It’s a bit off-kilter, a bit surprising, a bit like getting a present out of the blue.
I feel the same way about a children’s play I wrote recently called ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. Yes, it really is about Christmas. It’s about a mouse and his best friend, a little girl, who travel to Santa’s workshop with an elf in order to save Christmas from a swashbuckling villain named Guy of Gisbourne. Could this play be done in March or September? Of course it could; and wouldn’t that be fun! Who wouldn’t want to feel the joys and fellowship of Christmas all year long? Kids would, of that I feel sure. And you can count me into the bargain.
In that spirit, you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got to go change into my swimming trunks. It’s time to watch my favorite movie of all time, White Christmas, around the pool.
-Ken Ludwig, 2013