Put yourself for a moment into the shoes of Joseph Haj, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. On Friday night he took the stage to welcome what he described as the theater's first opening night crowd in 637 days. He was about to open this year's production of "A Christmas Carol," the beloved holiday classic, with an intriguing new interpretation, an ingenuous set and a promising cast.
Before the play could begin on stage, however, drama erupted in the house. The curtain was delayed about half an hour by a patron in distress. By an odd quirk of theater magic, her outburst may have unintentionally helped the play make its points.
The piece, after all, is about what can happen to a person who becomes alienated from human society. The audience member's rage-filled, full-throated rants certainly brought her all the isolation anyone could want.
"It was the very thing he liked," Charles Dickens wrote of his Ebenezer Scrooge. "To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance."
Nothing in the play, and least of all in the performance of Matthew Saldivar as an introspective Scrooge, could repel human sympathy more effectively than the disturbed patron. She clung to her seat and yelled obscenities at anyone who approached her.
Meanwhile, members of the audience-in-waiting brought other Dickens characters to life. Some of them seemed to have stepped from the pages of "A Tale of Two Cities," in which crowds of French citizens make sport of the aristocrats being trundled to their executions.
"Na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye," members of the crowd sang, as if watching a pitcher about to be pulled from the mound at a baseball game. One young man got up out of his seat and seemed to be doing some kind of an end-zone dance.
A kindly audience member stood and implored the people around her to show a little compassion for a person who was obviously in crisis. Most did, but a woman seated a few rows away grumbled, "Sit down and shut up." From her perch near the top of the house-right slope, the disturbed woman flung a program through the air like a Frisbee and began tearing another into little pieces that she flicked at her neighboring patrons.
Families stood and threaded their way to the exits. A quarter of an hour passed, then another, just as the quarter-hours would pass for Scrooge when the other drama began onstage.
From where an editorial writer happened to be sitting, the patron's words were difficult to understand. At first it seemed she was protesting the Guthrie's requirement that audience members wear masks. She wore none. "If they're breaking the rules, why do I have to follow them?" she demanded, although it was unclear who she was referring to.
Soon she moved on to what sounded like an indictment of the Guthrie's treatment of Shakespeare. She yelled "Macbeth" several times, flouting a theater taboo. When she uttered a racist epithet, it drew gasps, then a roar of disapproval. Finally, at a few minutes past 8, four officers entered the theater to raucous applause and escorted her out.
She was out of sight, but not out of mind. An audience that had gathered for "A Christmas Carol," an event that ushers in the Christmas season, had turned ugly when inconvenienced by a fellow human in crisis. Not all of them, but enough.
"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge from the stage, in a line of dialogue that would be thrown back at him by the Ghost of Christmas Present (Regina Marie Williams). "Are there no workhouses?" Like Scrooge, we find it a little too easy not to concern ourselves with the suffering of others.
That same ghost later introduced Scrooge to a pair of destitute children, whom she identified as Ignorance and Want. The more dangerous one, she warned him, was Ignorance, "for on his brow I see that written which is doom … . Deny it!" she thundered.
Dickens warned that those who use ignorance "for your factious purposes … make it worse." His words seem prescient today. Going on 180 years since Dickens published "A Christmas Carol," Ignorance is alive and well, and the effect is factious to say the least.