Once again the theater’s version of C&E’s (Christmas and Easter) audiences is clamoring for tickets to the shows that they may only attend once or twice per year if that. From sea to shining sea performers both professional and amateur are in most cases clad in period costumes. Early twentieth century costumes, worn by those who still believe in Santa Claus, are seen in Miracle on 34th Street. Mid-nineteenth century clothes adorn the actors in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
But costumes for O. Henry inspired plays depend on each playwright’s take on the classic short story, The Gift of the Magi. A modern rendition will see an appropriate collection of early to late twentieth century costuming. A playwright who has stayed truer to the original text will clad his performers in turn-of-the-twentieth-century finery or rags. The Hallmark Channel choice a contemporary setting for its version described as an “original movie”. When Bert and Ernie performed The Gift of the Magi on Sesame Street they wore colorful plush.
Plays, movies, television programs and even cartoons have been based on the O. Henry tale over the years. In 2000, David Conte even wrote an operatic score to accompany the story line. This one is not as well-known as some of the others. Regardless of the version of O. Henry’s short story the basic tale is one that has appealed to readers and audiences since its 1906 release. The characters are mostly named Della and Jim and they are a young married couple who are strapped for cash.
It’s funny how things don’t change all that much. Here it is over a century later and people are still broke at Christmas. That’s probably why the storyline is told in so many different periods. It doesn’t matter what the actors wear, the story is exactly the same. But the characters are determined to honor the tradition of holiday gift giving. In the original version Della has $1.87 whereas in modern times she might have maxed out credit cards. She sells her hair for $20 to buy a watch fob for her husband’s watch. He sold his watch to buy her hair combs.
Well it was a very short story. Gifts are often all wrong and the sentiments are all right. O. Henry himself honed his fiction writing career in reaction to his desire to buy gifts for his young daughter. He was incarcerated in a federal prison in Ohio after being found guilty of embezzlement in Houston, Texas. He didn’t want his child to know that he was in prison so he tried to earn enough to send gifts on special occasions. His first fiction story was a Christmas story published by McClure’s magazine in the December, 1899 issue.
The truth is that the man known as O. Henry was a drunk who was born on September 11, 1862 as William Sydney Porter. Since the United States’ government had fewer federal prisons in those days he was sent to Columbus, Ohio to serve a five year term. His sentence was reduced to three due to good behavior. That prison later became a state prison. Eventually, the rambling limestone structure was torn down. Today the arena district is located on the site of the old prison.
Porter moved to New York City after being released from prison in 1902. Some accounts maintain that a tavern which still exists and was founded in 1864 was the exact location where Porter wrote The Gift of the Magi. Most of his writing is obscure but The Gift of the Magi is an enduring classic. So much so that writers will probably always be inspired to elaborate and change his very short and ironic story. Those who can’t get enough of The Gift of the Magi will find plenty of productions from which to choose this holiday season. This is a very good story for families with middle school aged children and up. There are marital touching scenes.
Playhouses all over the country will have live productions, many of which contain musical scores. But choose holiday entertainment wisely. Most families will, in all honesty, be happier watching a movie than a play. There are always plenty of movies, concerts, and plays (not to mention obligatory school and community productions) available for viewing during the holidays. Make sure the one chosen has appeal for your entire party. Tiny children will really not be able to sit still during many kinds of production. Similarly, older relatives may not like more contemporary entertainment.
The theme of The Gift of the Magi is worth consideration at the holiday season. Perhaps one of the cartoon versions are best for younger family members, who may enjoy watching with an older relative. The notion is that the gift is not as important as the sentiment is.