Yesterday, we took the train up and across the border to Birmingham, England, to see the exhibition “Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites” at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Deceptively saccharine, the title of this show (borrowed from Solomon’s fanciful dream narrative “A Vision of Love Revealed by Sleep”) also refers to the Victorian artist’s troubled life, to the disclosure of his secret and the end it meant for his career as a commercially viable painter.
There was nothing sensationalistic about this staged revelation; and even though Solomon’s paintings and drawings do not always stand up particularly well when placed alongside the works of his better known contemporaries, “Love Revealed” did not leave me with the impression that this rather obscure artist is being deemed due for a revival chiefly because certain academics with an agenda think his private life under public scrutiny, his outing and ousting, fascinatingly queer or historically significant enough to warrant such a tribute. The past may come back to haunt us—but it may also be revealed, at last, in a light that is different without being garish.
Christmas, of course, is just the time to conjure up haunting spirits; the telling of ghost stories during the season when days are darkest is a tradition in Britain, Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” being the most famous of them all. On US radio, updates of Ebenezer Scrooge were attempted on programs as diverse as Blondie (“Scrooge,” 15 Dec. 1939), The Six Shooter (“Britt Ponset’s Christmas Carol,” 20 Dec. 1953), and the syndicated propaganda series Treasury Star Parade (ca. 1942), in whose seasonal offering, “The Modern Scrooge ($18.75),” the reformed old miser becomes an air-warden.
The past was not always the exclusive domain of pastiche, however. On this day, 20 December, in 1959, a rather more gritty ghost story was presented by Suspense, an anthology of radio thrillers heard over the Columbia Broadcasting System in the United States between 1942 and 1962. Titled, “A Korean Christmas Carol,” the play tells the strange tale of an American soldier stationed in Korea, Christmas 1958.
On his way to Seoul, he picks up a hitchhiker, a fellow soldier who relates his own experience fighting in Korea some seven Christmases earlier. Insensitive to the icy weather and oblivious to the cigarette smoldering between and singeing his fingers, the stranger seems to be dwelling wholly in the past. When he steps out of the car and disappears into the darkness, he leaves behind his AWOL bag, forcing his listener to follow his path. But instead of taking him straight to some barracks or military installation, the path leads to a secluded orphanage. It is here that the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future crowd in on our haunted storyteller.
Featuring the non-traditional holiday sounds of fierce machine gunfire, the play opens and closes with a choir of Korean children—the orphans of the war to whom the mysterious hitchhiker, himself a casualty of war, sets out to deliver a bag of toys by turning the driver-narrator into his earthly messenger. Having died to save his comrades, he now returns to remind and guide his countrymen to look after the offspring of those whose lives he took.
“A Korean Christmas Carol” is a story of sacrifice and redemption, a story of making amends—a story of love revealed in a vision of death. Will the present war on terror produce or inspire any such ghost stories to be shared underneath the Christmas tree in the decades to come?