‘A Thug, who should devoutly believe in the holiness of his mission, would fare better than an evangelist, who should lead a thousand souls to salvation, not for God’s glory, but for his own.’ – Julian Hawthorne (1846-1934), son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, April 1886.
Among the most recently censored Doonesbury comic strips by artist G. B. Trudeau was a series of six strips that ran in March dealing with one of the most controversial issues of this year’s election season. In particular, the March 12 edition featured a doctor’s office receptionist asking a patient if this was going to be her first pregnancy termination.
The receptionist instructs the woman to complete a patient form and wait in the ‘shaming room.’ The patient, who has just been handed a placard with a giant red ‘A,’ says, ‘In the what?’ and the receptionist responds, ‘A middle-aged state legislator will be with you in a moment.’ The succeeding days’ strips, yes, did venture down that path.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel ‘The Scarlet Letter’ unquestionably remains one of the most important novels ever penned in the American literary canon. When University of Michigan literature professor Thomas Foster set out to select the ‘Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America,’ he had intended to include Hawthorne’s ‘The House of The Seven Gables’ but it was an Advanced Placement English class in a Grand Rapids, Michigan suburban high school that convinced him otherwise.
In an interview with ‘The Atlantic’ magazine, Foster says, ‘But the title I heard almost universally from them was The Scarlet Letter. And I thought, “Well, you know there’s something that works there for them.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to include it, it’s just that I thought Seven Gables would take me in a different direction.’
On April 12, Plan-B Theatre in Salt Lake City, with a smashingly good reputation for taking creative risks in original plays that confront and force intellectual reexamining, will begin a 10-day world premiere run of Jenifer Nii’s adaptation of the Hawthorne novel in the Studio Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts.
Nii’s superlative adaptation, which sustains the novel’s original 17th century Puritan setting in New England, will remind audiences about Hawthorne’s extraordinary skill in creating a living novel that is as timely as it is timeless. Even as she judiciously inflects the script with a voice that will be readily appreciated by a contemporary audience, Nii keenly preserves the novel’s original voice and story elements that always enhance the numerous paradoxical truths emerging from this 19th century classic.
Nii’s efforts reflect as Paul Auster, author and Hawthorne literary scholar, has noted, ‘The words aren’t written in stone by an invisible author-god. They represent the efforts of a flesh-and-blood human being and this is very compelling. The reader becomes a participant in the unfolding of the story—not just a detached observer.’
And, no doubt audience members will immediately perceive this in the production directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff, who saw no reason whatsoever to resituate the story in a contemporary age. ‘There is no need to spoon feed people or to be condescending regarding its relevancy.’
Nii’s adaptation is focused on the story’s four principal characters with which everyone should be familiar: Roger Chillingworth, Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Pearl. Likewise, Phil Lowe’s costume design and Cluff’s sound design and music selections further underscore the period piece’s characters and nuances. Cluff adds that the staging, in particular, represents the philosophical and intellectual prisons each adult character has managed to construct.
One of the novel’s biggest fans, Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s producing director, says this is a rare opportunity to stage the old and new at once: ‘a new play from a true American classic.’ Likewise, Plan-B continues a long run in perfecting the uncanny knack for staging original works just at the right time when the topic or issue is front and center in the American consciousness.
Hardly an exaggeration, the Doonesbury strip cited at the top, which was pulled from many newspapers, came amid the recent spate of state legislation concerning fetal ultrasounds and the discontinuation of funding for Planned Parenthood in nine states. The Doonesbury strip in question zeroed in on a 2011 Texas law signed by Gov. Rick Perry, a former GOP presidential candidate, which would have required women to have an invasive sonogram and wait at least 24 hours before electing to have an abortion. Going to the extreme in terms of public shaming was a proposed bill in the Tennessee state legislature that would have required physicians to publish the names, locations, and medical histories of women who were contemplating abortions.
Perhaps even more telling is how several media outlets justified pulling the Doonesbury strip, such as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas which cited the need to preserve civility in public discourse while the Syracuse Post-Standard, which ran four of the six strips in the story line, explained that excessively graphic and potentially offensive representations were the reasons for pulling two of the strips. At least 100 U.S. newspapers dropped either some or all six strips connected to the story line.
The Salt Lake Tribune pulled Doonesbury’s March 15 entry, fearing that one of the strip panels with ‘I thee rape’ might not be suitable for its readership. However, the newspaper’s cartoonist Pat Bagley took a PG-rated riff on Trudeau’s line and came up with a replacement that appropriately captured some of the absurdities Utah legislators are known for on these issues. Bagley’s version can be seen here.
No doubt remains that ‘The Scarlet Letter’ reveals the tragically messy narrative of the so-called American tradition of religious tolerance and the topical treatment is by no means archaic especially as we consider those who imagine the nation as Christianist based on how they have erroneously interpreted the words of the nation’s founders.
However, Nii pulls to the surface all of the most uncomfortable elements that bedevil our national consciousness when it comes to matters of hypocrisy, false reputations, and personal revenge, showing why precisely much has not really changed all that much since 1850. ‘It would be good to behave more compassionately and try a lot harder to resist the urge to judge, even if we do judge and behave badly as a result,’ Nii, who also co-authored the sold-out Plan-B production of ‘Wallace’ in 2010, explains.
While we champion the virtues of life in a ‘global village,’ – now made even more possible by a virtual place where we do not hesitate to expose our simultaneously true and artificial selves on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Web sites, and other digital media – we often quickly overlook and disregard our humane capacity for forgetting and forgiveness. And, as in Hawthorne’s work from the middle of the 19th century so persuasively argues for, the notion of being able to control our reputations is a stark fantasy.
Putting oneself online, for example, does not entitle the individual to demand respect and if others particularly do not have the capacity to be sensitive and empathetic, then there is little one can do. However, we can evolve and take the harshest lessons further to the hard-earned value of wisdom.
Thus, Hawthorne’s Pearl (Hester’s daughter) realizes that she cannot be judged by strangers, understanding fully that she can define herself without referring to what others might and will say about her. She will gain the confidence not to let the weaknesses of the segmented self to complicate or derail her lifelong desires, aspirations, and goals.
Audience members who are most familiar with Hawthorne’s original will be able to discern Nii’s wisely disciplined touches in her adaptation which runs under 90 minutes. For example, Chillingworth says,
‘Peace, Hester. Peace. I have no power to pardon. My faith explains all we do, and all we suffer. But you planted the germ of evil in us, and everything since has been… fate. So let your black flower blossom as it may. (Waves her away) Go. Do with your man as you will.’
Hawthorne’s original of the same passage reads:
‘My old faith explains all that we do and all that we suffer. By thy first step awry thou didst plant the germ of evil; but since that moment it has all been a dark necessity. Ye that have wronged me are not sinful, save in a kind of typical illusion; neither am I fiend-like, who have snatched a fiend’s office from his hands. It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may!’
Likewise, Nii follows with respectful faith to the original in Dimmesdale’s lines:
He called himself my friend. My healer! All while he watched me wither and die. Oh, Hester, truly we are not the worst of sinners. There is one worse than even a polluted man of God: he, that old man, has violated the sanctity of a human heart! Not even we, blackened though we are, did not commit such a thing.
‘There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart.’
Nii succeeds at adapting this canonical work by taking what is so beautifully stated on Hawthorne’s page and translating it to realistically sounding stage dialogue, all while ensuring that the book’s thematic markers do not seem dated or anachronistic. And because the adaptation makes so much narrative sense even in its original period character, the play clips along at a brisk space in its revealed plainly spoken nature.
The production features Lauren Noll as Hester, David Fetzer as Dimmesdale, Mark Fossen as Chillingworth, and Claire Wilson as Pearl. Rounding out the production crew are Randy Rasmussen, set design; Jesse Portillo, lighting; Rapier, props, and Jennifer Freed, stage management.
Tickets for the first week of the run already have sold completely and the remaining performances are selling quickly as well. Performances will run Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m; Saturdays, 4 p.m., and Sundays, 2 p.m.
Tickets are $20 for general and $10 for students. For more information, see here.
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