Turning Nathaniel Hawthorne's brilliant novel The Scarlet Letter into a contemporary drama is a doomed proposition. Phyllis Nagy's torturous attempt, now playing at the Denver Center Theatre Company, is so full of error, so misguided, so utterly banal a reading of a great work of art, one can only wonder why Nagy didn't tell her own story and leave the work of a great mind alone. Why anyone would want to update Hawthorne is a mystery to me--and one I don't care to solve.
Hawthorne's exploration of sin, remorse, confession and expiation was not so very unlike Dostoyevski's in Crime and Punishment: Sin mattered because the human being mattered so much, and every single thing he or she did was full of significance. But in an age and a contemporary culture where nothing much matters and individual action is said to be biologically or environmentally determined, the human being as a free moral agent has lost significance.
First of all, one has to understand that the protagonist of Hawthorne's novel, seventeenth-century puritan Hester Prynne, deserved what she got--not by the standards of the late twentieth century or by the standards of the early seventeenth, but by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century, when the book was written. Hester gambled with her body and she lost. Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover, earned his ignominious and glorious end. The whole book was built on the problem of sin--what it does in the physical world and what it does to the individual psyche. And adultery was a serious sin. You didn't commit adultery like you didn't commit murder.
We all read the book in high school. But, briefly, Prynne, a married woman whose husband has disappeared, has a baby out of wedlock and is forced to wear an elaborately embroidered scarlet "A" to signify her adultery. She refuses to name the father, who happens to be the eloquent but weak-willed Dimmesdale. Hester's husband, Chillingworth, shows up just as she is being publicly humiliated, discovers who little Pearl's daddy is and begins a psychological torture of Dimmesdale unheard of in the annals of literature. Chillingworth is better at mesmeric suggestion than Iago, and more demonic. But the wages of revenge is death, and he dies when the object of his revenge dies.
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Many scholarly tracts have been written about The Scarlet Letter, about early American puritans and about the difference between Hawthorne's nineteenth-century mind and seventeenth-century idealism. Hawthorne did care very much about the layers of hypocrisy, the conflict of emotion and idealized motive, the complexity of the mind and soul at variance with each other and in constant friction with society. But always, in the end, all action was significant.
The DCTC production features some of the best performers in the company. Jacqueline Antaramian plays the lackluster version of Hester as well as anyone could. Suzanne Bouchard makes the witchy Mistress Hibbens a flamboyant monster. Sean Hennigan's Dimmesdale has a moment or two of heartbreaking remorse. Richard Risso's Chillingworth is natural and witty, and finally quite chilling in the feed-Hester-dirt sequence, a scene utterly absent from the novel. Michael Santo is always good--and he provides a few moments of entertaining hypocrisy as Governor Bellingham. Even Sara Fernandez-K makes the best of a bad job as the impish Pearl.
But fine actors, a terrific, evocative set more suited to Dracula, and competent direction from Jamie Horton cannot save a hopelessly inept script, nor can it retrieve the vision of a genius like Hawthorne from the vagaries of twentieth-century psychological doublespeak, or make sense out of a story the moral of which has been surgically removed.
Don't mess with Hawthorne.
The Scarlet Letter, through April 16 in the Stage Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.