THE SCARLET LETTER
based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Monday, February 10, 2020
7:30 PM | Lucille Lortel Theatre
Directed by Sarna Lapine
Featuring Matthew Amendt, Luis Alberto Garcia, Kate Hamill, Robert Sean Leonard, Andrus Nichols, Olivia Oguma and Susanna Stahlmann.
This brand new adaptation of the classic novel sheds new light and laughter on the sin, shame, and utter insanity of a puritanical society -- not far from our own mad, modern world.
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ABOUT THE NOVEL
The Scarlet Letter has always been recognized as a major work of American fiction. It sold well and was widely discussed when it was published in 1850, and critics and audiences continued to admire it in later years: unlike Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick of 1851 and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 1852, there has never been a time when The Scarlet Letter has been out of print or neglected by literary scholars. It is now one of the most frequently taught novels in U.S. high schools and universities; its plot and themes have been adapted and improvised upon by several of the country’s leading writers, from Henry James to Suzan-Lori Parks; and the titular symbol at its heart has long been a catchphrase in the American vernacular.
Hawthorne was an avid student of American history, and The Scarlet Letter grew out of his extensive research into the New England past. The novel tells the story of a woman’s sexual transgression and punishment in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1640s, and it dramatizes several dilemmas and conflicts that had been of supreme importance in those years. Among other things, Hawthorne uses Hester Prynne’s struggle as an occasion to stage and revivify seventeenth-century debates about sin and atonement, dissent and conformity, and the future prospects of the Puritans’ fledgling experiment — their “city upon a hill” — in the “New World.”
But historical novels often have as much to say about the periods they were written in as they do about the periods they investigate, and The Scarlet Letter is a deeply revealing document of the nineteenth-century U.S. as well. Hawthorne wrote it during some of the most politically fraught years in the nation’s life, and it crackles with contemporary tensions and associations. The first readers of The Scarlet Letter might have viewed its rebellious heroine as a feminist figure, with the novel appearing two years after the groundbreaking convention for women’s rights at Seneca Falls. Hester’s individualistic streak also chimed in many ways with the doctrines of “self-reliance” then being propounded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. And her determination to follow her conscience rather than submit to unjust worldly laws had significant resonance in the 1850s, a time when civil war was looming and antislavery activists were calling for what Thoreau termed “civil disobedience” against the federal government’s protections of Southern bondage.
The Scarlet Letter continued to seem relevant and even urgent throughout the twentieth century, with Hawthorne’s book having anticipated any number of emerging cultural, political, and intellectual preoccupations. The novel’s fixation on shame, guilt, repression, and self-punishment often made it read as a work of proto-psychoanalysis. Its criticisms of patriarchal authority drew frequent attention from feminist scholars. Its ambiguous, opaque, ever-shifting symbology struck many readers as presciently postmodern. And its fascination remains undiminished in the twenty-first century, as Kate Hamill’s adaptation will demonstrate tonight.
Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was born into a distinguished New England family, with an ancestry going back to the first generation of Puritan settlers in America. The early loss of his father left him in a precarious position, and he struggled to establish himself professionally for much of his life. He spent the 1830s and 1840s publishing short stories and sketches, many of them concerned with American history and set during the colonial period. He joined the utopian Brook Farm community for a short time in 1841 before moving to Concord, where he became acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. A custom-house job eventually brought him to Salem, and it was there that he would write The Scarlet Letter, befriend Herman Melville, and finally attain popular recognition. He went on to write more stories, three additional novels, and a campaign biography for his old college friend, President Franklin Pierce. Among his final works was a skeptical meditation on the Civil War, which was still being fought in the year he died.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Kate Hamill is an actor/playwright. Wall Street Journal Playwright of the Year, 2017. Her work includes her play Pride & Prejudice at Primary Stages / HVSF (originated role of Lizzy; Nominee, Off-Broadway Alliance Award), Sense & Sensibility at Bedlam (originated role of Marianne. Winner, Off-Broadway Alliance Award; Nominee, Drama League Award); Vanity Fair at the Pearl (originated role of Becky Sharp; Nominee, Off-Broadway Alliance Award), Mansfield Park at Northlight (originated role of Mary Crawford), Little Women at Primary Stages (role of Meg March). Her plays have been produced off-Broadway, at A.R.T., OSF, Guthrie, A.C.T. & others; upcoming at the Alley, DTC, Old Globe, Long Wharf, & more. She is currently developing a new adaptation of The Odyssey, a Christmas play called Scrooge for Senate; several original plays (Prostitute Play, The Piper); and In the Mines (music by The Bengsons). Her play The Piper is a PlayPenn selection and a 2019 O’Neill Finalist. Kate was one of the 10 most-produced playwrights nationwide for 3 seasons running (2017-2020). Upcoming world premieres: Emma at the Guthrie, and Scarlet Letter at South Coast Rep. Her adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula at Classic Stage Company through March 8, 2020.