THE SCARLET LETTER
A Dramatic Adaptation in Two Acts
by Robert N. Lawson
Copyright © 1995
ACT I--Scene 1
[The Boston marketplace, June, l642. A crowd is
around the scaffold of the pillory, before the prison, five
women in one group.]
[A hard-featured woman of fifty.]
Goodwives, to speak my mind in this affair
That mocks the face of wifely virtue here,
I say that we, mature and pious dames . . .
And members of the church in good repute . . .
Should have a voice in dealing with a sin
That bears so strongly on the public weal.
What think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood
For judgment now before the five of us,
Would she slip by with such a sentence as
Our worthy magistrates have given her?
I dare believe that we'd have found a way
To draw true penance from proud Hester Prynne.
Her godly pastor, Master Dimmesdale, takes
It grievously to heart, I hear, that such
A scandal should have come upon his church.
[An autumnal matron.] Our magistrates are good and godly men,
But, touching her, are over-merciful.
A heated iron should have burned upon
The forehead of that wanton--at the least!
She would have winced at that, I warrant ye.
But she . . . the vain young baggage! . . . what cares she
What mark they choose to put upon her gown?
Why, look ye, she may hide it with a brooch,
Or any heathen sign that suits her taste,
And walk about the streets as bold as we.
[A young wife, holding a child by the hand.]
Ah! Let her hide that mark howe're she may,
The pang of it will bite into her heart.
[The ugliest.] Why do we even speak of marks and brands,
Be they upon her bosom or her brow?
This harlot has brought shame upon us all--
And ought to die! Is there not law for it?
I warrant me there is! The holy book,
And our grave statutes, make it very clear.
Then let our magistrates take special care,
For if they make the law of no effect,
They have themselves to blame if their own wives
And daughters go astray.
Cry mercy here!
For that's the hardest word ye've spoken yet!
Does woman have no virtue save what springs
From fear the gallows may requite her act?
Now hush yourselves! Abate this noise awhile!
The lock is turning in the prison door.
We'll see how Mistress Prynne will wear her shame.
[Hester enters stage right, followed by the Beadle.
expressions of shock and surprise.]
She hath good skill with needle . . . plain to see!
But flaunts it as no honest woman would.
The brazen hussy means to laugh at us . . .
To scorn the order of the magistrates . . .
To make a pride of what those worthy men
Have set to be her lawful punishment.
I'd like to see proud Madam Hester's limbs
Stripped bare of that rich gown--to feel the lash!
Her dainty shoulders then adorned in rags,
And that fantastic letter she hath wrought
Replaced by one rough-cut from homespun cloth.
[Holding up the material of her own skirt.]
Peace, neighbors, peace! For she may hear you speak.
There's not a stitch in that embroidered mark
But she hath felt its sharpness in her heart.
[Chillingworth enters stage left with an Indian.
Amazed by the
spectacle, he moves closer, to stand near the Townsman.]
Make way! Make way! In the king's name! Make way!
I promise ye, good people, Mistress Prynne
Shall be displayed. Each woman, man, and child
Shall have full view of her and her attire
From this time till the hour after noon.
A blessing on our righteous colony
Of Massachusetts, where no sin may hide.
Iniquity is dragged into the light.
Now clear a way! Come hither, Mistress Prynne,
And show your scarlet letter to the town.
Good sir, pray tell me who this woman is . . .
And wherefore she is set to public shame.
Thou needs must be a stranger here, my friend,
Else surely would have heard of Hester Prynne . . .
And of her naughty ways . . . for she hath raised
A scandal hereabouts, for some months past,
And brought disgrace on Master Dimmesdale's church.
Ye speak most true. I am a stranger here . . .
Have wandered many hard and grievous days,
Met sundry mishaps, both on land and sea,
Have been a captive held, against my will,
For this year past, among these heathen folk,
And hither now am brought to be redeemed
By this red man. I stand here uninformed.
What are the crimes that led yon Hester Prynne . . .
Was that the woman's name? . . . to this high place
Where she so proudly stands?
A crime indeed!
Methinks it should bring comfort to thee friend,
Thy sojourn in the wilderness behind,
To find thyself once more with pious men,
Who here, in this new land, have set their souls
To see each sinner snared up in his sin,
And punished in the sight of one and all.
This woman, sir, who stands there in her shame,
Was married to a certain learned man,
And lived with him some time in Amsterdam.
Yet English were they both in point of birth,
And he did choose . . . two years ago, must be . . .
To cast their lot with other Englishmen
Who sought God's will in Massachusetts here.
Then, having much to settle to that end,
He sent his wife before, stayed on himself
To supervise the transfer of estate.
In all these months that Boston has been home
To Mistress Prynne, no tidings yet have come
Of that same learned man who sent her here.
So young a wife, good sir, left thus to time,
And to her own misguidance . . .
Ah, I see!
That "learned man" should know that, too, I'd think,
Or else has much to learn. Pray tell me, sir,
Who then is father to that fretful child,
Some three or four months old, if I'm a judge,
That Mistress Prynne now holds there in her arms?
I wish I might! In truth, friend, it remains
A riddle for a Daniel to expound,
For Mistress Prynne refuses still to speak.
She will not name the man. The magistrates
Have sought to bend her will, but all in vain.
Mayhap the guilty man stands looking on,
Unknown . . . though not before the eyes of God.
That learned man should come to join the search.
Ay, so he should . . . if he be still in life.
Our magistrates, bethinking them that she
Was doubtless strongly tempted to her fall,
So young and fair, abandoned here alone,
Her husband at the bottom of the sea
Perhaps these many months, for aught we know,
Have not been bold to put in force the law
In all its rigor and extremity--
The penalty whereof is certain death--
But in their mercy, such allowance made,
Require her to stand, as now she stands,
But three short hours in this public shame,
And then, throughout the balance of her life,
To wear that badge of shame upon her breast.
[After a moment.] That's wise indeed! They thereby make
A living sermon castigating sin
Through all the months and years that she may live--
Until that scarlet letter be engraved
Upon her tomb! It rankles, none the less,
That he who was the partner in her sin
Stands not upon the scaffold by her side!
[Oblivious to those around him.]
It cannot be he thinks he'll not be known!
Will do this thing . . . and . . . would he challenge me?
Well, then . . . he will be known. He will be known!
[Enter Mister Wilson, Governor Bellingham, Dimmesdale,
other "godly magistrates" on the balcony above. They arrange
themselves ceremonially, then the Reverend Mr. Wilson steps
forward to speak.]
Attend to me, thou sinner . . . Hester Prynne!
[Pause for silence.] I've striven, Hester, with thy pastor here,
Whose congregation bears this mark of shame,
[Turning to address Dimmesdale directly.]
And still do strive to bring this godly youth
To see that he must now address thy soul,
Here, in the face of Heaven, and of men, [Gesturing.]
Before these magistrates, this sober crowd,
As touching on the vileness of thy sin. [Back to her.]
He, more than I, thy natural temper knows,
May judge, by that, what arguments to use,
Of tenderness or terror, to prevail
Against this hardness and obduracy
To draw from thee the secret of the name
Of him who was the tempter to thy fall.
But he opposes me, is oversoft,
[Looking at Dimmesdale.] Albeit wiser than his years suggest,
Has argued it would violate the soul
Of woman thus to force her to reveal
Her heart's dark secrets, here, before this crowd,
In brightest light of day to speak her sins.
The shame, as I have sought to make him see,
Is in the deed, and not the showing forth.
What say ye, Brother Dimmesdale? Once again,
Must it be I, or will thou now assume
The task of tending this poor sinner's soul?
Good Master Dimmesdale, it must fall to thee.
This woman's soul has rested in thy care,
And thou must now exhort her to repent . . .
And to confession, as the proof thereof.
[Hesitantly stepping forward.]
So, Hester Prynne . . . thou hear'st what these men say . . .
And comprehend the burden laid on me.
If thou dost feel that, for thy spirit's peace,
Perhaps to make thy earthly punishment
Of more effect . . . to save thy sinful soul . . .
I charge thee then to utter forth his name,
Identify that one with thee in sin,
Who now must live thy fellow sufferer!
Hold not thy silence out of tenderness,
Or in distressful pity for the man,
For . . . Hester . . . thou must know it no escape
To hide a guilty heart throughout his life.
Should he step down from some exalted place,
To stand beside thee and to share thy shame,
'Twere better so . . . as he must also know.
To thee has come this stark ignominy,
To work thy penance . . . here, in Heaven's sight . . .
For triumph over evil, in thy soul,
And other sorrows of this dismal world.
Do not deny that wholesome cup to him,
Perhaps without the courage for himself
To take it in his hands and drink it down--
This bitter draught presented to thy lips!
I will not name the man! [She clutches Pearl, who begins to cry.]
I warn thee woman . . . let thy soul beware!
Do not transgress beyond the natural bounds
Of Heaven's mercy . . . and eternal grace.
Thy child now adds its voice . . . a little babe . . .
To second and confirm thy pastor's words,
And call thee to repent. Speak out the name!
That name . . . and thy repentance . . . may avail
To take that scarlet letter from thy breast.
Ye cannot now! Can never take it off!
The brand has sunk too deep to be removed.
I would I might, upon this scaffold, now, [To Dimmesdale.]
Endure his agony . . . [Then down.] here with my own.
[As the voice of the crowd.]
Speak, woman! Speak! And give thy child a name!
[A shock of recognition from Hester, registered in a
from Pearl as she clutches her. Then the child falls silent.]
I will not speak! And this, my child, must seek
Her Heavenly father, in her times of need,
For she shall never know an earthly one!
[Murmuring, but audible.]
She will not speak! Such wondrous woman's strength . . .
And gen'rous . . . woman's . . . heart. She will not speak.
ACT I--Scene 2
[The deserted street at night. A spotlight on
he enters, moving slowly, then jumps, as if frightened by an
evil spirit, when he encounters Mistress Hibbins.]
Good even to thee, sir. Thou art the man
That comes to us from out the forest yon . . .
And art thou not? Hast lived . . . these many months . . .
With savage red men, deep within the woods?
I've been held captive by the Indians, yes,
And so have lived with them . . . where they do live.
And whilst thou sojourned there . . .
[Whispering to him.]
in confidence . . .
Didst ever meet the Black Man in the night?
I know not what thou speak'st of. Art thou daft?
I thought mayhap that crook there, in thy back,
The way thou drag'st thy leg when thou dost walk,
Might be his marks on thee.
Who art thou then?
[Laughs.] I'm one who knows the Black Man well enough,
And secrets of the forest . . . well as thee . . .
And one who knows thy purpose in this town . . .
In godly Boston town. But whither now?
In such a rush, and in the dark of night?
Thou knowest all! Why then thou must know that!
[Pushes by her.] I go now to the jail.
To see that one! 20
The woman of the scarlet letter now . . .
In sunny days was our sweet Hester Prynne.
Yes, Hester Prynne--I go to see her now. [Going.]
And on the Black Man's business?
[Turning back to her.]
Hold thy tongue!
Thou speak'st too wild. [Pause.] In practice of my art.
They say her child is fretful ill . . . and I . . .
Have medicines, and know their wholesome use.
But thou must know of this same Hester Prynne . . .
And of her child. Canst tell me aught of that?
I know thou canst not cure what ails that child.
Why not? I have the skills of medicine . . .
And I have learned the use of natural herbs.
[Laughs.] The defect is a blemish of the soul . . .
Old Adam's curse. Hast thou the cure for that?
And dost thou know the father of the child?
Dost thou? Perhaps, in haste, I've judged thee wrong . . .
Perhaps thou art the very one to know.
I know what I do know . . . about such things . . .
The happenings in the forest I have seen. [Laughs.]
And I will meet thee all there, by and by.
Mayhap the Black Man then will make a sign,
To indicate the father of the child,
May point his crooked staff to say, "That one,"
Or put his bony finger on the man,
To draw a scarlet letter on his breast!
[She exits in cackling laughter.]
A strange old crone! And fearful in the night!
I must be on my way . . . to Hester Prynne . . .
Who wears her scarlet letter . . . and her child.
ACT I--Scene 3
[Hester's jail cell. Brackett, the jailer, shows
Hester instinctively draws back, clutching Pearl, who cries
fitfully. She and Chillingworth exchange a long look.]
Pray leave me with my patient here alone,
And trust me, friend, for soon thou shalt have peace
Here in thy jail . . . and Mistress Prynne shall be
Amenable to thy authority . . .
More than thou may'st have found her heretofore.
Nay, if your worship can accomplish that,
I'll own thee for a man of skill indeed.
The woman hath behaved like one possessed, [Looks at Hester.]
More noise from her at times than from the child.
I've thought I might be forced to use the rod,
To drive old Satan from her sinful soul.
I'm here to call, if thou hast need of me. [He exits.]
[He avoids Hester's eyes as he prepares the medicine. She
watches apprehensively, as Pearl fusses.]
My studies in the schools of alchemy,
And sojourn for this year and more just past
Among a people versed in simple herbs,
Have made a better doctor of me now
Than most who hold a medical degree.
[He looks up and hands her the cup.]
Administer the draught with thy own hand.
The child is thine . . . is surely none of mine . . .
So let the cup be in a hand it knows.
Wouldst thou avenge thyself upon a babe?
A foolish thought! And why should I desire
To harm this misbegotten . . . helpless . . . child?
The medicine is wholesome . . . on my word.
Were that my child . . . yea, mine as well as thine . . .
I could not offer better medicine.
[Hester administers the drug. Pearl soon grows quiet. Chill-
ingworth then examines Hester and prepares another potion.]
I can't command the force of memory,
To put to rest the troubles from the past,
But I've learned certain secrets in the woods,
And here is one, a potent recipe.
I had it from a wise old Indian
In payment for some lessons of my own
As old as Paracelsus' mysteries.
So drink it down. It may not serve as well
To soothe thy soul as sinless conscience would . .
A gift I cannot find among my store . . .
But this should calm a heaving passion's swell
As well as oil on rough, tempestuous seas.
Quick death has come to be my frequent thought.
I've wished for it, God knows, would even pray,
If my poor soul were in a state for prayer.
Yet if I hold my death here in this cup,
I bid thee think again before I drink . . .
For even now I lift it to my lips.
Then drink it down. I offer medicine.
Dost thou know me so slightly, Hester Prynne,
To think my purpose here so ill conceived
That I would scheme such vengeance on thy life.
Were I to want revenge, what better way
Than just to leave that letter on thy breast . . .
And give thee medicine against all harm,
So that this burning shame might do its work.
[He touches the letter with his index finger, as if it were
something hot, and Hester reacts as to a branding iron.]
Nay, live, therefore, to bear thy scarlet doom
Before the men and women of this town,
And in the sight of him thou wedded . . . once . . .
As well as him who leaves thee to this shame . . .
Yea, in the sight of yonder sleeping child,
When she has eyes to look with wonder there.
To thy long life . . . I bid thee tip the cup.
[She drinks, and he motions her to sit.]
I do not ask why thou hast fallen thus,
Or, rather, how ascended to that height,
Upon the lofty scaffold where thou stood'st
When first I saw thee on this morning past.
My folly . . . and thy weakness . . . were the cause.
I know myself part culprit in thy shame.
A man of thought, a scholar all my life,
I've spent long years among my dusty books,
To feed the hungry dream of growing wise.
Already old, how could I charm thy youth?
How could I claim a beauty like thy own?
Misshapen from my birth-hour, how could I
Delude myself that intellectual gifts
Might sway a young girl's fancy . . . spite of that . . .
And cast a veil o'er my distorted form?
Men call me wise. Had I been wise indeed,
I might have known that this was doomed to be,
That as I stepped from out those dismal woods
To mingle with plain Christian men again,
The first sight I would see would be thyself,
So monumental in the market-place,
That mark of shame . . . bright red . . . upon thy breast!
Ay, from the very church steps where we stood,
A newly married pair, I should have seen
The bale-fire of that scarlet letter blaze
Afar upon the path we were to take.
Thou know'st . . . know'st well . . . that I was frank with thee.
I felt no love . . . did not pretend I did.
Yes . . . that is true. And I have said as much.
It was my folly conjured up the match.
But all my life, till then, seemed lived in vain . . .
The world had been so cheerless, so remote.
My heart, with room enough for many guests,
Was empty as a long-abandoned house,
Left lone and still, without a household fire.
I longed to kindle one. Old as I was,
And bent in shape, and somber in my mien,
I dreamed of simple bliss, that simple bliss
That's scattered far and wide to all mankind.
Was that so wild a dream? I see it was.
Ah, Hester, I but thought to take thy hand,
To draw thee gently to my inmost heart
And nest thee there, to make thee safe and warm . . .
By that same warmth which thy own presence brought.
That I have greatly wronged thee . . . I regret.
We each have done some wrong. The first was mine,
When I betrayed thy warm and budding youth
Into a sterile kinship with decay.
I knew it then . . . and trust I know it now.
If I have not philosophized in vain,
I find no cause for vengeance aimed at thee,
Nay, plan no further action in thy case.
Between us two the scales are balanced fair.
But, Hester, he doth live who's wronged us both.
I shall not let that rest! Who is the man?
It's vain to ask. Thou'lt never . . . never know!
Ah, never? Never know? That's but a word.
Thy "never" set against my, "Yes, I shall!"
Believe me, Hester, this world holds few things,
In outward forms, or, to a certain depth,
In secrets thought secure within the mind,
Safe hidden from a man who's resolute,
Who sets himself in earnest to the task,
Will give his life to probe a mystery.
Thou may'st bemuse the prying multitude,
To keep thy secret hidden from their eyes.
The ministers and magistrates, as well,
May take thy silence, as they did today,
As all the name they'll wring from out thy heart--
Despair to know the partner of thy shame.
But, as for me, I come with other skills,
With senses tempered for this kind of test.
I'll seek this man as I have sought the truth
In books, or gold in mystic alchemy.
A special sympathy will show him me.
I'll see him tremble, sudden, unawares.
I'll feel him shudder as he passes me.
But, soon or late, I know . . . he must be mine!
Thy actions are like mercy, but thy words
Interpret thee a terror . . . shake my soul.
One thing alone, then, I require of thee . . .
Enjoin upon that woman once my wife.
Thy paramour's dark secret thou hast kept;
Keep mine as well! Let none know who I am.
None know me now. Breathe not to any man
That thou dost know me . . . called me husband once.
To this wild land I've come to pitch my tent;
I've wandered all my life, a lonely man,
And here I find a woman, child, and man,
Amongst whom and myself the closest bonds
Exist. No matter bonds of love or hate!
No matter bonds of moral right or wrong!
For thou and thine, from henceforth, Hester Prynne,
Belong to me. My home is where thou art,
And where he is! But now--betray me not!
But wherefore not? Why not announce thyself
For what thou art, and cast me off at once?
Perchance because I would not be that man,
The husband of a woman fallen so,
Perchance for other reasons, of my own,
Enough I wish it so . . . to be as dead,
A husband from whom word shall never come.
Reveal me not! By word, by sign, by look!
And most of all . . . not to that special man!
Don't fail in this! Beware! Take light this vow,
His fame, his soul, his life, are in my hands!
I'll keep thy secret, as I hold to his.
[After an apprehensive moment.] I do. I swear to keep this
By all that I hold precious [Looks at Pearl.] . . . I do swear.
Well then, young Mistress Prynne, I leave thee here,
Alone . . . or with thy child . . . thy tender babe . . .
And with thy scarlet letter. Tell me now,
How is it, Hester? Must thou wear the mark
In dark of night as well as light of day?
And does it bring thee nightmares . . . hideous dreams?
Why dost thou smile at me? I fear that smile!
Art like the Black Man haunts the forest round,
Enticing souls away from sacred bliss?
Hast forged a bond will damn my soul in Hell?
Not thy soul, Hester! No . . . 'twill not damn thine!
[His semi-diabolic laughter echoes as . . .]
ACT I--Scene 4
[Seven years later, l649. Hester enters Governor
garden, in plain Puritan dress, except for the scarlet letter.]
Pearl! Pearl! Come stay by me! Behave thyself!
[Pearl runs in, dressed in bright red, and runs circles around
Now settle down. Behave! This day thou must!
Come . . . let me tie thy bonnet once again.
[Watches Pearl, still running around her.]
I ask the Lord . . . our Father up above . . . [Looks up.]
If Thou still be a Father to us twain . . .
What is this child to which I've given life,
Who seems a greater stranger every day?
Now stop for me!
[Takes Pearl by the shoulders and gives her a long look. Ties
her bonnet strings.] Art thou my little Pearl?
I am thy little Pearl! [Laughing.] In very truth!
[Half to herself, shaking her head.]
Thou canst not be my child . . . no Pearl of mine.
I am thy little Pearl! I know I am!
[Half playfully.] No, tell me who thou art. Who sent thee
Tell me! Tell me! 'Tis thou who must tell
[More soberly.] It was thy Heavenly Father sent thee me.
[Also more soberly.] I have no Heavenly Father . . . that I know.
[Then touching the scarlet letter.]
How could it be He sent . . . thy little Pearl?
[Looking around to see if anyone hears them.]
Hush, Pearl! Now hush! Thou must not say such things!
[Then up, in spite of herself.] For if He sent us all into this
[Then tenderly at Pearl, who is serious and quiet now.]
How much more thee. If not from Heaven above,
Thou strange and elfish child, whence couldst thou come?
[From the window above.]
And who is this who's come to visit us?
The scarlet letter . . . puff . . . and come to life.
[Surprised, looking up.] You startled me!
Oh, Mother, look and see!
That crazy lady . . . always in the woods.
[Mistress Hibbins laughs.]
Hush, Pearl! 'Tis idle talk describes her so . . .
[To Mistress Hibbins.] We're summoned to the Governor today.
Is he within?
I'll look within and see.
He had a godly minister or two
In company as he went up that path,
And that strange hump-backed man, still haunting us,
Who looks so pale he hardly seems alive . . .
They wait for us.
I'll see if they're come in. [Exits within.]
[Looking in the pool.] Look, Mother, here! Thy image over
See how thy letter, blending with my dress,
Makes that long streak of red across the pool.
[Shrinking back.] Now come away. Why dost thou tease me
Come tell me if these flowers over here
Are not more fair than any in the woods.
[Seeing the roses] I'll go and gather some of them for thee.
They're like the ones we saw along the way . . .
So bright and red . . . beside the prison door.
Stay here by me. I hear their voices now.
The Governor is coming up the path . . .
And other gentlemen he's talking with.
[Bellingham, Wilson, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth enter
the opposite side from the house. Pearl has run that way and
stopped, with a childish cry. Bellingham sees her first.]
What have we here? I have not seen the like,
Since, in my days of vanity, I went
To courtly masques . . . in old King James's time . . .
And thought it such an honor to attend.
There'd be a swarm of children dancing there,
Small apparitions, dressed in gaudy gowns,
In holiday and other foolish wear.
The Children of Misrule we called them then.
But in my garden blossoms such a sprite?
A little bird, in scarlet plumage dressed!
Methinks I've seen such figures when the sun
Came shining through the window of a church,
Projecting gold and crimson on the floor.
But that was long ago . . . across the sea.
I prithee, child, who art thou, so bedecked?
And what can ail thy mother to allow
Her little girl in such a strange attire . . .
Such shocking red? Art thou a Christian child?
And dost thou know thy catechism yet?
Or art thou but a fairy, or an elf,
| A naughty sprite of Papistry we thought
In Merry England to have left behind?
I am my mother's child! Her little Pearl!
Ah. . . Pearl? Say Ruby, rather . . . maybe Rose,
At least if we're to judge thee by thy hue!
[He attempts to pat her on the cheek, in vain, then notices Hester.]
Ah, there the mother stands. Of course, 'tis she
Of whom we've just been speaking as we walked . . .
And this the child . . . the poor unhappy child
Of this unhappy woman . . . Hester Prynne.
[Solemnly regarding Hester.]
The scarlet woman, with her scarlet child,
A worthy type of her of Babylon!
Come in good time for us to think on this.
So, Hester Prynne, there's been much talk of late,
Of thee [Looks at Pearl.] and of the nurture of thy child.
We've given thought, and weighty argument--
Those of us here who have authority--
If we do well to leave things as they are,
If in good conscience we may trust this child . . .
May trust the care of her immortal soul . . .
To one herself so tumbled down in sin,
So muddied by the pitfalls of this world.
Tell us--as you're her mother--what thinkst thou?
Were it not best for her immortal part,
As well as for her welfare here on earth,
| If she were taken from thy errant charge,
[Hester flinches back.]
Clad soberly, and strictly disciplined,
Instructed in the truths of Heaven and earth--
In short, raised as a Christian in our town?
How canst thou be instructress to the child?
I'll teach the child what I have learned from this!
[She touches the scarlet letter.]
Nay, woman, for it is thy badge of shame!
The symbol of the stain that marks the child,
In colors that cry out to us to place
Her care and training in more pious hands.
But yet it is a teacher, even so,
And daily teaches me--nay teaches now--
Such lessons as this child might profit from . . .
And be the wiser woman . . . though I fear
There now can be no profit to myself.
We'll not be rash . . . judge carefully what we do.
Good Master Wilson, take thee up this Pearl . . .
If that's the creature's name . . . examine her,
To see that she hath Christian principles,
And training that befits a child her age.
[Wilson attempts to take Pearl in hand, but she eludes
scampers to the edge of the lawn.
He questions her as she
stands there warily, as if ready to escape.]
Now, Pearl, to these my questions pay good heed,
So, in thy bosom, thou may'st come to wear
That pearl of peerless price each Christian seeks.
Canst tell me now, my child, who gave thee life--
And thy immortal soul? Who made thee, child?
[Pearl shakes her head vigorously.]
Why come now child! All children answer that.
My mother plucked me from that merry bush
Where roses bloom . . . close by the prison door.
[Hester gasps, as do the others. Pearl runs to her.]
A wild reply! And from a child . . . of eight?
Who cannot name her Maker! Gentlemen,
I have no doubt she's just as far from truth
Concerning the condition of her soul,
Its deep depravity . . . and destiny!
We need proceed no further, I would judge.
God gave the child to me . . . as recompense,
For all that ye have taken from me else.
She is my joy, yes . . . and my torture, too . . .
[Looking reproachfully at Pearl.]
She keeps me here in life . . . to punish me . . .
The very scarlet letter . . . come to life . . .
As ye can see. But, since she can
A million fold its power over me . . .
To speak in retribution to my sin.
Ye shall not take her from me! I would die!
The child will be well cared for, better far
Than in thy lonely cottage she can be.
[Almost shrieking.] God gave her me! I will not give her
[Turning to Dimmesdale.]
Where is thy voice, as these men speak of this?
[More calmly, as she looks at him, but even more determined.]
Thou wast my pastor . . . in those other days . . .
They cannot know my temper as thou dost.
I will not lose the child! So speak for me!
They cannot know the feelings in my heart,
But thou, with other sympathies than they,
Feel them thyself . . . and know a mother's rights . . .
And how much stronger when there's but the child . . .
And then the scarlet letter . . . they become.
So speak to them! I will not lose the child!
[Chillingworth watches this exchange very closely, while
neither of the others notices anything special.]
I see the truth . . . in much that Hester says . . .
[Hand over his heart.] And in the feeling which inspires it.
The child has come from God . . . and come to her . . .
And an instinctive knowledge of its needs--
Its special nature and requirements,
Which seem so strange . . . nay, most unusual--
No other mortal being can possess.
And is there not an awful sanctity
Between this special mother and her child?
Ah . . . how is that, good Master Dimmesdale, pray?
Please make that plain. I'm yet to understand.
It must be even so, for were it not,
We must accept the Father of us all,
Creator of all flesh--and so of this--
Hath lightly recognized a deed of sin,
And made of no account that peril'ous fault,
Abysmal chasm, that must lie between
Unhallowed lust and holy married love.
Here hath a father's guilt, a mother's shame,
Been given life . . . but by the hand of God . . .
To work in many ways upon her heart,
Who pleads her case so earnestly today . . .
And with such bitter spirit claims her right
To keep her child . . . the blessing of her life.
And as a blessing was it meant to be!
But, as she says, a retribution, too,
A torture, surely, unexpectedly
To feel a pang, a sting, an agony,
At just that unthought moment when her joy
Might seem to overflow in this her child.
And hath she not expressed this in the way
She's dressed the child? So clear to any eye,
So forcibly reminding us of that!
The scarlet letter we have made her doom,
The symbol of her sin, which sears her breast!
Well said again! I feared no better thought
But just to make a mountebank of her!
Not so! Not so! She sees it all too well,
The solemn miracle that God hath wrought
In giving her this child . . . her little Pearl.
Well may she feel--I take it for the truth--
The child was meant to be a boon to her,
Was meant to keep her mother's soul alive!
To keep it from the blacker depths of sin
Which Satan else had sought to plunge it in.
So certainly it is a boon to her,
Whose sinful soul might otherwise be lost,
To have this infant immortality,
A being capable of joy, or tears,
In this world and the next, placed in her care,
To be trained up by her to righteousness.
And yet she must remind her of her sin . . .
That single fall . . . each time she looks at her.
[To Hester.] The child is meant to be its Maker's pledge,
That if that child is brought to Heaven, so,
The child will bring its mother there as well.
[To Bellingham..] So may the sinful mother see herself
As blessed beyond the sinful father's case.
For her sake, then, as well as for the child,
Let Hester Prynne, as Providence intends,
Hold yet to that mixed blessing . . .
this rare child!
You speak, my friend, with God's own earnestness.
And there's a weighty import in thy words.
What say'st thou, Master Bellingham, to this?
Hath he not argued well for Mistress Prynne?
Indeed he hath. And I attend to him.
He puts a different favor on the case.
We'll leave the matter even as it stands,
So long, at least, as there's no scandal here,
No further shame for this community.
Care must be had, however, that we see
To due examination of this child.
Her catechism shows a sad neglect,
Which thou . . . or Master Dimmesdale . . . must address.
And, at the proper season, tithing men
Must see that she's at meeting, and in school.
[As the men enter the house, Pearl approaches Dimmesdale,
as if with a show of affection, taking his hand and holding it
against her cheek. Hester speaks, as to herself.]
Is that my Pearl?
[Pearl then laughs, and scampers out of sight.
Hester begins to
follow her. Wilson speaks to Dimmesdale, as they go in.]
Ay, what a little witch!
She needs no broomstick thus to fly away!
The child is strange! Yet one may clearly see
The mother's part in that rebellious sprite.
Now, should it be beyond a scholar's ken
To read the father's part in her as well? [With a smile.]
What think ye, gentlemen . . . could that be done?
To analyze her nature, spirit, form,
And shrewdly find the father in the glass?
Nay, that would be as sinful in itself!
In such a case, profane philosophy
Should have no part, nor offer any clue.
It's better far to fast and offer prayer,
Or, better still, to leave the mystery
Just as it is, untouched, unless the Lord,
In His great wisdom, chooses to reveal
What this poor woman struggles still to hide.
In that way, every Christian man may show
A father's kindness to this troubled child.
[Chillingworth has lagged behind to observe Hester,
Mistress Hibbins appears above again, and calls to her.]
Hist! Hester, wilt thou go with us tonight?
[Pearl, too, reappears, and watches, fascinated.]
Wilt make one in our merry company,
To meet deep in the forest this dark night?
I told the Black Man to depend on thee . . .
That comely Hester Prynne would join us there.
Well, please to offer my excuses, then,
For I must stay to home . . . with this, my child.
[Takes Pearl to her, and holds her tight.]
Had they but taken her away from me,
Then would I willingly have joined with thee . . .
Deep in the forest . . . there to sign my name
In his dread book--and that in my own blood!
[Exits with Pearl.]
Nay, Hester, we shall have thee there anon.
[Mistress Hibbins and Chillingworth exchange looks.]
ACT I--Scene 5
[Dimmesdale and Chillingworth in a simple bachelor-scholars'
I need no medicine . . . but am content
To share this lodging with thee, for I know
The profit to myself of thy discourse
On matters where thy knowledge is profound . . .
If sometimes so remote from what I've heard
| From scholars at the university.
But don't expend thy store in medicine
Applying it to my unworthy case.
Were it God's will, I'd readily accept
My labors, sorrows, sins . . . and all my pains . . .
Should shortly end, with this too mortal life.
Let what is earthly perish in the grave . . .
The spirit seek its own eternal state . . .
But do not waste thy skills on my behalf.
Young clergymen are apt to speak this way.
Ye youthful men . . . yet hardly taken root . . .
Give up thy hold on life so easily!
And saintly men, who walk with God on earth,
Would hasten off to walk with Him on gold,
On pavements of the New Jerusalem.
[Forcefully, as he leaves the room.]
Nay! Were I worthy, sir, to walk those streets,
I could with better patience toil on here.
[After the retreating Dimmesdale.]
Good men too meanly estimate themselves.
[Then to himself, reflectively.]
This man, pure as they judge that he must be,
As sanctified as everyone can see,
Hath yet a nature something passionate.
We'll dig a little deeper in that vein!
[Turns his attention to his basket of plants.]
[Returning with a book, to find Chillingworth examining the
plants he has collected at a table in the corner of the room.]
And where, good doctor, did'st thou gather those,
That offer such a dark and flabby leaf?
Why even in the graveyard here at hand.
They're new to me. I found them on a grave
Which bore no tombstone or memorial
To that dead man except these ugly weeds,
That took upon themselves the heavy task.
They grew out of his heart, and typify,
It may well be, some hideous secret there,
A secret that was buried in the grave . . .
That better might have been confessed in life.
Perchance he so desired, but could not.
And wherefore not, since Nature's several forms
Collaborate so strongly to reveal
What he took pains to hide that these black weeds
Have sprung up from that guilty buried heart
To manifest its still unspoken crimes?
Good sir, that's but a fantasy of thine.
There cannot be, if I forbode aright,
A power, short of God's eternal grace,
To so reveal, by emblem or by type,
The secrets buried in a human heart.
The heart, once guilty of such secret sins,
Must hold to them until the Judgment Day,
When all such hidden things shall be revealed.
Nor do I read the Holy Writ to mean
Disclosure of those human thoughts and deeds
At that dread time shall be intended as
A part of retribution of those sins.
That surely were a shallow view of it.
Those revelations of our secret sins,
Unless I greatly err, will then reveal
All motives to all minds, are meant to give
The intellectual satisfaction due
To all who stand there waiting on that day
To see the darkest motives brought to light . . .
To know the human heart will be required
To sympathize in that community.
And I believe I know whereof I speak
To say that hearts that hold such secrets now,
Such secrets as thou'dst find in those foul weeds,
Will yield them up in ecstasy that day,
With utter joy before the Judgment Seat.
Why not reveal them here, and save the pain,
The sooner to receive such peace and joy?
They mostly do. For many speak to me,
In confidence, of what disturbs their souls,
Not only on the death-bed, but in youth,
Still fair in reputation, strong in health.
| And ever, after such a pouring out,
What deep relief I've noticed in their sighs!
As those who breathe at last the clean, free air
Long stifled with their own polluted breath.
And how could it be otherwise than that?
Why should a tortured, wretched, hopeless man,
One guilty, let us say, of patricide,
Prefer the rotting corpse hid in his heart,
Corrupting all his being with its weight,
When he might fling it forth before the world?
Yet some men seek to hide their secrets . . . thus.
It's true, there are such men. One might suggest
A hundred reasons for their reticence.
It may be that their silence is a sign
Of haunting insecurity of soul.
Or, guilty as they are, can it not be,
No matter what their trust in God, or zeal,
No matter how they yearn for sympathy,
They shrink to show themselves so black in sin,
So filthy in the view of other men,
That henceforth little good can be achieved
By any earthly acts they may perform,
No evil of the past may be redeemed
By better service, offered out of pain?
So in their torment they still go among
Their fellow creatures looking pure as snow,
While knowing that their hearts are speckled black,
With sin from which they never can be free.
Such men deceive themselves. They can't accept
The shame that waits for them beside their door.
Their love for man--their zeal to serve their God--
How can such holy motives coexist
In hearts with evil inmates, which their guilt,
By locking in, must cause to propagate,
And cultivate a hellish breed within?
How can they think that God will smile on men
Who dare to lift to Heaven unclean hands?
If they would truly serve their fellow man,
Then let them serve by making manifest
The power of true conscience, in the act
Of penitential self-discovery!
Wouldst thou have me believe, my pious friend,
A false show can be better than a true,
To serve God's glory, or one's fellow man?
Trust me, good sir, such men deceive themselves.
It may be so. But, keeping to thy art,
I ask thee as physician, touching me,
To tell me if thy constant, kindly care
Has brought new health to this weak frame of mine.
[Having moved to the window.]
Look! Over there! A child among the graves!
It must be she, the scarlet letter's child,
Who scampers wildly in a graveyard thus.
Yes, certainly, it is that very child,
For see . . . her mother comes not far behind
| And tries in vain to get her to behave.
No rev'rence for divine authority,
Or human ordinance, or public law,
Or right or wrong--or any principle--
Can be discovered in her wild young games.
I saw the child, a day or two agone,
Splash mud upon the Governor himself,
Down by the cattle trough in Danby Lane.
[Dimmesdale comes to the window to look.]
Canst thou define the child's identity?
An imp? The force of evil incarnate?
Hath she affections? An immortal soul?
What principle of being can she have?
[Almost to himself.] None, save the freedom of a broken law.
If there be good in her . . . that's yet to know.
[Coming to the window, and throwing a burr at Dimmesdale.]
Quick, come away! Quick, Mother! Come away!
Or yonder Black Man will soon catch thee, too.
He'll catch thee like he's caught the minister,
Unless we run away. Run, Mother, run!
But never will he catch thy little Pearl!
[As Pearl runs off, laughing.]
And there she goes. Her mother in her wake.
Proud Hester Prynne, who wears her letter so . . .
Whatever her demerits, there is none
Of that deep mystery of hidden sin
| Which thou hast deemed so grievous to be borne.
Is Hester Prynne less miserable, thinkst thou,
Because that scarlet letter's on her gown?
I cannot answer for another soul . . .
But, yes, I do believe it. Still, I see
A look of pain so often in her face
I wish I had the power to remove.
But still believe it is the better way
For every sufferer to show his pain,
As this poor woman is constrained to do,
Than wear it buried deep within the heart.
[Returning to an examination of his plants.]
A while ago thou asked me to declare
My judgment on the question of thy health.
I did, and now attend with anxious ear.
Speak frankly . . . should it be for life or death.
Most freely, then, and plainly, if I may.
It is a strange disorder--in itself,
And in the way it manifests itself--
So far as I have seen its symptoms shown,
Laid open to my scrutiny, at least.
I see thee daily, watch thy fretful moods,
The tokens of thy aspect, these last months,
And I should deem thou art a man sore sick,
| Yet not so sick but yet thou might'st be cured,
By that physician who could undertake
That cure with knowledge that I do not have.
But I can say . . . no, rather, cannot say
Just what it is, or what I seem to know,
That slips away whenever I draw near.
[Looking out of the window.]
Thou seem'st to speak in riddles, learned sir.
Then let me speak more plainly, if I may.
I crave thy pardon if it seem too harsh
To use such bold directness to a friend,
But let me ask--as thy physician now,
As one who, under Providence, is charged
With all that may have bearing on thy health--
Thy illness . . . has each cause and each effect
Been told to me? Is all laid open here?
How can you question that? What kind of fool
Consulting the physician hides the sore?
Thou tell'st me, then, that I know everything? [Pause.]
Well, be it so. But still it seems to me
The physical and outward malady
Is all I know. And that, perchance, but half
Of that deep illness I am asked to cure.
The bodily disease may be but part,
| In fact, be but a symptom of those ills
That fester in the spirit, far from sight.
Thy pardon, once again, my reverend sir,
If my speech gives the shadow of offense.
Of all the men whom I have ever known,
Thou art the one whose body seems most linked,
Conjoined, imbued, identified . . . it seems . . .
With that deep spirit brooding in thine eyes,
Whereof it is the merest instrument.
[Rising hastily.] Then I need trouble thee no further, sir.
Thou dost not deal, I take it, with the soul!
Thy medicines can have no power there!
[Going on without heeding the interruption.]
And such a sickness,
[Stands to confront Dimmesdale.] if we call it so,
Deriving from the spirit though it may,
Will manifest itself in brooding eyes . . .
And in the body in a thousand ways
That baffle the physician in his cure.
If I'm to cure thy body of its ills,
Then let me know the ills that plague thy soul.
No! Not to thee! And not to any man!
No mortal doctor heals the soul's disease.
If what thou say'st is true, I yield to Him--
To that one Great Physician of the soul.
If it stand in His pleasure, He can cure,
Or He can kill--and I accept His will!
We stand before His justice, sinners all,
And must abide His judgment, as I do.
But who art thou to meddle with the soul?
Who dares to thrust himself between the man
Who suffers in the spirit and his God?
[Rushes from the room.]
[After a pause.] And so, it seems, I've scared the hare away!
[Smiling to himself.]
There's nothing lost. We shall be friends again.
But see how passion seizes on this man,
And takes him for her own. A thing to note.
One passion, like another, works the same . . .
This man, ere now, has tasted something wild . . .
This pious Master Dimmesdale . . . holy man . . .
To satisfy the passion in his heart!
[Musing.] I've never met a stranger case than this,
Of sympathy between the blood and soul,
And were it for the sake of art alone,
I'd probe the troubled spirit of this man.
ACT I--Scene 6
[Approaching the scaffold at night.]
And how can I, with soul as dark as Hell,
Be minister to those I move among,
The godly folk of this community?
To stand before ye in this priestly black,
In garments meant to sanctify my acts,
To climb each Sabbath to the sacred desk,
And lift my face as if to Heaven's view,
To take upon myself communion rites,
In thy behalf, with High Omniscience.
I seem to have old Enoch's piety,
As ye invest my wand'ring steps with grace,
[A foot on the first step.]
And think ye see a gleam along the path
That I have trod that pilgrims might then use
To guide their steps to regions of the blest.
I lay the hand of blessing on thy babes
To baptize them, and breathe the parting prayer,
That last Amen, to echo after those
Who've quit this world, and left their burdens here.
I seem to ye the pastor of this flock,
Deserving both its rev'rence and its trust.
But here I stand! Declare myself to ye!
The worst of all pollutions--and a lie!
Here, Hester, didst thou stand in all thy shame,
And I should then have stood here by thy side.
May be it's not too late. [Mounting the steps.] So is it
Let all the town awake and hurry forth,
To find me here.
[His voice rises, ending with a sharp laugh, cut off as Mr.
Wilson enters, looks around as though he had heard
something, but passes on. Dimmesdale speaks, just too late
for Wilson to hear him.]
Good even to thee, sir!
Good Father Wilson, pray thee, climb these stairs,
And pass a pleasant hour here with me!
| [His laugh becomes almost hysterical. Hester and
enter. Pearl echoes Dimmesdale's laugh, shocking him to
silence at first. Then comes recognition.]
Why Pearl! It's little Pearl! [In a whisper.]
And Hester, too!
Ah, Hester Prynne! We meet here in the dark!
Yes, Hester Prynne. 'Tis I, and little Pearl.
Whence come thee, Hester? Come to haunt me here?
From watching at a death-bed near at hand,
Where godly Gov'nor Winthrop breathed his last.
There have I taken measure for a robe . . .
To clothe him in his grave. Now go we home.
Come hither, Hester . . . thou and little Pearl.
I know ye both have been up here before,
But I was not then standing at thy side.
So climb these stairs again . . . to stand with me,
The three of us together, hand in hand.
[After they ascend the scaffold and she takes his hand.]
But, Minister . . .
What wouldst thou say, my child?
But wilt thou stand here with us in the day,
Take mother's hand . . . and mine . . . tomorrow noon?
[A pause.] I can't, my child! Not yet, my little Pearl!
I shall, indeed, one other day stand so,
With thee, and with thy mother, hand in hand.
But not tomorrow. [Pearl laughs and tries to pull away.]
Wait a moment, child!
But wilt thou promise then to take my hand,
And mother's hand, again, tomorrow noon?
I cannot . . . then . . . but must another time.
What other time?
a whisper.] Upon the Judgment Day!
At that dread time, before the Judgment Seat,
Thy mother, thou, and I must stand as one.
But never shall the daylight of this world
Shine down upon our meeting . . . like these stars!
[Chillingworth has arrived on the scene, unnoticed by those on
the scaffold. There is a sudden illumination in the sky.]
But see that star! Can it be only one?
Why look thou, Hester, how it lights the sky!
I've never seen a star like that before.
And see the form it takes. The letter A!
Do I imagine that? Canst see it there?
Is that thy letter . . . spread across the sky?
[Pause.] To speak to me! To signify my sin!
[He sees Chillingworth leering up at them and shrinks back.]
Who is that man? Ah, Hester . . . dost thou know?
[Hester remains silent.] Before those eyes I shiver in my soul.
Canst thou do nothing for me? Take my hand!
I hate the man, and yet I know not why.
There is a nameless horror in his eyes!
Shhh . . . Minister . . . I'll tell thee who he is!
Then quickly, child! Just whisper it to me.
[He bends down and she whispers something he cannot
And dost thou mock me now?
Thou wast not bold!
Thou would'st not stand with us tomorrow noon!
[Advancing, as Hester and Pearl shrink back.]
Well, pious Master Dimmesdale! Worthy sir!
Can this be thee? Indeed! We men of books!
Our heads, as thine is now, are in the clouds.
We must be tended to! We walk in dreams!
But come, good sir . . . and my dear friend . . . come home.
I pray thee, let me lead thee there tonight.
[Fearfully.] How knewest thou that I was standing here?
Well . . . verily . . . it took me by surprise.
A weary and a doleful night I've spent,
Observing as a man of substance died.
I sat beside him . . . long our governor . . .
John Winthrop, may he rest in peace, is dead.
I went to do what my poor skill might do
To give him ease, then could but sit and watch
His going home unto a better world.
I, likewise, was upon my homeward way,
When this strange light shown out . . . revealing thee.
Now come with me, I pray thee, Reverend Sir,
Else thou shalt meet tomorrow's Sabbath light
Too poorly fit to mount thy pulpit steps,
For climbing in the dark on these steps here.
Thou must read less, good sir, and take some sport--
See how the brain is troubled by such work--
And these night-whimsies grow upon thee then!
These books! These books!
I'll go on home with thee.
[He comes down from the scaffold and is led off by
Chillingworth. Hester and Pearl remain on the scaffold,
Hester in her Scene l pose, a spotlight on her letter.]
[Then lights out.]
ACT I--Scene 7
[The next morning. Dimmesdale, crossing, is hailed
Good Master Dimmesdale, look, thy glove was found . . .
This morning on the scaffold near at hand.
[Hands him the glove.]
That very place where sinners are set up
To public shame. The Black Man dropped it there!
He must have had a scurrilous jest in mind
Against Thy Reverence by that foolish act.
But Satan must be blind and thoughtless, then . . .
As men are like to say . . . or like to think . . .
Thy pure hand needs no glove to cover it.
[Gravely, but startled.]
I thank thee, friend. It is my glove, indeed.
[Grimly smiling, then laughing.]
Since Satan stole thy glove, it seems most fit
For thee to grapple with him now without,
And catch him as thou canst. No need of gloves!
But didst thou hear what some report they've seen?
A portent in the middle of the night.
A letter A emblazoned in the sky.
And all in red . . . a scarlet letter A . . .
Which all agree proclaimed an Angel there,
For our good Governor Winthrop did become
An angel this past night, and so was
Proclaimed across the Heavens as a saint.
Can that be so? I had not heard of it.
[She watches him walk off, in brooding thought.
laughs as she "flits" off the other side.]
[Lights out. Intermission.]