Canonical Note:
Opera in Disguise
13 August 2019

As the two wayfarers came within the precincts of the town, the children of the Puritans looked up from their play, — or what passed for play with these sombre little urchins, — and spake gravely one to another: —

“Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!” (The Scarlet Letter, Chapter VII)

It is hard to know what to say about this dreadfully unlikely passage, except that it sounds like the work of a bad writer so determined to score period points that all sense juvenile reality is vaporized. Beholdverily, moreover, and therefore would be improbable curlicues in speech attributed to adults, Out of the mouths of urchins, they stink of bad fantasy. (Or of Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver. “Come, therefore, Mrs Cleaver, and let us fling mud at them.”) Happily, the passage stands out as kitsch even in the flowery meads of The Scarlet Letter — the novel commonly reputed to be the first masterpiece in American fiction.

The Scarlet Letter is not unreadable. The story is, as intended, provocative. Hawthorne’s concern for the roots of one rather significant corner of American life is preliminary, anecdotal, and finally somewhat evasive: it seems almost beyond the powers of his imagination to account for the collapse of moral determination that so quickly followed the Puritans’ quasi-Biblical expedition to the New World; what he captures is the bitter dregs of hypocrisy. Sensitive minds of his day were overwhelmed by the ubiquity of righteous pretense, and hardly anyone save Jane Austen knew how, or even thought, to make it entertaining. It is curious that Hawthorne, having attached his memoir, “The Custom House,” as a preface to his tale, did not more greatly appreciate the cosmopolitan influences of the world trade that was already making some Americans rich. But to fault Hawthorne for not doing more is not to fault him for what he does. 

The difficulty with The Scarlet Letter is simply that it is badly written. There seems no way to put this otherwise. The mere mention of Jane Austen explodes any hope of explaining the stilted, cliché-ridden style of Hawthorne’s prose as some sort of historical limitation, a characteristic of the times. Ironically, given Hawthorne’s excruciatingly patronizing comments on women throughout The Scarlet Letter, his language embodies the effeminate floweriness that subsequent generations of writers would strain to eschew, culminating in the expressive but dumb inexpressiveness of Hemingway and his imitators. Hawthorne cannot be seen as establishing any kind of actually literary tradition; his novels, on the contrary, make a bonfire of a discredited one. The only excuse is miscalculation: in attempting to show that Americans were not unlettered rustics, Hawthorne overshot the limits of taste, and his refinements curdled into preciosities.  

Almost as overcooked as the taunts of the wee Bostonians are the declamations of Arthur Dimmesdale, a character in search of either a nervous breakdown or the couch in Freud’s office. Surely the creepiest — just imagine that you’re Hester Prynne, alone at last with the most important man in your life — is Dimmesdale’s expression of allergic reaction to Pearl, the child of his illicit union with Hester — a child with an allergic reaction of her own: 

“I pray you,” answered the minister, “if thou has any means of pacifying the child, do it forthwith! Save it were the cankered wrath of an old witch, like Mistress Hibbins,” added he, attempting to smile, “I know nothing that I would not sooner encounter than this passion in a child. In Pearl’s young beauty, as in the wrinkled witch, it has a preternatural effect. Pacify her, if thou lovest me!”

From the moment he says this, it is impossible to imagine with any sincerity that Hester and Arthur will make good their plan to escape Boston. But even as I was disgusted by such puerile terror, I recognized a certain something in Dimmesdale’s melodramatic gush. While I hope that nobody has ever spoken in such a way in English, I know that the English translations that appear in the librettos of Italian operas are full of this sort of thing. And all at once I knew what to make of The Scarlet Letter. It is the scenario of an opera. 

The way to this conclusion had been opened for me by a remark made in the second chapter. (The first chapter is nothing more than a sentimental, two-page snapshot.) The goodwives of Boston have been gossiping outside the prison door, awaiting the appearance of the fallen Hester, when their curtain-raising chit-chat is halted by the kind of surplus observation that was stale when Shakespeare used it. “Hush, now, gossips; for the lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress Prynne herself.”

The power of music to transform such banality into formally satisfying commentary cannot be my subject today. But as I leaned back in the forest, watching Hester and Dimmesdale squirm in the baleful glare of the child reflected in the pool, even as the pines resounded with the ecstasies of their warm declarations of love and hope, the whole action of The Scarlet Letter fell into four neat acts. The third act would be divided between two scenes, the nocturnal one in the Market-Place with the lovers, their child, and Roger Chillingworth, and the other, without Roger, set in the forest, as above. In addition to making basso profundo contributions to ensembles, Chillingworth could have a meaty aria, one to rival Iago’s “Credo,” at the end of the second act! The final act would open with the ghastly panoply of Puritan Boston on parade! 

The mind reeled. Why hadn’t anybody thought of this before? Before Wagner and Verdi died, I mean. 

But there you are. Even I couldn’t decide whether the result ought to be Il segno di scarlatto or Die Handarbeit der Sünde

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