A new theatrical adaptation of The Scarlet Letter written by noted feminist author Carol Gilligan and her son, Jonathan Gilligan, is set to make its West Coast debut at Fullerton College.
The play will include four performances Oct. 10–12 in the Campus Theatre, two of which will feature a post-performance talk-back, and one will include sign language interpretation.
The play premiered about eight years ago in Pittsburgh, but it has been reworked and expanded since then, said Michael Mueller, the director and head of the acting and stage combat program at Fullerton College. These upcoming shows will be the premier for the revised version.
The mother-son team of Carol and Jonathan Gilligan wrote the play when Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA, commissioned them to adapt the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne novel for the stage. They wanted to give the audience something more than a rehash of the story, so they took a new angle. Rather than tell the tale from the perspective of Hester Prynne, the novel’s protagonist, they take the point of view of Pearl, the child Prynne births and raises in the novel.
In this adaptation, Pearl is an adult who returns to Boston after a long absence from the community that ostracized her mother for having a child out of wedlock. “In the reworking, we clarified a crucial question: what leads Pearl to go back and revisit her childhood experience; What was it that she didn’t know and wanted to know—that she couldn’t have known as a child?” Carol Gilligan said.
In the adaptation, Pearle brings with her an objectivity that her mother lacked at the time of the events in the novel and sees problems in the newfound society—problems that still plague America today, she noted. “There is still a battle going on to stigmatize a woman if she doesn’t adhere to prescribed codes of behavior,” Gilligan said.
In the book, Hester wants to be a prophetess for gender equality, but she can’t because nobody will listen to her since they consider her a sinner. But if she hadn’t sinned and been ostracised, she never would have seen the hypocrisy in her society, said Kate Mueller, dramaturg for the performance and wife of director Michael Mueller.
“This is everywhere in our culture today. From the Me Too movement, to the demonization of female government elected officials, to the Women’s March,” Kate Mueller said. “We see the truth and we are working to become the prophetesses.”
The injustice of women’s treatment in our patriarchal society is typically taken as the book’s central message, but Kate Mueller, who directed the world premiere of the adaptation on the East Coast, said it runs deeper than that.
“It’s about the idea that only a woman can be the ‘coming of the new revelation,’ as Hawthorne puts it, to reverse the male-dominated society we live in and achieve an ideal equality between men and women,” she said.
The play addresses other issues pertinent to today: The plight of the Native Americans in the story is common to the struggles of many disenfranchised minority groups today. Also, the lead character is an Engling immigrant and has to adapt to new and strange customs—a struggle still familiar to many.
The novel follows the life of Prynne during a time when she birthed a daughter, Pearl, out of wedlock in a Puritan American community in the mid-1600s. She became a pariah, but she refused to let their judgement crush her. She went on to raise Pearle well, lead an upstanding life and regain some respect in her community.
The playwright, who is a professor at New York University and author of feminist studies classic In a Different Voice, got the idea of retelling the story through Pearl’s eyes through her research with young girls. She enjoys how frank and honest they are, she said. “So I thought, what would Pearl make of all this when she is grown up and roughly her mother’s age?”
In the play, her daughter explores whether her mother’s community is ready for gender equality, ready to shake stereotypes, and if not, why? These are both ancient and modern questions many feminist thinkers are grappling with today, Gilligan said.
Thursday | Oct. 10 | 7:30 p.m. with playwright talkback post show
Friday | Oct. 11 | 7:30 p.m. with sign language interpretation
Saturday | Oct. 12 | 2 p.m. with playwright talkback post show
Saturday | Oct. 12 | 7:30 p.m.
Fullerton College Campus Theatre
At the Door: $15
Box Office Phone: 714-992-7150
Box Office Location: Breezeway between the 1300 and 1100 buildings near the corner of Chapman and Lemon.