Bridge 4

September 11th, 2010

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Hester on the Pillory

Bridge 4–THE SCARLET LETTER

Each drawn into the forest by his dreams,
We seek our primal nature in its gloom,
To sense the pulsing rhythms of its streams–
The ecstasy foreshadowing the doom.
A momentary impulse, passion born,
And there she stands, bewildered little girl.
How can she know, the innocence of morn,
The dark and frictive making of a pearl?
She’ll come to know, when she becomes a wife,
And takes her mother’s journey–don’t we all?–
The scarlet letter’s comment on her life.
Let all who lust to share old Adam’s fall–
Delicious ambiguity of sin–
Reflect upon the tale of Hester Prynne.

[Spring, 1956]

“I had an undergraduate crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne long before the one I had on Shaw.  I admired the supreme skill with which he could construct a story, and the profundity of his probings into those ‘secret places of the human heart.’
“This was back before my time in the Air Force–back when I was very young.  I wanted to be a great novelist, too, and Hawthorne was the master–not James, who was too remote, or Twain, who was Hemingway’s model, or Hemingway, who was everyone else’s then, or Melville, whom I hardly knew existed, but Hawthorne, the master craftsman who was also a moral teacher.  If I could capture his truth for our time–do what he’d done for Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan–it would be a noble achievement.  I actually wrote a hundred pages of a novel modeled on The House of the Seven Gables, using the old house I’d grown up in in Northern Illinois as the central character and passing three generations in review–

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while the ghosts of hidden sins, and a howling St. Bernard dog, haunted the place.  The most admirable way I’d imitated Hawthorne was to burn that manuscript when I got back from Okinawa and began to take my writing seriously again.
“I’d first thought of a dramatic adaptation of The Scarlet Letter back then, before the Korean War, noticing how easily it could be visualized as a series of scenes, most involving just two characters.  I thought, ‘just lift out this dialogue and write a few stage directions.’  But I didn’t do anything with the idea at the time, was busy writing ‘original’ fiction, and ‘hidden meaning’ poetry, where only I knew what all the allusions were, and the ultimate comment was blasphemous–but undecipherable even for God.  When I was young, I was young.
“But, once back in school, an older ‘Budweiser’ man, with more muted ambitions, and then when I became a theatre major, I considered that dramatic adaptation again.  I hadn’t lost my reverence for Hawthorne or The Scarlet Letter–nor do I ever expect to–and I had seen an adaptation of Young Goodman Brown that had worked very well.  I had abstracted about twenty-five typed pages of dialogue from the novel as the first step, but had soon discovered that there’d be much more to it than just adding stage directions.  Hawthorne does a great deal, particularly in his management of supernatural suggestion, in long passages of exposition.  How could I duplicate the variations he rings on the symbolism of the scarlet letter, for example, without that resource?
“But I had come to believe that anything a novelist can do a dramatist can do better, saw how often Shakespeare was adapting narrative sources, and began feeling a little sorry for Hawthorne for living in an age that denied itself the revelation of tragic drama.  Still, the more involved I became, the more admiration I had for Hawthorne’s sense of theatre,  particularly for his skill in closing a scene effectively–his sense of the


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curtain.  So, while it was clearly going to be more difficult than I’d imagined, I had become even more convinced that The Scarlet Letter could be a powerful play.
“Directing a play was a standard exercise as MA project in theatre, and I’d been working on this adaptation off and on as a possibility ever since I’d signed up for the program.  Then Betty had come down that aisle in Baker Auditorium and into my life, and, when the thought first came to me, during Pygmalion rehearsals, it was like that light bulb you see in cartoons going on in my head–I knew I had to do it, because I had found my Hester Prynne.  Betty was perfect.  You could argue that she had too much ‘Kansas sophistication’ for Eliza’s flower girl, and was too good looking for Lizzie’s farm girl–but if I’d had a strong sense of having known Betty before I met her, something more than having seen her figure from afar on campus, it must have been as Hester Prynne.
“From the time that light bulb went on, I’ve never thought of Hester except in Betty’s image.  It would be even more true if I sat down to read the novel again today.  My memories of Betty and Hester cannot be separated.  The instinctive pride to challenge the whole community–and prevail–the strength of character first to seduce a Dimmesdale and then to protect him, willing to bear the suffering for both as a gift of love, the combination of high candor and profound mystery in her eyes, the earth-mother, the eternal Eve, the suffering woman archetypes synthesized in the being of Hester Prynne–and, most of all, the rare beauty, radiating pristine innocence, beauty that would be genuinely tempting to a man not easily tempted, the spiritual mystery that might well distract a saint from his appointed rounds.  Do you know Mishima’s story The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love?”  I asked Shoko.
“Of course,” she replied.  “We talked about it with the countess.  Remember?  And the ambiguity of its ending.”


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“Of course.  And Betty, our Great Imperial Concubine, was there at the time, wasn’t she?  And you know Angelo’s comment, in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, on what makes Isabella so seductive.  The principle is profound, true to the elemental nature of temptation.  All I had to do was look at Betty and there it was.  She was Hester Prynne.
“I had discussed the idea with Dr. Gillis early in the fall semester, and he had been lukewarm, pointing out difficulties in adaptation he’d observed in other amateur efforts of this kind, difficulties of which I was already well aware.  And, where Betty was concerned, he had come to think of her as his–his discovery, who was his to use in his theatre program as he judged best–and he wasn’t sure he wanted to waste her energies on my adaptation.  But, as I continued to press for it, he finally said, ‘Okay, it’s your project, Jack.  I guess you’ve earned the right to make your own mistakes.  But it would be wise to have a nice, tidy backup project ready to fall back on if this turns out to be unmanageable, as I suspect it will.’
“I wanted Jordan for Dimmesdale, of course, and at first that amused him.  ‘I’d be a better Chillingworth, Jack, a better devil than fallen saint, especially a Puritan saint, and Childe-Harold-type Romantic, masochistically falling upon the thorns of life when he could have walked around them–all in all a character for whom I have little sympathy.  I expect to be doing Richard the Third in the spring and I’d just have to play a little older Richard to do Chillingworth.’
“But Jordan was my friend, and knew it was important to me–that if Richard was to be his grand farewell to the college stage, I expected The Scarlet Letter to be mine–so said he’d accept the challenge of playing a character he despised, ‘for the discipline.’  And, after he’d seen an early draft of the script, he began making the kind of suggestions that showed he was already thinking of what he’d be doing with the role.


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“My project would be scheduled in the Experimental Theatre Series, and, if I wanted Jordan in a major role, late in  the spring, after the Shakespeare–so we had plenty of time.  He had tentatively accepted during rehearsals for The Rainmaker, and said he assumed Betty would be my Hester. I told him that was still under negotiation, might depend upon how the football season came out–which also amused him.
“And when I had first approached Betty with the idea, clear back in that two weeks at the end of the summer, her response had been worse than Jordan’s.  She had laughed out loud.  Then she got vague about it.  Yes, of course she’d like to work with me on my project, but had only read one short story by Hawthorne, about meeting witches in the forest, and didn’t know anything about Hester Prynne except a joke her high-school English teacher had told about how Hester had earned her A.  ‘She was the naughty one, wasn’t she?’
“I had hoped she might show a little more enthusiasm–want to look at what I had by way of a script, or at least read the novel–but she hadn’t, and I didn’t press her.  I had just assumed I could get her to do the part, and that enthusiasm for a role that would suit her so well would come naturally.
“It was at that cast party for The Rainmaker, a day or two after I’d told her I wouldn’t be going to the Orange Bowl game, but planned to work on my script, that, as she came in with Tom, she fished a copy of The Scarlet Letter out of her purse and said, ‘I just finished reading this this afternoon.’
“‘You did?  How did you find the time, or the attention, right in the middle of doing the play?’
“‘I had to do something to take my mind off the performance during the day–when there’s nothing to do but wait.  Once I know I’ve worried enough about what I’ll be doing on stage, I usually try to read a book.  And this book is short.’  She looked at Tom as she said this, the old veteran speaking


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“He just smiled.  ‘Yeah, the tension before the game.  It’ll get to you.  I sometimes read, too.’
“‘But not The Scarlet Letter, I’ll bet,’ I thought to myself, then asked Betty, ‘Well, how did you like it?’
“‘You really think I’d be right for . . . Hester?  I don’t think it’d be a very good part for me.’
“‘I think she’s one of the greatest female characters in  world literature, and that you’d be absolutely perfect for it.’
“‘Do you think so?  But I don’t think I even like her.  And you won’t come to Miami with me, so why should I do your play?’  She paused for a reaction, and Tom laughed, a little defensively, trying to dispel an embarrassing silence.
“‘And the old-fashioned language–“dost thee,” and “beest thou”–are you changing that?  And holding a baby, and leading a little girl around–how can I do that?  And, if it were me, I’d point right up there at that preacher in the very first scene and holler, “There he is!  He’s the one who did it!”  And at the end–what is she supposed to do then?  Sit down and cry?  She ought to give her own sermon, turn those “worthy magistrates'” ears blue for half a mile in every direction.’
“‘You’re talking about The Scarlet Letter?’ Tom said.  ‘I read that in high school.’  So maybe I was wrong about Tom’s reading.  ‘But is it a play?’  He took the book from Betty.
“‘Jack’s turning it into a play . . . while we’re in Miami.’
“‘Wish you were going too, Jack.’   Tom sounded sincere.
“‘I’ll be able to watch the game on television,’ I said.
“‘Right . . . probably see it better that way.  The way I’d rather see a game.  We watch a lot of game films, and . . .’
“Betty was getting restless, so I broke in.  ‘You don’t want to do it then?  I wasn’t sure you would,’ I lied.  ‘I might decide to do something else for my MA project anyway.  I’m having more trouble with it than I expected to, and nobody else has much faith in it–not Dr. Gillis, not even Jordan.’


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“‘What would Jordan do?’
“‘Dimmesdale–the preacher–the one who did it.’
“‘Not really?  Then I would definitely turn him in . . . and insist on child support.’  She looked at me a minute, watching my face, then looked at Tom and laughed, obviously at my reaction, for I was not in a joking mood.
“‘All right.  You’ve got star status now.  You can begin to be choosy in the parts you take.’  I was being a little snotty in response to that laugh.  ‘I’ll count you out.’
“‘Don’t you give me that “I discovered you, and you owe it to me” line, Jack.’  She reached over as if to take my arm,  and I pulled back, so she made a point of taking Tom’s hand instead.  ‘But I didn’t say I wouldn’t . . . for a “friend.”  If you want to do it so badly . . . and if Jordan will.  But I just don’t think I’d be right for it, or feel very comfortable in the part.  Hester Prynne . . . is that how you pronounce the name?’
“‘Yes . . . Hester Prynne.  Now can you spell it?’  I looked into those eyes, and there she was, all right, my Hester. ‘I’ve thought about Hester for a long time, Betty, and about you as Hester ever since I’ve known you . . . maybe before . . . whenever I think about her now . . . I see you.’
“‘Hester Prynne . . .’  Tom said, thumbing through the book. ‘Sure . . . this is a good book.’
“‘Would you like to see the script I have so far?’ I asked.
“Tom looked up, and started to say something–then saw that I was asking Betty.  She took the book from him and put it back in her purse before answering.
“‘No.  We can talk about it after we get back from Miami.  I read the book, Jack–isn’t that enough for now?  I want to forget about such things while we’re down there.’  She smiled at Tom and he smiled back.  ‘Anyway, you can’t have much done, if you have to stay here and work on it that whole time.’
“‘Okay . . . but let me know.  It makes a difference.’


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“‘After we get back.’
“Betty still held Tom’s hand, and, more or less dismissing me with a queenly wave, steered him toward the refreshment table, where Jordan and Dr. Gillis were debating something until they saw her coming, and then joined in congratulating her on how well she had done in the play.  Then, as Tom shook hands all around, started talking about the football game.
“Betty didn’t talk to me again until I was leaving.  I don’t think anybody did.  I wasn’t in a very good mood, and, after sulking in the corner for a while, got my coat and started to go.  At the door, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned.
“‘Is it really true that you see me as Hester Prynne?’  The eyes were wide and innocent, but it was obvious that she saw that I saw that she was just doing it to bug me–and enjoyed it.
“‘Yes, ma’am, I do.’
“‘Well, work hard on your script–then I’ll know you’re thinking about me while I’m gone.’  She laughed again, and continued laughing as she went back toward the punch bowl.
“I stomped off, muttering to myself about sophomore girls drinking at parties, and didn’t see Betty again until I saw her on national television at the Orange Bowl game.  I couldn’t help moving her from the stands to the scaffold in my imagination, and putting a tidy red letter A in place of the blue KU on that bosom the cameraman kept focusing on.
“But, as I’ve remarked, Betty was a different girl when she came back from Miami, and, after putting me through the studied alienation of that final exam period, she had herself initiated the consummation of our agreement that she would in fact be my Hester on that memorable night at the foot of the scaffold in the Experimental Theatre.
“We didn’t move in with one another, however–any more than Hester and Dimmesdale did.  That wasn’t the way it worked for sophomore girls at the University of Kansas in the


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1950s, either.  Betty had been very passionate, but then had avoided me completely for a day or two, during which her sorority sisters were even told not to call her to the phone.
“At first I took that as natural caution, or a new experiment in feminine wiles.  So then, after we were back talking, I would propose plans for meeting, some involving elaborate secrecy and security–like sneaking in the back door of my apartment building while I created a diversion out front, or taking separate bicycle paths to meet out in the country.
“Betty didn’t laugh at these proposals, listened very seriously, but wouldn’t agree to any of it.  She finally said, ‘No, Jack, that was a mistake . . . wasn’t it?  It’s not that someone might see us. We shouldn’t have done it.  You just caught me in a weak moment.’  I didn’t respond, ‘Hey, wait a minute! I was the one who was caught in a weak moment,’ but I thought it.  “It’s not just the moral problem, either,’ she said.  ‘It’s important to the play for us to bury our sin in the past.’  And I acted as if what she said made sense to me.  I sure didn’t tell anybody . . . ever . . . while Betty was alive.
“Anyway, a couple of weeks after our ‘mistake’–or ‘sin’–I got the formal approval to go ahead from Dr. Gillis, whose interest had picked up a little after he had looked at my tentative final script.  He could see that I was serious, and even smiled as he pushed the script back across his desk.
“‘It’s ambitious, Jack, a blank-verse adaptation.  Shakespeare for form and Hawthorne for content, huh?  Well, I hope you can make it work in Kansas in the 20th century.  It’ll be hard enough to get these people to sit still for Shakespeare himself . . . and he was pretty good at it, you know.  But that’s what our experimental program is for.  So good luck with it.’
“A few evenings later I met with Jordan and Betty–purposely not meeting with her alone, given the kind of stand-off we’d negotiated–to read through the scenes they had


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together and make sure they were with me before worrying about the rest of the cast.  Jordan always read well, and, wherever he had trouble with a line I could be pretty sure it was my fault, and marked it.  And, even though Betty wasn’t  a good cold reader, and had trouble in some places, she read other passages as if those ‘thou’s’ and ‘thee’s’ were her natural idiom.  I was watching her for signs of her attitude toward the character, but saw few–she  was very businesslike.
“It puzzled me–this strange submissive resistance.  I was strongly tempted to provoke a reaction that I could read more clearly.  Did she begin to feel the character or didn’t she?  But, since I was apprehensive about where I stood with her myself at that point, I thought, ‘Better not.’  If she was willing to take on the role, I’d take that for now.  I had confidence in the play to bring her spirit out.  Hester Prynne was in there, I knew.
“Betty was cast in Richard III as well, as Anne, so I only saw the two of them at odd times through the whole middle of the semester, as I might drop by their rehearsals, or see one or the other in the hall, the library, or the Student Union.  And Betty almost always seemed moody.  I had re-appraised the ‘she’s my girl after all’ enthusiasm by then, and attributed this to whatever she was working through in her own emotional life, perhaps reconsidering things with Tom–her sophomore romance, as, in mock-blase´ fashion, I had begun to think of it.  Tom, for his part, was now out for baseball, but coasting in that sport, and going out with two or three other girls, including the girl he did finally marry–the first time. And, through all of this, Betty continued to keep that somewhat nervous distance from me.
“I had finished casting and begun work on blocking before Richard III opened, reading lines myself, and using people from other scenes, since Jordan and Betty could seldom be there, for I had a lot of technical problems to work


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out.  And, fortunately, I had other actors who were very good.  Dan Parker, my new roommate, was playing Chillingworth.  He’d had six years of more or less professional experience–bit parts, radio and television commercials, repertory work–and had decided to come back to school for the degrees that would help him find an academic base.  The last I heard, he was director at a little college in Missouri–Dr. Parker, presiding over the local theatre activity–exactly what he had in mind, and I hope he’s as happy a man as he deserves to be.
“We’d lived together long enough to be comfortable with each other, and he had a pretty good sense of what was going on between Betty and me.  Since he was a few years older, and somewhat avuncular, he probably thought he understood it better than I did, and might have given me good advice, if he hadn’t known me well enough not to.  But when it came to the play, he had become my primary advisor.
“I’d had my eye on him for Chillingworth from early on.  He had a wonderful voice for it, in part coming out of his radio experience, but in part a natural gift.  He was not by nature in any sense diabolic, but relished playing the devil, played Chillingworth with such melodramatic flair that my main problem was keeping him from twirling his moustaches so much the audience would begin to hiss.  He also had a small part in Richard III, Lord Stanley, I think, but, since we were living together, there were plenty of chances to work on problems with him, and he was helping me with everything.
“I had beefed up the part of Mistress Hibbins, using her for some of the exposition, if not actual comic relief–which I definitely did not want from Chillingworth–and increased these functions in the course of the rehearsals.  Kaye Adams, the girl I had expected to play Eliza the previous summer, was playing the part, and was able to catch the balance of crazy old lady and real witch I wanted exactly.  I think Hawthorne’s own


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ambiguity is brought into sharpest focus in that character.  I worked out a lot of the staging with the two of them–reading through, re-writing or re-blocking, then reading through again.
“I worked on the set with Frank Sellers, another friend, the one who’d been working with me the night Betty came to the theatre, to get a scaffold design that could dominate the beginning, middle, and end without awkward perspectives,  and get the right atmosphere for a Puritan governor’s hall and Hawthorne’s forest, and yet another friend on costumes.  So I had good people helping, and, on their advice, decided to adopt the ‘Shakespearean’ tradition, sparing no pains on costumes, but just suggesting sets–which worked fine.
“Betty and Jordan did come by occasionally, walked through their scenes, talked a little about problems they saw, and left.  Jordan was making no attempt to learn lines yet, didn’t want them in his head with Richard III, but I knew he was a quick study once he began, so had no concern.  Again, Betty was the one who surprised me.  She had most of her lines the first time she came, less than two weeks after I had given her the script.  Of course she didn’t have a particularly heavy role in the Shakespeare play, so had the time–but, even later, she was always compulsive about memorizing lines.
“Still, she seemed to be holding back, just talking through, not acting through, her speeches–as if purposely not allowing herself to get into character–which was all right at that stage, with Jordan reading from the script, and everyone stopping to ask about this and that–but, again, puzzling to me.
Richard III had its last performance on a Saturday night, and we were to open for a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday three weeks later, after the last classes but before final exams.  I didn’t go to the cast party for Richard III, though I might have, since I knew everyone, but remembered the last cast party, and wanted to keep things tidy between Betty and me


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while doing our play. I’d worry about ‘our relationship’ once the play was over, wouldn’t even think about it until then.
“Late Sunday morning I was sitting in our one comfort- able chair reading a book on lighting techniques and drinking a cup of coffee–hadn’t bothered with breakfast–when Dan got up.  He had been at the party, and was laughing about things that had happened, with the ‘You should have been there, Jack,’ line, as he started fixing bacon and eggs for both of us.
“But then he asked, ‘Just what is it with Betty Fredricks?’
“‘How do you mean?’
“‘Well, she got into an argument with Jordan, and I thought he was going to take on that football player–which might have left you looking for a new Dimmesdale.  Do they have something going?  I’ve always thought that Jordan . . . well . . . who knows what goes on in the forest?  She doesn’t have Hazen’s ring around her neck any more, but came with him, and left with him–which surprised me.  I’d thought, in my Chillingworth mode, that now it was you and Betty, meant to check when you were asleep to see if you had a scarlet letter branded on your bosom.’  He gave me a knowing look, as if he were in character, and then smiled.  ‘Tell me what’s going on.’
“‘Hunh . . . interesting.  I wish I knew, Dan.  She’s our mystery woman . . . our Hester.  But she came with Tom?  And I can’t imagine that about Jordan.  Had he been drinking?’
“‘Some, no doubt.  But he wasn’t drunk enough to start a fight.  He’s not that kind of drunk anyway.  Somebody said it was a remark Hazen made about your play, or Jordan’s role in it, and his relationship to Betty, that ticked Jordan off.  But I don’t know that, and do know that Betty and Jordan had an angry exchange before Hazen even got involved.  Then Betty hustled her football player out of there before any blows were thrown–which gave everyone else something to talk about, since it looked like he’d won the girl for one night anyway.’


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“I looked to see if Dan were trying to needle me with that last line, but he wasn’t, just filling me in on gossip by way of making breakfast conversation.  ‘Well, I sure don’t want things blowing up at this point.  I need them both, of course.  I’m supposed to meet them at the theatre at seven, and I’ll check it out . . . if they come.  We’ll start serious rehearsals Tuesday.’
“‘I look forward to it, Jack.  You know that Jordan got that scholarship for a year at the Old Vic, don’t you?  Or maybe you don’t.  He just found out about it himself yesterday.  That’s what he was high on, if anything . . . but why would that make him want to fight a football player?’
“‘No, I didn’t know.  Well . . . it’s not surprising.  He is the best, and wants the training in Shakespeare.  But that does change things.  He was planning to go to New York, you know . . .’  I didn’t add, ‘and Betty was planning to go with him.’  I changed the subject, instead.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it, but didn’t want to talk about it . . . not with Dan.
“I met with Betty and Jordan that evening, and things were a little tense.  Jordan got there before Betty did and was telling me about the scholarship when Betty came in.
“‘It’s a dream come true, Jack.  Exactly what I need at this point.  I’ll be going to England early in September and be gone for the full academic year.’  Then, looking at Betty, but still talking to me, ‘That means I’ll have to postpone New York, for a year at least.  Then, who knows what will come of this?’
“Betty returned his look, but didn’t say a word.
“There were just the three of us there, working on their forest scene.  Since the junior-high-school-aged daughter of a faculty member I’d cast as Pearl couldn’t come that evening, I was reading her lines.  The two of them were serious enough, and we ran through the scene three times, but there was too much static in the air.  Betty was now coming up on her role,  with a sort of desperate passion bursting out as she let her hair


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down and made her pitch for Dimmesdale to run away with her.  But she was getting impatient the last time through.
“Jordan was stumbling, highly unusual for him, and finally said, ‘Let’s let it be, Jack.  I know I’ve got to tune to Betty in this scene better than I am.  But not tonight.  I’m too wound up on this news, feeling that now I am going to escape from this Puritan community.’  He swept his hand in a half circle that included everything, but finished looking at Betty, and kept looking at her until she looked away.  ‘I’ll get together with Dan to run lines for our scenes before Tuesday’s rehearsal.  I’m just spinning–and not helping Betty any, either.’
“So he left, leaving Betty and me alone.  I was sitting in  the second row, my legs thrown over the seat in front of me, and she was sitting on the front edge of the scaffold.  I just watched her, as she sat there adjusting the pilgrim woman’s cap she was to wear.  Finally I asked, ‘Well, how about you?’
“‘Yeah . . . how about me?’
“‘You want to do the opening scaffold scene once before we quit?’  Then, after she didn’t answer, ‘Quit fiddling with that cap!  Come let me fix it.  I’ll be your hairdresser again.’
“‘No . . . I’m not in that mood, either.  But I do have something I need to talk to you about.’
“We’d settled for a scaffold about three feet high, high enough that the ‘A’ on her bosom bounced as Betty hopped down from where she sat.  I pitied poor Arthur Dimmesdale that unfair temptation.  Then she came down to join me, but sat far enough away that I couldn’t touch her easily.
“‘Dan tells me you stopped what would have been quite a fight at last night’s party.  Between Tom and Jordan.  And I wondered if the problems this evening were all coming from Jordan’s excitement . . . or partly from what happened there.  What goes on?’  Then I paused a moment before asking, ‘Is it because Jordan won’t be able to take you to New York?’


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“‘Yes.  I wanted to go to New York–and did think Jordan might take me . . . would take me.  He had almost promised  as much in January.  But now that’s the least of my problems.’
“‘Well, let’s think about it after the play.  You’re going to be great as Hester Prynne–as I knew you would be.  If you do that for me, I might take you to New York.'”
“Why does this seem to remind me of something I’ve heard before,” Henry put in, with his most ironic chuckle, which  prompted Shoko to jab him gently with her elbow.
“But then Betty dropped the bomb.  ‘More Hester than you know, Jack.  I’m pregnant.’  I must have jumped, and that made her laugh, nervously.  Then she just looked at me.
“‘Are you sure?’  I was standing in front of her by then.
“‘I’ve known it for a couple of weeks . . . and I’m pretty sure that Roger Prynne is not the father.’
“I didn’t ask her then–or ever–if I was, but my eyes must have, and hers answered, around the edges of the wry laughter that accompanied her joke . . . with characteristic ambiguity.
“I was also tempted to ask whether she’d told Tom yet.  Or Jordan.  But I didn’t, just asked, ‘Well, shouldn’t we get married?’  I heard a strange echo in my voice as I asked this.
“The tone of her laughter changed dramatically.  She became genuinely amused.  ‘You’re such a Puritan, Jack . . . you and your godly magistrates.  But I guess I should marry somebody.  And why not you?’  She put out a hand, to keep me quiet, which it did.  I took it in mine.  ‘You’d probably be a pretty good husband.  Yes . . . I wanted to go to New York.  I didn’t want to get pregnant.’
“‘Well, we could still go to New York, Betty . . . I . . .’
“‘And wait for the baby?  How could I do any serious acting six months pregnant?  No, it’d be better to go to . . . where have they offered you that job?  To Nebraska . . .  somewhere where they still believe in babies . . . and just hide!’


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“I thought she was going to cry, but she just sat there quietly holding my hand, as if totally submitting herself to an uncontrollable fate.  We did go up to the apartment while Dan was off to a concert the next evening, and, again, she was as passionate as I’d always imagined Hester Prynne to be.  And I was no Dimmesdale, would have run off with her anywhere–or taken her there in the forest–after she’d let her hair down.  And I did–every chance we got.  I was madly in love with her.”
“All of your life, weren’t you, Jack?” Shoko asked.
“Yes, I was . . . with my Hester.  And the play went perfectly.  Maybe that was exactly what we needed, a secret to hide.  Betty and I were suddenly on the same wave length, tuned to each other, feeling a little guilty, but tapping that psychic energy for the play.  Chillingworth was lurking around the edges with his own dark secrets, reading the clues we were leaving him as melodramatically as he could, and Mistress Hibbins had an appropriate ‘I know more than I’m telling about what goes on around here on these dark nights’ posture that was not limited to her character on stage.
“And–what baffled me most–Jordan’s reaction was just right, too.  Part of the time it was as if he knew, as he watched me with Betty and was sharp enough to read the signs, but part of the time it was as if he had his own secret–which also had to do with Betty–particularly when he put his hand over his heart as he looked at her on the scaffold.  And Betty dominated him in the scenes they shared, as much as he had  her in Pygmalion–out of a confidence and pride–so that he followed her lead . . . which was also right for that play.
“In spite of this, Jordan still made the play as a whole, as it is, Dimmesdale’s action.  When he mounted the scaffold, he had the audience.  And Dimmesdale is such a Byronic poseur that it was an ideal role for an actor with Jordan’s rhetorical flair.  But there was still something between Betty and Jordan


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that troubled me.  Then, I thought, ‘that, too, is coming from the play . . . of course they seem to have a secret.’
“I, personally, couldn’t have been more ecstatic, working with Betty on every nuance of a character I felt I knew so well.  I thought we’d found the perfect relationship.  I couldn’t compete with Jordan as actor, nor with the charisma of Tom Hazen, but there she was doing my play, under my direction.  I had written it for her, with her in mind ever since I’d gone back to work on it in the fall.  Even the fact that we were now lovers was just an extra dividend–the primary relationship was playwright/actress.  Perhaps I couldn’t be her leading man, nor was it even as her director that the relationship was best defined, but as her playwright, providing the vehicle for her talent, each of us comfortable in the standard male/female illusion that ours was the more important role.
“Still, mixing Betty’s ambiguity with Hawthorne’s was tricky, for I was tuned to Hawthorne, too, I thought–trying to capture his tragic vision in the higher medium of verse drama.  Then I wanted its power for Betty–then to give me a kind of power over her–and then . . . well, a strange thing happened.
“It got out of my hands completely.  Whether it was Betty, or Hawthorne, or Hester Prynne asserting her spirit over all of us across all those years, I just began to sit back and watch it happen.  I thought I knew Hester when I began, but by the time I finally saw Betty as Hester on stage, in the last rehearsals and all three nights of the performance, she was too complicated for one man to know.  I’d be in bed with her, in the dark, and see Hester Prynne standing on the scaffold, or letting down her hair in the forest, and think, ‘This is that woman.  I’m holding her in my arms.’  Betty played many other great roles . . . the countess, of course . . . and her Cleopatra became legendary.  But, in my mind, she never surpassed the Hester Prynne she did for me, as a college sophomore.”


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“And Jordan’s Higgins was his best?  You must have been quite a director, Jack,”  Henry said.
“True . . . the state of my spirit at the time all this was happening may have something to do with my reaction as a critic . . . and even with my memories.
“The Sunday after our last performance I took Betty for a long drive.   Dr. Gillis had complimented me on the way I had handled everything, which meant that my MA was assured, and that I could then take the job at Wellington College–with its brand-new theatre–if I wanted it.  But what about Betty and me?  She had two more years to go for her degree, and Dr. Gillis might well be talked into doing Antigone or Hedda Gabler if she stayed.  But then there was the baby.  I finally pulled into one of those roadside parks, and opened with the question, ‘Well, Hester, now what?’
“‘I guess we get married and go to Nebraska, Jack.’
“And it seemed just that simple.  Betty and I were married two days after the graduation ceremonies at which Jordan Simms and Tom Hazen both received BAs and I got my MA.  It may have been obvious to some by then that Betty was pregnant, but no one said anything . . . at least not to me.
“Jordan and Tom were both there, and I couldn’t resist wondering, as Tom kissed the bride, and Jordan smiled, if either of them might be the father of our little Pearl.  It was possible–but I knew that I might be.  And I also knew that I was willing to take Betty in any case.   I felt that I had won the prize, and was not yet much concerned about the child.
“Jordan was leaving the next morning for a few days in Colorado with his mother, and, as we talked briefly about his plans, Betty’s voice shook a little.  He said he didn’t have to be in England until late summer and was telling us how he’d been talking to an agent about scheduling a cross-country tour, a program of short Shakespeare pieces, as a one-man show.


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Since he already knew enough Shakespeare to do two or three hours, that would give him total flexibility, and should be excellent preparation for what he would be doing in the fall.
“Then, suddenly, it was like we were back at the end of the previous summer, and he was suggesting that we go with him.  He said he and Betty could do their courtship scene from Richard III, counterpoint two or three sonnets apiece, and whatever else it took to make a program.  I said I had an abridged version of Othello that I’d done as a class project, that would play in about half an hour, and Jordan said, ‘Let’s look at it, Jack.  But I’d want to do Iago.  You’d have to do Othello–in blackface–which would at least allow you to strangle your wife every night . . . for being unfaithful.’
“Betty and I had talked about summer theatre, but nothing seemed available as good as things we’d done in the past year.  This was the best offer we’d had–and with Jordan.  It probably seemed like a consolation prize to Betty, but we took it.  It turned out to be a fiasco . . . if a memorable fiasco.
“I remember Betty telling the story about how you were held up in that little bar in Oklahoma City,” Shoko said.
“And I’ve heard about it . . . from them,” Henry said, “but couldn’t believe it.  I’d like to hear your version, Jack.”
“It wiped us out.  We canceled the western half of the tour, and Jordan went back to spend what time he had left before going to England with his mother.  Betty and I had sent everything we owned to Nebraska, and just followed it a little earlier than expected.  By that time I was looking forward to Wellington College, where Betty could have the baby and I could get some solid, journeyman directing experience–and where we’d have time to make plans and appraise opportunities for the future.  So it was off to Nebraska for the newlyweds.  And that’s where we met you, Henry.”
“Yes . . . where you met me, Jack.”  Henry smiled.


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Assignment for Bridge 5:


Read Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and/or The Lesson–then see if you agree with Betty or Norma as to the nature of the “absurdity.”

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