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The Scarlet Letter - Synopsis

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Music, Martin Herman; Libretto, Thomas F. Curley

Act I

Prologue: Late 17th century, Boston, Massachusetts, about thirty years after the action that follows in scene 1 . A group of children are at play by the cottage where Hester Prynne and her daughter, Pearl, had lived. A woman, stooped, her hair gray under her bonnet, approaches the cottage door. As she opens it, she turns and the scarlet letter "A" is seen embroidered on the bodice of her dress. It is Hester. The children, curious and unafraid, gather around her and ask about the letter and its meaning. They also ask her blessing. Hester abides the children.

Scene 1: Boston, mid 17th century. Hester Prynne, a young woman in colonial Boston, has borne an illegitimate daughter. She is spared the usual death sentence for this crime and is instead ostracized and forced to wear a large letter “A” (for “adulteress”), embroidered in scarlet on the bodice of her dress. In addition, she must stand three hours in public humiliation on the pillory. A crowd of Puritans has gathered in the marketplace around the pillory awaiting Hester's arrival. She is eventually led in by the Beadle and she ascends the pillory holding her child, Pearl. "Roger Chillingworth", Hester's husband, appears unexpectedly at the edge of the crowd, having been presumed to be lost at sea by Hester and others in the town for some time. He is recognized by Hester but no one else. He discovers from a townsman the details of Hester's punishment. Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child’s father, who is in fact the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Chillingworth vows to discover the father's identity.

Scene 2: Hester, with Pearl, in prison. Chillingworth interviews Hester. He forces her to swear an oath: not to reveal that they were once married. Chillingworth again vows vengeance on the father of the child Pearl.

Scene 3: Hester's cottage by the Bay shore. Hester is sewing and Pearl is at play. Wilson, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth approach. The men discuss whether Hester should be allowed to keep Pearl and whether Pearl’s religious instruction can be entrusted to Hester. Hester, reinforced by Dimmesdale, pleads to be allowed to keep Pearl. Wilson relents and allows Pearl to remain with her mother. Wilson exits. Dimmesdale, because of his increasingly poor health, lags behind. Chillingworth attends him. The two discuss the nature of guilt and its effect on the conscience. It is clear that Chillingworth by now suspects Dimmesdale as the father of Pearl and that he is using his position as physician to the minister to study and inflame Dimmesdale's guilt. Dimmesdale succumbs to an attack and passes out, during which Chillingworth separates his clothes and sees the letter "A" inflamed on Dimmesdale's chest.

Scene 4: The town square. The assembled townsfolk are convinced that the city is afflicted with a curse. Some of the townspeople advocate no mercy for Hester, that her punishment is insufficient for the weight of her crime against the community while others disagree. Against this, Mistress Hibbins appears and taunts the townsfolk.

Scene 5: Seven years after Hester Prynne stood on the scaffold. Midnight in early May, Sabbath eve. Dimmesdale enters and ascends the pillory. He has deteriorated physically and mentally. He expects to die that night. Hester and Pearl pass by on their way home from a deathwatch at the Governor's house. He asks that they come and stand with him. Hester refuses at first, then, realizing the extent of Dimmesdale's dementia, she relents and ascends the pillory with Pearl. Pearl asks Dimmesdale whether he will stand with them in the light of day to which he replies, not until the great judgement day, that "this world's light will not see our meeting". A meteor flashes across the sky. Chillingworth is revealed standing not far away. He has seen and heard everything. Hester and Pearl gaze at him. Dimmesdale looks to the horizon where he sees an immense letter "A" marked out in lines of dull red light. Chillingworth approaches and leads Dimmesdale off.


Act II

Scene 1: Approximately the same time as at the end of Act I: seven years after the beginning of the action. Edge of the forest by the bay shore. Hester and Pearl together. As they walk, Hester spies Chillingworth who is collecting herbs for his medicines. Hester sends Pearl off to collect sea shells as she approaches Chillingworth. She vows to break her oath of secrecy in order to save Dimmesdale from Chillingworth's clutches and pleads with Chillingworth to pardon them both. Chillingworth replies that he has no power to pardon: "fate governs all". Chillingworth departs for the town as Pearl returns. Pearl presses her mother with questions about Dimmesdale, as she perceives some peculiar bond among him, her mother, and herself. Hester sends Pearl off to play again as Dimmesdale approaches from the distance. Hester reveals to Dimmesdale that she and Chillingworth were once married. They plot to leave Boston and sail back to England where they may live freely together.

Scene 2: The marketplace, election day. Installation of the new Governor. Full company: a crowd of townspeople, sailors, Hester, Pearl, Mistress Hibbins (the town "witch"), the Beadle, a ship commander, Chillingworth, Dimmesdale. The marketplace is full of activity: wrestling matches, a bout with quarter staffs, and on the pillory an exhibition with buckles and broadswords. The sailors sing a drinking song. A sailor and Mistress Hibbins improvise a mock installation of a new Beadle and May Queen. Pearl joins gleefully in the masque. Hester speaks with the commander of the ship on which they have booked passage to England only to discover that Chillingworth, who has somehow uncovered their plan, has also booked a berth. The Magistrates arrive and the company marches off to attend the installation of the Governor leaving Dimmesdale alone. He ruminates that he can never escape Chillingworth or his own guilt and that the only solution is to reveal himself to the townspeople that very day.

Scene 3: Two to three hours after the preceding scene. The entrance to the chapel is visible. Many are gathered at the doorway to hear Dimmesdale's election day sermon. After the sermon, Dimmesdale totters out of the chapel, creating general alarm among the gathering of townspeople and dignitaries. He turns to face Hester and Pearl who stand beneath the scaffold. He stretches out his arms to them and they come. Chillingworth attempts to restrain him. Dimmesdale ascends the pillory holding Pearl and supported by Hester. He reveals to the gathering that he is the father of Pearl and sinks down upon the scaffold. Pearl comes closer and kisses the dying man. Dimmesdale dies in Hester's arms.

Epilogue: The same time as during the Prologue: about 30 years ahead of the action that has preceded. Now an old woman, Hester, who has returned to Boston after having spent many years living abroad, speaks with the children who were playing by her abandoned cottage. She explains that Pearl was well provided for by Chillingworth, the very man whose hate pursued her father, Arthur Dimmesdale. Pearl now lives and thrives in happier climes while Hester has returned to end her days in Boston.