by JF Dacey, playwright
In the spring of 1967, a good friend asked if I could help him out; and I told him I would. As a result of his request, I took the fateful plunge into the wild and woolly world of community theatre. Since then I have never left it. I have acted in plays and directed plays. I have designed sets and painted sets. I have moved scenery, hung lights, and stage managed more productions than I could count. As a true theatre junkie, I have also swept out the house and scrubbed out the restrooms.
Sometime around 2006 I took another plunge, this time into playwriting. I turned out a collection of nine quirky short plays. I gave them the omnibus title, “Anatomically Correct.” I had the good fortune to see them produced at my “home” theatre in Tyngsboro, Mass. These were followed by a few more short pieces. Soon I began to think I should try my hand at a full-length script; but since I did not have any ideas for a full-length play, that idea was put on hold.
Then, in the spring of 2009, the Concord (Mass.) Players were mounting a production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Another friend had been chosen to direct, and at her request, I came on board to design the set. I also painted about 99% of it, worked on the scene change crew, and had a one-line cameo in the trial scene. I was quite thoroughly embedded.
After that production had been put to bed, I reflected back on the play script, which was penned by Christopher Sergel. It was not remotely as well-known as the prize-winning novel or the award-winning movie. However, it was a skillful adaptation that recreated a dusty, southern town in the 1930’s with a large, multi-racial cast of adults and children. As I considered the multitude of challenges that had confronted the playwright in his adaptation, a seed of inspiration became planted in my mind. Since I did not have any burning inspiration for a totally original full-length play, perhaps I should try my hand at an adaptation of a book.
I couldn’t really say what it was that led me to settle on “The House of the Seven Gables.” For one thing, it was vaguely familiar to me from having read it in high school. It was famous — indeed, a genuine classic. As a New England story, it fit into a comfort zone for me. It would have a cast of characters that would be a manageable size; and it had a very workable, confined, single setting. It had an unforeseen love story that flowers in an unlikely place. It also offered a 150-year-old curse, a procession of ghosts, and elements of treachery, mendacity, damnation, and redemption — themes that were as old as Cain and Abel.
I also learned that there were no other stage adaptations — at least, none that I was able to find. It was, however, made into an obscure motion picture in 1940. I watched it on Youtube, and I can report that it bears a vaguely distant resemblance to the novel.
It seemed to me that I should focus on the development of the love story, set in the context of the resolution of the ancient curse. The novel is very much a product of its time, the mid-19th century. It contains a wealth of dense, descriptive prose and historical narrative. Much of that could simply not be used in the stage adaptation. The central core of the stage adaptation would have to be distilled, much like the way maple syrup is coaxed from the sap of the tree. But there would still be a great deal of narrative in the play script, and I would have to work that in as best I could.
Nathaniel Hawthorne described his novel as a “romance.” But in his time that did not literally describe a love story, but rather a story that ends happily. However successfully I might be able to make it happen, the central story, when adapted for the stage, would have to work as well in the new medium as it did in the original. At all times I felt a strong obligation to be faithful to the story, its themes, and its characters, as well as to Hawthorne himself. As the playwright, I will only get an accurate sense of how successful my four years of labor have been when I see the reading on the third weekend of January. I’m sure there will be rewrites, revisions, and tweaks after that first exposure to an audience. But all that that is expected; it is fundamental to the art of playwriting. If nothing else, at least, I feel safe in saying that my script is much more faithful to Hawthorne’s novel than the Hollywood product mentioned above.
Ultimately, I feel that “The House of the Seven Gables” is about people and the things that motivate them. The truth of their story is what should resonate with an audience and stimulate people’s interest. If the story can work as well in a different medium as it did in the original, I think that only serves to validate why the original became a classic that has endured for 170 years.
To purchase tickets for the staged reading of The House of the Seven Gables, click here.