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The House of the Seven Gables

March 16, 2009 at 10:19 am
By Collin Hazlett '12

In a world where ghosts pick out eerie tunes on harpsichords, where the answers to family mysteries lie hidden in secret compartments, where light and dark symbolism abounds, and where hypnotism, magnetism, and daguerreotypes all have vaguely magical connotations, five people attempt to live in an ancient house where the past does not stay dead. Mystery, horror, and love ensue.

This is Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, a splendidly moody and atmospheric nineteenth-century drama recently staged by the Carleton Players for Nathaniel Hawthorne Week.

The story revolves around the house mentioned in the title- which, as you might reasonably hope, has a dark and mysterious history. The current owners, the Pyncheon family, inherited their house from one Colonel Pyncheon, who came into possession of the house in the Puritan era by accusing its former owner, Maule, of witchcraft. Maule, before being hung, put a curse on Colonel Pyncheon and his family, which is followed by a series of Pyncheons meeting bloody deaths. The Pyncheons continue to own the house, however, up until the "present day"- which, for Nathaniel Hawthorne, is the 1800's.

This is all explained to the audience before the action of the play begins, by the actors themselves. All of the actors double as narrators, and from time to time they step out of character and directly address the audience, which works well for a play with a lot of backstory to keep track of. All the minor characters are played by the same actors- they just put on a different hat or coat and speak in a different voice. Each of the actors has one main character:

Annelise Lawson '09 played Hephzibah Pyncheon, the current owner of the house, who is growing old, has fallen on hard times, and is trying (but failing) to run a penny shop out of her house to make money.

Bill White '10 played Clifford Pyncheon, Hephzibah's sick, childlike brother who has recently been released from prison. Clifford is very sensitive, and has a high sense of aesthetics- he can't stand living in a world that isn't beautiful and perfect, which makes it hard for Hephzibah to take care of him.

Kristen Johnson '10 played Phoebe Pyncheon, a cheerful, innocent young relative of Hephzibah who has come to stay in the house, and makes a much better shopkeeper than Hephzibah herself, because she can count change and smile, neither of which Hephzibah is very good at.

John Trevino '12 played Thomas Holgrave, a tenant in the house whom Hephzibah says, with a mixture of admiration and disapproval, is a "modern man"- he is both practical and idealistic, and more than a little mysterious. In fact, Hephzibah tells Phoebe that Holgrave has been rumored to practice "animal magnetism" (by which she means hypnotism). Holgrave is also a daguerreotypist, much to the fascination of all the other characters (photography was a very new phenomenon when this was written).

And finally, John Christensen '12 portrayed Uncle Venner, a kindly and dirt-poor street vendor who is actually not related to any of the other characters, but might as well be, since he visits every day with his wheelbarrow to talk philosophy and give helpful advice.

Since this is a Nathaniel Hawthorne play, there is not only lots of backstory, but also lots of symbolism.

Particularly sunlight symbolism. The play makes no attempt to be subtle on this point, which is not a bad thing, because it might have been easy to miss otherwise. Phoebe is continually referred to as "sunny" and "full of sunlight," and Holgrave even asks her "did you know 'Phoebe' means light?" Then Holgrave himself says that his job is to "make paintings from sunlight" (by which he means daguerreotypes). The whole sunlight motif continues to surround Phoebe and Holgrave until the end, which I won't give away, but which you might be able to guess. The crew did an excellent job of emphasizing the difference between day and night and changing the lighting to fit the demands of a play where light matters a lot.

Then there's the theme of magic and science- the question of whether the family curse of dying bloodily is magic, coincidence, or something else, the question of whether hypnotism is magic or science, whether daguerreotypes are magic or science (they certainly seemed magical back then!), whether there is actually a ghost in the house, and whether Holgrave's many skills are scientific or magical.

(SPOILERS: The answers to the questions are: something else, magic, science, yes, probably just scientific but maybe a little bit magical.)

Also, Bill White should be congratulated for portraying two mortal enemies (Clifford Pyncheon, Judge Jaffery Pyncheon) at the same time. All in all, very beautiful and mysterious, and the kind of thing that would make Nathaniel Hawthorne very proud, as soon as he stopped marveling over modern photography.