By Sara Dabney Tisdale
How do you portray an elf-child? A demon offspring? A baby born from sin? A freak?
These are all descriptions given to Pearl, Hester Prynne’s illegitimate daughter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter. The product of Hester’s affair with the Reverand Arthur Dimmesdale and the symbolic manifestation of Hester’s adultery, Pearl is a challenging character to play on many fronts. Pearl is smart. She sees meaning in things. She flits between earnest and cynical. She dances and giggles and pouts and throws tantrums. Hawthorne suggests that Pearl is otherworldy, too – sent by God, as Hester argues to Governor Bellingham, to serve as her mother’s punishment as well as her redemption.
So where does this motley combination of traits leave me as an actor playing Pearl’s character? Throughout the rehearsal process, I wanted to tease out the entirety of Pearl’s fantastic, colorful personality, but I also wanted to ground her actions in circumstances that were very real. It would be easy to play Pearl as the proverbial bad seed – even a tool of the devil – intent on terrorizing her mother. Indeed, so much of Pearl’s character is preternaturally spooky: “It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery,” writes Hawthorne of Pearl’s interactions with Hester.
But while Pearl’s character is spiteful (and, OK, slightly demonic) at times, our director, Renana Fox, and I decided that the more challenging (and, ultimately, more creatively rewarding) approach was to tackle Pearl as entirely human – but a child whose troubling mannerisms spring from her social isolation and her ignorance of the reasons for her status as an outcast. Pearl isn’t a demon– she’s a loner.
Isolation is nothing new for Hawthorne’s key characters. But Pearl’s isolation is unique in that it’s not a result of her own actions – she’s an innocent in the business of Hester’s sin. Judgmental adults avoid her, and hateful children bully here. As such, Pearl learns early on to reject others as dangerous.
As our director Renana pointed out, a key to Pearl’s isolation is her ignorance. The adults in her life have cut off her access to knowledge. Because Pearl is precocious and observant, she naturally seeks to know more about her society and her world. Pearl doesn’t know what the scarlet A means, but she does know that invoking the A is a tactic she can use to provoke her mother into answering her questions. The letter becomes a symbol for all the secrets Pearl doesn’t know, a feeling only amplified by Dimmesdale, with “his hand always over his heart.”
But how to funnel all this rich detail into Pearl’s voice? And how to play Pearl, as Isabel Smith-Bernstein’s script demands, from an infant to a toddler to a 7-year-old to an expectant mother?
I started with some YouTube research on the way children speak. What struck me, regardless of their age, was the free, un-self-conscious quality of a child’s way of speaking. There is confidence and imagination and delight in creating thoughts and sentences. It was critical to imbue Pearl’s speech with this confidence. Because she has learned to own her role as an outcast, Pearl doesn’t care what others think of her declarations.
Yet, as Pearl ages, so does her vocal character: Infant Pearl cries. Three-year-old Pearl is both mischievous and joyful, but she can’t yet articulate her words. Seven-year-old Pearl is bitter; she has learned to articulate her speech in an uncanny and precocious way, and to use that articulation to her advantage. Adult Pearl – whom we only meet in a concluding letter to her mother at the end of the play – is much more at ease than her childhood counterpart. Having escaped “small-minded” Massachusetts, Pearl enjoys a life of freedom and love in England. Her voice is stripped of the anger she held as a child; there is warmth in her words, and her maturity, happiness, and intelligence combine to create a clear, sincere voice.
In everything, I strive for confidence and intelligence – Pearl’s enduring traits that carry her from toddlerhood to adulthood. But in the end, I don’t think I’ll ever have Pearl’s character and voice completely pinned down. I suspect, with Pearl, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.