by Heather Lefebvre
The adaptation of “Endicott and the Red Cross” from original Hawthorne sketch to jukebox musical is admittedly a bizarre idea. I know. When I first came up with it I’d already had the idea for a different “Endicott” trailer, for a psychological miniseries to “air” on A&E. (I even had the ending planned: an acquaintance walks into the room, addresses Endicott as “John” and Endicott barks, “No.... It’s Commander Endicott now.” A close-up of the acquaintance looking fearful, and cue title.) The miniseries, I decided, would be dark and serious and slightly anachronistic. But I couldn’t come up with any other scenes for the trailer, and one day when I was listening to Abbey Road, the musical idea just came to me. Weird, yes. Unlikely, yes. But Moulin Rouge had taken history and twisted it into a jukebox musical in 2001. Theoretically it could be done. And either way, it would be interesting.“Endicott and the Red Cross” is a short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was published in 1837, in his story collection Twice-Told Tales, and is today one of his lesser-known works. The plot involves the esteemed governor of a Puritan town, John Endicott, and his decision to revolt against England. In this respect, the A&E miniseries idea would have made more sense; a serious psychological drama would have shown the progression from Respectable Man to Obsessed Revolutionary in a more academic, scholarly way than the modern musical. But then again, rock and roll has long been associated with rebellion (see: the Beatles song “Revolution,” the countercultural rock star lifestyle), and Hawthorne’s story is about just that. “Endicott and the Red Cross” focuses on, and leads up to, one solitary event: Endicott’s “rending of the Red Cross from New England’s banner,” symbolically rending New England’s relationship with old England. Like a rock star trashing his hotel room, thus ruining any chance he may have had to stay at that hotel in the future, by slashing the flag Endicott destroys any chance the Puritans have of returning to England. As the royalist in the nearby stocks declares, Endicott has committed treason. With that one gesture he cuts the town off, symbolically and literally, from the mother country. The Puritans are finally, definitively on their own, and – if Endicott has his way – the story implies that they will fight the English for the right to be on their own. “Beat a flourish, drummer!––shout, soldiers and people!––in honor of the ensign of New England. Neither Pope nor Tyrant hath part in it now!” he screams. In an age when the moral tale had begun to recede in popularity, in favor of the sketch, Hawthorne wrote moral tales that turned the genre on its head: sure, his short stories have clear morals, and they are certainly full of allegorical symbols, but rather than the follow-societal-norms moral of earlier literature (like that in Maria Edgeworth’s “The Grateful Negro,” or the epimythium of Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina”), his stories end with a strong argument against society and authority. Among Hawthorne’s short stories, this theme of individualism is strongest in “Endicott,” wherein the title character imposes cultural exile upon his people. The America of modern day, the story implies, was literally founded on such principles – a concept that seems perfectly plausible, looking at popular culture today. The overarching message of contemporary American media avows being true to oneself, regardless. Self-esteem at any price. Endicott, in that light, is a true, individualistically-driven American. Despite the Puritanical 1630s setting, a modern American audience could relate to his tale of oppression and self-made liberty. The moral of “Endicott” is the same as Frank Miller’s V for Vendetta or the recent Broadway musical Hairspray: when things are unjust, you fight back. You triumph, tyrannical authority regardless.But “Endicott and the Red Cross” is not simply a moral advocating individualism; it is just as much a rural sketch. The year before Twice-Told Tales was published, Charles Dickens (under the pseudonym of “Boz”) published his “Sketches,” a collection of prose with ambiguously fictional qualities and very little plot. Dickens’s London-centric tales usually focused on solely one event – shopping for clothes in “Meditations in Monmouth Street,” for instance – and included an exorbitant amount of description so as to set their scene. They were also popular enough for Dickens to base his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, off some of these works. A year later Twice-Told Tales came out, including “Endicott” in its collection, and the parallels to the sketch form are obvious. Hawthorne’s six-page story opens with about three pages of pure description: “Their leader, the famous Endicott, was a man of stern and resolute countenance, the effect of which was heightened by a grizzled beard that swept the upper portion of his breastplate. This piece of armour was so highly polished, that the whole surrounding scene had its image in the glittering steel.” The prose then goes on to detail the appearance of the town prayer-house, the whipping post, the pillory and stocks, and the Puritans themselves – haggard citizens, some of them missing chunks of ear or branded with iron. Clearly, there is a Dickensian influence here. Hawthorne does not deny this, either, but rather embraces it: “There happened to be visible,” he writes, “at the same noontide hour, so many other characteristics of the times and manners of the Puritans, that we must endeavour to represent them in a sketch, though far less vividly than they were reflected in the polished breastplate of John Endicott” (Hawthorne 543). The inclusion of the word sketch in the text both acknowledges an influence of “Sketches by Boz” and the story’s highly visual nature – almost like a work of art, the written sketch’s drawn counterpart. For as we have seen, “Endicott and the Red Cross” is extremely visual. Literally half the text is a solid description of setting, and much of the other half is dialogue. What else could one adapt “Endicott” to, other than film? When Hawthorne wrote his Twice-Told Tales, film didn’t exist as a medium; not even its still-life sibling, photography, existed in its modern form, but rather took the format of daguerreotype. It makes sense that the fiction writers of the 1830s would turn to detail in order to capture an image. Portraiture notwithstanding, there simply wasn’t any other way to capture the appearance of reality. But since the development of the film industry, as you know, times have changed: American culture has become an increasingly visual one. If one picture is worth a thousand words, as the proverb goes, then just think how much a continuously moving picture is worth – millions of dollars, in fact, as the national box-office numbers will attest. Film and video are perhaps the most visual, and thus solidly descriptive, media of all the arts. It is, if you will, the culmination of what the literary sketch tried to achieve in the mid-nineteenth century: a mirrored, if fictionalized, reflection of life. The movie musical, with its clichéd images of crowds dancing in the streets, seems to rebut this assertion. And yet, the genre is able to serve up some of life’s harshest realities: Hairspray deals largely with racism and the civil rights movement, while Across the Universe portrays the violence of Vietnam – both in the actual war and in protest of it – amid some thirty-odd Beatles covers. Sweeney Todd deals with murder and obsession. Rebellion and controversy seem to be key elements of the contemporary movie musical, and “Endicott” – although starring a cast of Puritans and set in the 1630s – has both in spades. In the final half of the story, after hearing that King Charles I wants to send over an English representative to govern them, Endicott gives a blistering diatribe against the monarch as a lead-in to slashing the flag. This works in Hawthorne’s original story due to the contrast of the sedate, descriptive narrative. In a modern film, however, some of Endicott’s dialogue (“[W]e have sacrificed all things, and have come to a land whereof the old world hath scarcely heard, that we might make a new world unto ourselves, and painfully seek a path from hence to Heaven”) would likely come off as loud, angry static. Ineffectual jabbering, to the modern viewer. But in putting his anger to music – specifically, a revamped but somewhat recognizable “Killer Queen,” rewritten as “Killer King” – Endicott’s state of mind is suddenly much more accessible. Music’s aurality has a way of evoking emotions in its listeners, and through the usage of song, Endicott’s fury at King Charles becomes relatable. He’s not just some stuffy religious theocrat of the seventeenth century, but an individual. He is an American. He is akin to you or I or the average viewer, just distanced by time.