Witches. My favorite moment from the first read through was when I eagerly asked Isabel Smith-Bernstein (dramaturg, adaptor extraordinaire, and blog author) if one of my characters, Mistress Hibbins, was really a witch, and she replied, “Well, do you believe in witchcraft?”
Perfect response! No, I don’t believe in witchcraft, but I am so steeped in the contemporary climate of “American Horror Story: Coven,” that my first thought was, “I’M A WITCH!” It may also have had something to do with the fact that I’d just played one of the witches in a performance of “Macbeth” 24 hours prior to the read-through. The dark arts were definitely on my brain, and I appreciated Isabel bringing me down to witch-free earth.
I should have asked more precisely: Did Hawthorne intend for his readers to believe that Mistress Hibbins is a witch in the fictional world of his story? Turns out Hawthorne was an apologist for his Salem ancestors who DID have a lot of alleged witch blood on their hands.
He even added the “w” to his name to distance himself from his witch-slaying forefathers, the Hathornes.
Mistress Hibbins is actually based on a real historical figure, Ann Hibbins, who was executed for witchcraft in 1656. Based on my extensive research (one short Wikipedia article), it’s clear that she was killed for no good reason whatsoever. She had opinions. And she fatally forgot that, as a woman in mid 17th century Salem, that was an unpardonable offense. Again, on the basis of my extensive (near nonexistent) research, this makes me want to play her as straight and nice and sweet as she can be. Nathaniel didn’t write her this way. In “The Scarlet Letter,” Hibbins actively tries to entice Hester into the woods to engage in evilfuntimes.
So why did apologist Hawthorne paint her with such a witchy brush? I understand that he wrote her to represent a category that was entrenched in Hester’s cultural reality, and he did so with good reason. By including a representative of that deviant category and keeping Hester separate even from her, it makes Hester seem all the more outcast and alone. So it serves a purpose to fictionalize Hibbins in this way, BUT STILL: Having done the aforementioned research and knowing that the real Ann Hibbins was just a woman who forgot that she was dirt, it makes me want to portray Mistress Hibbins like this: “Hi, Hester! I brought you a casserole. Hey, let’s take your A off and sit and chat awhile? OH MY GOD–”God” because I’m not a witch–IS THAT YOUR DAUGHTER??! She is adorable! Hey, wanna start a book club? I just read a great book called This Town Is Full of Jerks.You’d love it!!” And on and on forever.
Obviously I’m not going to play her that way. I’ll play her just as the text and director guide me. I’ll force the improviser in me to go on holiday, and the would-be Broadway smash “Hester and Hibbins Paint the Jerktown Red” will have to wait and be explored at a later date. (Stay tuned!)