“The Scarlet Professor” remembers Smith’s past

Cassie Follman ‘20
Assistant News Editor

The Five College Opera performed “The Scarlet Professor” last Saturday. The opera tells the true story of renowned Smith English professor and literary critic Newton Arvin, who was “arrested and disgraced for possessing gay magazines and materials,” the opera’s website said. The opera premiered at the Mendenhall Center for the Arts at Smith. 

At the time of his arrest in 1960, the professor worked at Smith College. His arrest was the result of U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield and Sergeant John Regan of the Massachusetts State Police’s campaign to humiliate and destroy the lives of those who were in the closet. 

Throughout the trials and struggles Arvin faces, he identifies with “The Scarlet Letter.” Written by Nathanial Hawthorne, the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne, a young woman who engages in an affair with the minister, has a daughter and is then ostracized and vilified by the residents of her small New England town. 

Arvin’s story has been recorded before, through Barry Werth’s critically-acclaimed biography. Werth wrote in The New Yorker that Arvin, “remained tormented by his sexuality, and he tried to kill himself [three] times.” Werth also wrote that Arvin’s work on Hawthorne, “made Arvin’s reputation as a critic and biographer.” During this era, there was a “purity binge in the United States,” which took shape in the social conservative movement. Arvin, as well as a few of his colleagues at Smith, was just one of the victims of this binge. 

The majority of the opera focuses on the cataclysmic events that follow Arvin’s arrest, but the main setting is Arvin’s mind, where he seeks solace from a world that does not accept him. The Daily Hampshire Gazette wrote that the opera, “builds a narrative told partly in flashback, partly in the present and partly in Arvin’s head – all in an effort to illuminate a complicated character and the wider issue of intolerance.”

While the opera details a horrific story, the music, scored by Eric Sawyer, a professor at Amherst College, attempts to bring a lightness to Arvin’s story as he attempts to accept himself. Hints of blues, rock and even show-tunes are used throughout the opera. 

Humor is another integral part of the opera, and even though the seriousness of the subject matter is never forgotten, the opera is not written to be a tragedy from beginning to end. 

The events that occurred in Northampton 60 years ago may have forever damaged the lives of Arvin and his fellow professors, but it ended with a historic vote in court that overturned the convictions in 1963. Despite this reprieve, Arvin died only a few years after his arrest and spent much of his final years in the former Northampton State Hospital, where he checked in for suicidal depression. 

Director Ronald Bashford told The Sophian via email what it was like to host this opera on the campus of the original events. 

“I think the significant of new art that is rooted in a community’s history is self-evident to those who encounter it — it brings the art closer to the audience,” Bashford said. “There are still people alive who knew the real people on whom the opera’s characters are based.” 

“And at Smith, of course, the community is still grappling with issue of free speech, state authority, and inclusion,” Bashford continued. “It was important to me, therefore, that the acting be especially good — and that the scenes among the principal characters be as realistic as possible within an opera context.  I also wanted to make sure that the chorus — which represents community opinion — seem like real people, too.

“The Scarlet Professor” gives life to a historic event in Smith College’s past and is especially potent in the today’s political climate.