Notes on the new opera workshop of SISTER CARRIE: by Herschel Garfein

From the Librettist

Notes on Sister Carrie

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) is the great American novel about social status – how it is bestowed, how it must be maintained, and how it can be withdrawn. In its protagonist, Caroline Meeber, Dreiser captured a powerful American archetype, the young person turning her back on where she has come from and who she has been, who continually and almost reflexively strives for ever-higher standing in the world. The currently fashionable term for this is “reinventing oneself” – but it is commonly applied to superficial manipulations of public image by pop stars or politicians. In the United States of the 1890’s, when Sister Carrie is set, “reinventing oneself” was an economic necessity, and a social good. The 1890’s were an unparalleled boom time for American industry and for American cities (Edison set up his first power station in lower Manhattan in 1881). The burgeoning economy required an entirely new workforce. Whole generations of men and women had to reinvent themselves as factory workers, as city dwellers; to move from place to place seeking economic opportunity; to discover their skills and to claim as high a place on the social ladder as they could. In all of this, Carrie succeeds notably. She begins as a lowly factory worker in Chicago, and eventually she carves out a place for herself as a singing star on Broadway. Meanwhile her lover Hurstwood follows a nearly opposite trajectory. He is a man of provisional social standing (manager of a successful Chicago restaurant) who at first displays to Carrie and to the world all the signs of unassailable social status: he is impeccably well-dressed, socially easy, self-assured, a man’s man. But his self-destructive desire for Carrie leads him to throw away all his former life – to leave his wife, to steal from his firm, to lure Carrie away from Chicago under false pretenses – and thereby, to completely unmoor himself from the world around him, with disastrous consequences. He ends up among the homeless of New York City, and eventually kills himself in a flophouse. (Charles Drouet, the affable salesman who becomes Carrie’s first lover –and who forms the third side of this story’s socio-sexual triangle – neither rises nor falls but uses his energies to stay in place socially).

The drama of Sister Carrie has particular relevance for our own times, when the division between the haves and the have-nots of the country has come to seem particularly stark, and when traditional American mores governing the meanings and the purposes of wealth have largely eroded. It furnishes a dramatic vision of the economic imperative (and its less reputable cognate, the status imperative) at work throughout every segment of American society. And it offers a moving, at times harrowing, confrontation between two dark, unknowable forces: the force of desire and the force of survival.


Act I

Act I Scene 2. Chicago, 1898. Carrie Meeber, a poor girl from a small town in Wisconsin (Waukesha), finds employment in a shoe factory. One day, a salesman of industrial machinery, Charles Drouet, makes a presentation of a new product to the factory owner on the shop floor. Attracted to Carrie, Drouet has her participate in his presentation and inadvertently humiliates her.

Act I Scene 3.  Drouet waits for Carrie outside the factory, introduces himself and flirtatiously tries to get her to slap him for his treatment of her in the factory. She warms to him, and reveals that her dream is to one day become a professional singer. In a series of scenes that compress time, their courtship is dramatized: he takes her to an upper-middle class restaurant, buys her clothes, arranges to meet her again. Throughout, he earnestly convinces her to take money from him. Finally, she agrees to leave her sister’s house where she is boarding and to live in a small private apartment he will rent for her, where, as he says, “I won’t bother you – unless you want me to.” Her sister, Minnie, receives the news in a letter; she and her husband react in quiet dismay.

Act I Scene 4.  Everything is Paid For. Sometime later, Carrie reflects on her new life as Drouet’s mistress –its benefits and obligations.

Act I Scene 5. The grand Chicago restaurant of Fitzgerald and Moy (in those days called a ‘resort’) is humming with activity.  Platoons of waiters prepare for the evening service, directed by an officious Maître d’, and coolly observed by the manager, George Hurstwood. Hurstwood motivates them by declaring that actors from a prestigious Chicago theater are expected to dine there after their performance. The waiters respond with salvos of masculine enthusiasm as they deploy tables, cutlery, napkins, candles and cocktail glasses. Time slips forward to ten o’clock and the actors arrive. Also stopping in for dinner are Drouet and Carrie. Hurstwood greets his acquaintance Drouet, acknowledges Carrie and then welcomes the actors with an effusive aria. As it ends, Drouet introduces Carrie to him and promotes her as an aspiring actress. In the presence of the other actors, Hurstwood suggests a series of stock characters to Carrie and she publicly improvises each suggested character with aplomb, charming the crowd.  The crowd joins her in song.

Act I Scene 6. A series of scenes in which time is compressed, alternating between Hurstwood’s home and the apartment where Drouet has installed Carrie. At breakfast, Hurstwood’s children leave for school and his wife, Julia, tries to engage him in household matters; he remains aloof. As soon as possible, he leaves, saying he will be home late. Hurstwood goes to Carrie and vows that he must see more of her. He tries to force her to define her relationship with Drouet, then he openly confesses that he doesn’t love his wife. Carrie is both attracted and perturbed by his ardor. She tells him to leave, but agrees to see him again. Back at his house Hurstwood and Julia have a tense little scene one night. She brushes her hair, studying him while he remains uncommunicative. He meets Carrie in a park and professes his love to her. He asks if “one day” he were to come to her and ask her to change her whole life for him, would she do it? She passionately answers, yes. Back at home, tension and ill will increase in Hurstwood’s family. His son George Jr. pointedly mentions that he has seen his father at the theater without his mother; his daughter Jessica makes petulant demands for a trip abroad; Julia herself takes up and seconds her children’s complaints.

Finally, Hurstwood breaks away, but when he arrives at his restaurant to lock up for the night, he is confronted by a man who serves him papers in Julia’s name. She will be suing for divorce on grounds of adultery, unless he appears the next day at her lawyers’ offices to negotiate a settlement.

He tries to dismiss this unwelcome news and to go on with locking up. He clings to a vision of Carrie as the only good thing in his life. When he gets to the restaurant’s safe, in which the week’s cash receipts are kept, he notices the door of the safe has been left slightly ajar. Seeing the money as the answer to all his problems, he steals it.

Act I Scene 7.  In the middle of that same night, Hurstwood arrives in a carriage at Carrie’s apartment with an urgent report that Charlie Drouet has been injured, and that she should accompany him to the hospital on the outskirts of Chicago. He says the train will be fastest. Panicked, Carrie comes along. However, once on the train, and seeing it leave the limits of Chicago, Carrie discovers his ruse and is furious. He begs her to understand him, telling her that the day has come on which they can utterly change their lives, but she rebukes him savagely for lying to her, and threatens to tell the conductor and get off the train. Hurstwood can only repeat that there’s no going back for him. Carrie refuses to speak to him, and they sit in silence on the train bound for New York.

End of Act I.

Act II (selected scenes)

Act II scene 3. In New York City, Hurstwood and Carrie live as if they are married.  He becomes curiously inert: he can’t find a job because nothing satisfies him as much as his old position at Fitzgerald and Moy.  (Under pressure from private detectives who track him to New York, he secretly gives back most of the embezzled money and tries to coax Carrie into living more frugally in order to compensate.)  Meanwhile Carrie has been meeting with some success in the theater. She has been hired as a chorus girl in “The Wives of Abdul”, a sentimental operetta. One day in rehearsal, she ad-libs a line that makes the director laugh, and he promotes her to a small solo part. Hurstwood continues to decline; now he rarely leaves their apartment, sitting in his shabby bathrobe, inventing stories of job opportunities he has nearly gotten, and still treating himself to occasional small luxuries out of Carrie’s meager wages.

Act II Scene 5. Finally, Hurstwood has become a shut-in. He sits disheveled in their apartment all day, putting on a show of scanning the newspaper for jobs while Carrie is there. But as soon as she leaves, he enters a fantasy world centered on his memories of being a manager at Fitzgerald and Moy (I’m at Home in the World.)

Act II Scene 7. Carrie suddenly moves out one day, leaving Hurstwood and becoming roommates with her actress friend Lola. She is ever more successful as a singer in operettas. Hurstwood wanders the streets, drifting between flophouses, doing odd jobs, parceling out the money that remains to him. He maintains his delusion that he is waiting to find a job that suits his talents. During this period, he continually returns to stare at a theater poster of Carrie (who has now taken the stage name Carrie Madenda), which he finds downtown.  Meanwhile, Carrie and Lola delight in the attention they receive from their many gentleman fans, who ardently send “mash notes” backstage to them.

Act II Scene 8. In Times Square, homeless men line up, trying to find a bed and a hot meal for the night. Taking charge of them is the Captain, a grizzled Civil War veteran who pleads to the well-heeled passersby on their behalf. The Captain’s harangues to the crowd invoke the names of the great Civil War battles of Antietam and Shiloh. Whenever a passerby gives him a few coins he directs the man at the head of the line towards a flophouse for the night. Hurstwood watches this scene from afar for a few minutes, then silently joins the line.


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