I am shocked and embarrassed to see how much time has passed since I last posted here. Ah well, onwards and upwards, etc. etc. Not much has happened here at Gallimaufry Towers, although the sun has come out and spring has sprung, and in fact that’s no small occurrence really after the rainiest winter I can remember.
The cats have spent recent weeks being humiliated by a blackbird, who steals Mister Puss’s food (Mister Puss can only eat outside and only on the ground, not from a bowl) and dances about the garden in front of Clara, adroitly escaping her clumsy attempts at pouncing and then sitting on a chair and jeering at her. Clara has difficulty catching a leaf on the wind, let alone a sentient being with a desire to escape. It was with some surprise therefore that K, on hearing a commotion in the kitchen yesterday, found her with a magpie in her mouth. Somehow she had (a) caught it and (b) hauled it through the cat flap; she is a small cat and the bird was almost as big as her. Sadly for her, both K and the magpie disapproved of this. K opened the door and the magpie flew away, apparently unharmed. Clara didn’t seem overly troubled and went to toast herself before the gas fire for the next five hours.
Anyway, I have been reading and I have read the second of your choices for What Shall Helen Read?, The Witch of Edmonton. I have also spent an insanely long time writing and rewriting this post. This is such an interesting and odd and creepy play, which exposes the darker side of English everyday life, and I keep writing and rewriting and checking and cutting and then writing on... The result is probably very boring, so if you don’t make it to the end: go and see this play if you have the chance. Or read it yourself!
(Title page from the first printed edition of the play, 1658; found here)
The Witch of Edmonton was first performed in December 1621 and was written by (at least) three men: Thomas Dekker, an older playwright with particular interest in social concerns and in the plight of the oppressed; John Ford, whose earliest work this probably is, who became well known for his depiction of complex psychological states in plays like The Broken Heart and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and William Rowley, a clown and comic writer who, it would seem, wrote the scenes in this play involving the morris dancers. However, the play wasn’t printed until over thirty years later in 1658. Arthur F. Kinney, the editor of the New Mermaids edition, suspects this is because it dramatised a real witchcraft trial from that same year, 1621 (published as ‘The wonderfull discouerie of ELIZABETH SAWYER a Witch, late of Edmonton, her conuiction and condemnation and Death. Together with the relation of the Diuels accesse to her, and their conference together’, by Henry Goodcole), and this made people uncomfortable.
There are two plots, one invented, the other based on Elizabeth Sawyer’s case. In the first, Frank Thorney, a gentleman’s son, is serving in the household of Sir Arthur Clarington – it was common for the children of the gentry to enter into service in the household of someone of higher social status – when he gets the maid Winifred pregnant. He does the right thing by her and marries her, but enjoins her to secrecy because he knows his father won’t be pleased. He persuades Sir Arthur to settle some money on him, and also to write a letter to his pa Old Thorney stating that Frank has most definitely not married Winifred. Not at all. Then he sets off home. Sir Arthur then tries to convince Winifred to sleep with him once more – it seems that the baby may not be Frank’s after all – but Winifred says that she’s a married woman now and is going to behave herself. Meanwhile, in Edmonton, Frank pacifies his father, who is in a fury because he has indeed heard rumours of an unsuitable marriage, and agrees to marry Susan Carter, daughter of a rich yeoman, thus saving the family fortunes. What could possibly go wrong?
Elizabeth Sawyer lives, like the Thorneys and Carters, in Edmonton, but she occupies a very different social stratum: old, poor and unattractive, she is reviled as a witch and blamed for sick cattle, ailing babies and failing crops. She is abused and beaten by Old Banks for no reason other than that he thinks she’s a witch, and it’s made clear that this often happens to her. Alone and cursing, she is visited by Dog, an evil spirit who tempts her to give her soul to the Devil in exchange for revenge upon those who have treated her so cruelly. Since everyone believes she’s a witch anyway, Elizabeth reasons she has nothing to lose: and she’s willing to destroy herself if it brings her vengeance on those she hates. Unfortunately, it seems that the Devil’s powers are circumscribed and Dog can’t just kill Banks and others like him because he is ‘good’. He can, however, infect crops and livestock and drive Anne Ratcliffe, with whom Elizabeth has had a dispute over a pig, to insanity. How can this story not end happily?
(Title page of Henry Goodcole’s account of Elizabeth Sawyer’s trial and execution, found here)
Several things surprised me about this play. I had just assumed that it would be a grand old Jacobean revenge tragedy in the style of Webster, Chapman, Tourneur et al., but while it explores the corruption in society and the abuse of power, its tone is very different to the earlier plays with their clotted and dramatic imagery of decay, death and poison and their dramatic murders and sexual obsessions. Much of its register is quite plain. It is not concerned with the upper echelons of society – the fantastical dukes, kings and ladies – that the earlier plays interrogated, but the families of a gentleman and a yeoman, the middling sorts, people you might know. And the setting is a very recognisably English one, with nary a foreigner, a cardinal or a vial of poison in sight. Just morris dancers.
In this play, however, the powerful abuse the weak at all levels; Sir Arthur appears kindly but is using Frank and Winifred for his own ends and exploiting Winifred sexually; Old Thorney, obsessed with retaining the family fortune, bullies Frank over his marriage to Susan; everyone is horrible to Elizabeth, at the bottom of the social heap, and right up to the end of the play accuses her of crimes she didn’t commit (Old Carter is convinced that she bewitched Frank into murdering Susan presumably because he was always such a nice man). Preserving social status also means that Frank cannot admit to being married to Winifred and Cuddy Banks cannot reasonably expect to become Katherine Carter’s husband. Social status fixes people’s identities, to the advantage of the higher-class characters, especially Sir Arthur, but also Frank, whose behaviour is always given the best construction by the other characters. It works against Elizabeth, who becomes what her community believes she is, a spiteful witch twisted with hatred. The women – Elizabeth, Susan and Katherine – tend to see through appearances more readily than the men and in fact it’s Katherine and Winifred who bring Frank and Sir Arthur to justice.
Another element that I found unusual in this play was that the avenging outsider, usually a male in the other Jacobean tragedies, is an elderly female in The Witch of Edmonton. By selling her soul to the Devil, and unleashing her anger on the community who have cast her out, Elizabeth chooses no longer to remain a victim of her circumstances; this isn’t an endearing solution and she’s an abrasive and bitter character who tests our sympathy. Equally, Frank, her counterpart in the other plot, commits bigamy and murder because of his clandestine marriage; he has an active conscience – does this intensify or mitigate his crimes? – he repents – or says he does – and Arthur Kinney, who is rather more sympathetic to Frank than I am, thinks that his leaving the murder weapon in his pocket signals a subconscious wish to be caught. The character of Dog, who takes Elizabeth’s dark desires and carries them out, and who touches Frank to incite him during the murder scene, further complicates our response to these two characters. How much agency do they really have?
(Jay Simpson as Dog and Eileen Atkins as Elizabeth Sawyer in a 2014 RSC production of The Witch of Edmonton at the Swan, Stratford; found here)
And then there are those morris dancers. Revenge tragedies often have some sort of masque or dance, perhaps performed by lunatics. Morris dancers, according to Arthur Kinney, were associated with misrule and mayhem in the seventeenth century. In The Witch of Edmonton they appear three times, discussing the casting and props for their performance and cracking silly jokes. In themselves, they seem harmless, but they first enter in response to Elizabeth’s curses and demands for a ‘Familiar’, and their presence always presages Dog, the Devil’s spirit. During their second scene, they decide to include a witch in their dance. One of their members, Cuddy Banks, is slightly involved with Dog; Cuddy is innocent but not entirely innocent and he is lucky that Dog considers him not worth the trouble of corrupting. The morris men’s third and final appearance is at Sir Arthur’s house, where they are to perform: Dog bewitches the fiddle so that it will only play in his hands (paws?) and the dance – and what might a morris dance featuring someone dressed as a witch and with music by the Devil be like? – is interrupted by news of Susan’s murder. The dance thus shows a comforting aspect of rural tradition being torn apart by demonic chaos and could, depending on the production and the choices of the director, reflect back Elizabeth’s story in a different register, like a window onto another reality within the play.
The two last scenes of the play are deeply uncomfortable and exemplify its subtlety. First Sir Arthur receives his punishment, a fine, which neither the Justice nor Old Carter considers remotely adequate for his crimes. Elizabeth is brought onstage before her execution, only for Old Carter to blame her for Frank’s murdering Susan. Even at this late stage she is being accused of crimes she did not commit. Elizabeth is one minute furious and wishing death on all of them, the next repenting, the next resigned to her death. The men around her press her to confess again and again; she denies responsibility for Ann Ratcliffe’s death so they accuse her of bewitching Gammer Washbowl’s sow (!); old prejudices are being rehashed. In contrast, Frank, who enters after she has been led off, is surrounded by grieving well-wishers, including Susan’s father, who weeps for him, and the two men he tried to frame for murder, who are also moved by his noble speeches and self-condemnation. (But talk has been shown to be empty in this play.) Winifred considers her original ‘fault’ of extramarital sex to have been wiped out by her subsequent clandestine marriage. Katherine, still in shock at her sister’s murder, no longer wants to be married but it seems that her father, who has learnt nothing, will compel her. We’re denied both a hero and any sense of catharsis, left instead with the feeling that while the community has been purged of its principal wrongdoers, it hasn’t really solved its fundamental problems or achieved true justice. And Dog is free to travel on to London, where he has plans...
Join friends in sorrow; make of all the best.
Harms past may be lamented; not redressed.