The Witch of Edmonton: On the Merits of Preserving Jacobean Dramas

Posted: June 14, 2010 in Braak, reviews, theater, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

(cross-posted at my workblog for Iron Age Theatre’s SOE division)

Just saw REV Theater Company’s The Witch of Edmonton over the weekend; I’m not going to say much about the quality of the production, as the play isn’t running anymore, so who cares?  It wasn’t the best design, direction, or acting that I’ve ever seen, but I doubt that, even if it were, such elements could have salvaged the play itself.

The dramaturg for this play left extensive notes in the program, gently beginning the process of interpretation.  She (?  I actually can’t remember the person’s name, and have lost the program, so we’ll have to rely on my memory here) says that during the combined reign of the Tudors and the Stuarts, more than 2500 plays were written and produced.  She does not address this question:  how many of them are actually worth doing?

The whole thing is problematic, actually.  The combined reign of the Tudors and the Stuarts was more than two hundred years, even if you don’t count the Interregnum; and, considering that in Olde Timey Dayes, your two options for entertainment were:  1) the theater or 2) bear-baiting, a hundred and thirty plays a year doesn’t actually seem like altogether that much.

Comparatively, anyway.  Objectively, 2500 is a lot of plays, and isn’t it weird that you’ve gone through your life having heard of, maybe, thirty of them?

Here is what The Witch of Edmonton is about:  there is a crazy old woman that everyone is mean to.  She makes a pact with the devil, who appears as a dog (in this case, a nearly-naked man, painted black, who menaces other characters with a huge pink strap-on).  The devil does horrible things to the town, and eventually the witch is hanged.

Actually, the devil doesn’t do THAT many horrible thing, at least not onstage.  He tricks some guy into almost kissing him, gets a bigamist to murder one of his two wives, and drives another woman crazy over her butter-churning.  Everything else happens offstage.  This was the biggest disappointment, actually:  I was advised that this was going to be a crazy blood-murder-suicide-sex-orgy of sin, but a full third of the play is people talking about their dowries.

Anyway, the basic problem with the play is that, compared to all of those other stories we see that expose Puritan culture as being a culture of hypocritical, paranoid religious fanatics, in this case they’re actually pretty on target.  The woman made an actual pact with the devil, and the Puritans were right to hang her.  It’s not even a devil like Stephen King’s devil in Needful Things; remember that guy?  How he never actually made anyone do anything, he just made giving into their temptations and horrible urges seem slightly more appealing, and then the town destroyed itself?

It’s an actual devil, who actually makes crops rot and drives women insane over butter, so the lesson here is, what, exactly?  Better to hang crazy old ladies at once, rather than risk them becoming witches?  Even if there’s some subtle message about, “be careful about being mean to insane old ladies that lurk in barnyards”, it’s overwhelmed by, “ZOMG, LOOK!  The devil!”

Which brings me to my point, which is not that this isn’t a good play — though it isn’t — but that MOST of the 2500 plays from the combined reigns of the Tudors and the Stuarts just aren’t very good.  It’s tempting to imagine that such a number of plays must be the result of some enthusiasm for good theater that Elizabethan-Jacobean-Restoration Englishmen enjoyed, but that’s not really it; as at EVERY POINT IN HISTORY the English enthusiasm for theater was limited to “more,” not “better.”  Sturgeon’s Law still applies, 90% of the plays from the era are shit.

Most of the theater was pop-pablum, voyeuristic penny-dreadful murder-stories, or heavy-handed and, frankly, stupid morality tales.  Shakespeare’s persistent relevance to the modern era is a fluke, and it’s why there’s a Folger Shakespeare Library, and a million Shakespeare Festivals, and a hideous bust of Shakespeare in Stratford-On-Avon, but no one goes to school to study the dramatic achievements of Ford, Dekker, and Rowley.

You can try and make those plays relevant, of course; REV doesn’t do a very good job with this one.  I understand the second act was heavily re-worked, but it looked pretty in keeping with the first act, if you ask me; the only appreciable differences I saw were some clunky interpolations from Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” some mis-quotes from Leviticus, and the devil singing some modern music while he slaps his ass.  Oh, also:  apparently the play was moved forward in time from its point of authorship (1621) to the end of the Commonwealth (1660, I think it said which….actually, wait, that would have made it during the Restoration.  It must have been 1650, or something).

That last part is the perfect example of the pointlessness of this sort of aimless tinkering.  Obviously, the play was written in 1621, so there is NOTHING AT ALL IN IT about the Commonwealth or the English Civil War, or the oppressive religious tyranny of the Cromwells, because those things hadn’t happened yet.  Consequent to this, the only noticeable changes in the play are that they change all the references to “the King” to references to “the Lord Protector.”  (There’s about six of these, I think.)  The point is:  despite having forcibly relocated the story forty years into the future, there’s nothing in the script that supports it.  There’s nothing in there about the Commonwealth.  There’s nothing in the script (as the dramaturg insists there is) about the cosmic significance of the violation of the Great Chain of Being, because why would there be?  It’s a stupid, heavy-handed potboiler, culled from the confessions of criminals at Newgate, and served up to titillate a superstitious, illiterate audience; it’s not going to treat with anything intelligently.

All of which boils down to, what the hell is the point of doing a play like this?  If you want to talk about Puritan hypocrisy, why not do The Crucible, or an adaptation of the Scarlet Letter?  If you want to do a play about feminism seen through the lens of 17th century attitudes towards witchcraft, why wouldn’t you just do Vinegar Tom?

Why wouldn’t you just write your own play?

Look:  there are two basic reasons to do an olde-timey play instead of just making a new one.  The first is because it’s really good.  This reason applies to something like ten percent of extant plays (again, Sturgeon’s Law).  The second is because the play carries with it a set of associations that you either want to reinforce, or to establish a complex ironic relationship with.   In fact, The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter are both excoriations of the hypocrisy of the eras they were written in — they come with a built-in juxtaposition between the elements of their setting and their thematic elements.

If you’re going to just transplant 17th century moral reasoning into the modern era, the response you’re going to get from your audience is, “But…but witches DIDN’T make pacts with the devil.  That whole thing was a socio-religious pressure designed to ostracize and marginalize single women!”  Which is something that we knew already.

Conclusion:  there is no reason for anyone to have done this play.

  1. Moff says:

    That’s easy to say if you’ve never seen your grandma make a pact with the devil and be subsequently hanged for it.

  2. braak says:

    Motherfucker, you don’t know me. My grandmother deserved that hanging.

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