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ABOUT THE WITCH OF EDMONTON
In this adaptation of the original Jacobean play, this classic rips open the dark underbelly of a small town with humor and pathos. As the lives of its inhabitants–a witch, a fool, a young man, his two wives, an angry mob, and one very devilish dog–intersect in spellbinding ways, the power of a community for both good and evil is revealed.
We want to engage you and our entire community with something stimulating and of genuine value. We’re not promising a finished performance, but rather a unique way to experience The Witch of Edmonton. We’re thrilled to reunite some of the company of artists that brought this play to life with our 2011 Off-Broadway production for this livestream benefit occasion.
This unrehearsed reading will feature Craig Baldwin, Justin Blanchard, Carson Elrod, Christopher Innvar, Carman Lacivita, David Manis, Christopher McCann, Amanda Quaid, Everett Quinton, Antoinette Robinson, Miriam Silverman, Derek Smith, Raphael Nash Thompson, Sam Tsoutsouvas, and Charlayne Woodard. Each will zoom in from wherever they are practicing social distancing. The reading will feature music by Daniel Levyperformed by David Wallace, composed for the original production directed by Jesse Berger. For information about the complete team 2011 Off-Broadway production, visit here.
All of us at Red Bull Theater hope you and yours are safe, healthy, and staying as sane as possible during this difficult time.
Red Bull Theater wishes to express its gratitude to the Performers’ Unions: ACTORS’ EQUITY ASSOCIATION, AMERICAN GUILD OF MUSICAL ARTISTS, AMERICAN GUILD OF VARIETY ARTISTS, and SAG-AFTRA through Theatre Authority, Inc. for their cooperation in permitting the Artists to appear in this program.
ABOUT THE PLAY
Two main actions animate The Witch of Edmonton. In one plot, an old woman, Mother Sawyer, grows angry with her neighbors for their mistreatment of her. As she curses them, the devil appears to her in the form of a talking dog. Sawyer enters into a pact with the dog: he will do her bidding (including getting revenge on her neighbors) if she will let him suck her blood and sign away her soul to the devil. Much of the rest of the play shows us the consequences of this pact for Sawyer and for the community of which she is a part. A second plot involves a young named Frank Thorney who secretly marries Winifred, who, unbeknownst to him, has had sex with her former master, Sir Arthur Clarington, and is pregnant with a child of uncertain parentage. As if this were not complicated enough, Frank’s father, who has suffered financial reversals, wants Frank to marry Susan Carter, the daughter of a rich yeoman, so that he can repair his fortunes. Intimidated by his father, Frank does marry Susan, but immediately abandons her to run away with his first wife, Winifred, disguised as his page. This plan ends badly after Frank is also “brushed” by the devil dog.
What links the two plots is a concern with the pressures faced by people not protected by money or rank from the effects of poverty, isolation, and the whims of the powerful. In the small town of Edmonton, Mother Sawyer is poor and friendless and vulnerable. Her neighbors resent her gathering sticks on their property, curse at her, and blame her for whatever goes wrong in their households. She lashes back verbally, and her cursing opens the door to Tom, the devil dog, who ensnares her soul while offering her companionship, a degree of agency, and a focus for her sexual and maternal needs. Frank and Winifred are also in difficult situations. As a maid in the house of Sir Arthur Clarington, Winifred is an easy target for his sexual advances; and Frank, as a dutiful son, feels pressure to obey his father and avert his financial ruin. In doing so, however, he becomes a bigamist. In both plots the question arises: who bears the blame for the evil that overtakes the town of Edmonton? To what extent are Frank and Mother Sawyer the sole guilty parties, and to what extent does the community, including important people like Sir Arthur, bear responsibility for all that goes wrong?
In exploring these issues, The Witch of Edmonton, despite containing fantastical elements like a talking devil dog, is unusually realistic about the realities of small town life. It is one of a handful of early modern plays classified as domestic tragedies, that is, plays where the protagonists are not elite members of society but ordinary men and women, and where the tragedy involves crimes of the household or neighborhood such as infanticide, adultery, bigamy, witchcraft, or the murder of a spouse. Often, early modern domestic tragedies are based on actual historical events, and this is true for The Witch of Edmonton. Elizabeth Sawyer was an historical woman condemned to death for witchcraft in 1621, and her story circulated in a pamphlet entitled The Wonderful Discovery of Elizabeth Sawyer written by the minister, Henry Goodcole, who attended Sawyer during her trial and execution and who supposedly elicited a confession from her. Though the play changes and embellishes her story, it nonetheless follows closely the outlines of the Goodcole pamphlet.
The play, then, first put on the stage in 1621, soon after the events recorded by Goodcole, capitalized on a recent crime story. That partially explains the fact that it was written by at least three playwrights: William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford, who together rushed the play onto the stage while interest in the story was high. Collaborative authorship was not unusual in the period. Many playwrights wrote plays with others, including Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. Sometimes each dramatist was responsible for a particular plot or for a certain group of scenes. For example, scholars assume that Thomas Dekker, known for his realistic depictions of lower class life, probably wrote most of the Mother Sawyer scenes; William Rowley, an actor-playwright who specialized in clown roles, likely contributed most of the Young Cuddy Banks storyline, while it is most likely that John Ford (later the author of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore) was responsible for the Thorney plot.
Collaborative authorship, however, did not mean a play was second rate. The Witch of Edmonton is one of the gems of the Jacobean dramatic canon. A number of plays of the period deal with witchcraft from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) and Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (1613) to Brome and Heywood’s The Late Lancashire Witches (1634). The Witch of Edmonton is striking for dealing with the quotidian life of a small town and the actual social circumstances in which people, mostly women, were accused by their neighbors of using witchcraft to bring harm to a community. Though witchcraft prosecutions in England were less ferocious than on the Continent or in Scotland, nonetheless, many people suffered and died during witchcraft frenzies. Modern scholarship emphasizes the vulnerable social position of those so accused and how vulnerability leads to scapegoating, a phenomenon that continues today in the high school hazing of gay students or in violence against immigrants. Neither Frank Thorney nor Elizabeth Sawyer, however, is presented as a blameless victim. The Witch of Edmonton is distinctive for the complexity with which it addresses issues of crime, victimization, and individual and communal responsibility for harm done to others. Written four centuries ago, it is nonetheless very much a play for our time.
George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities and Chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature,
Frank Thorney, a young gentleman, secretly marries his pregnant girlfriend, the servant girl Winifred. Under pressure from his father’s impending financial ruin, Frank also marries Susan, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, Old Carter, whose dowry can save his father’s lands. Later, Frank also marries Susan, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, Old Carter, in order to use her dowry to save his father’s lands. Although Susan has another suitor who wishes to marry her, the gentleman Somerton, she chooses to marry Frank instead. Susan has chosen Frank over Somerton, another gentleman who wanted to marry her.
When Elizabeth Sawyer, a poor old woman tormented by her neighbor Old Banks, is accused of being a witch, she exacts revenge on her enemies by making a deal with the Devil, who appears in the form of a black dog. Old Banks’ son, the love-struck fool Cuddy Banks, asks Sawyer for a spell to make Katherine, Susan’s sister, fall in love with him. Sawyer tells Cuddy that the dog will lead him to Katherine, but the tricky dog lures him into a pond where Cuddy almost drowns.
Frank tries to abandon Susan in order to return to his true love, Winifred. After an encounter with the dog, he murders her instead, and wounds himself so that it appears he was attacked by the jealous Somerton.
After misfortune ripples throughout Edmonton, her neighbors accuse Sawyer for the unfortunate incidents that befall them, and they demand that she be killed. Katherine discovers that Frank murdered Susan, and Winifred reveals that she is his real wife. In the end, Frank is hung for his crime, and Sawyer is burned as a witch.