This Monday, May 4, we're reuniting members of the company of artists that brought The Witch of Edmonton to life with our 2011 Off-Broadway production for a livestream benefit occasion. We hope you will tune in for what promises to be a fun and rare opportunity to hear this delicious, decadently dangerous play. Below is Jean Howard's program note for our production.
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.
Professor Jean Howard is the George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She began teaching at Syracuse in 1975, where she received the first University-wide Wasserstrom Prize for excellence as teacher and mentor of graduate students; she has also received Guggenheim, NEH, Mellon, Folger, Huntington, and Newberry Library Fellowships. In 2010 she gave the Columbia University Schoff Memorial Lectures on 'Staging History: Imagining the Nation' on playwrights William Shakespeare, Tony Kushner, and Caryl Churchill. Her teaching interests include Shakespeare, Tudor and Stuart drama, Early Modern poetry, modern drama, feminist and Marxist theory, and the history of feminism. Prof. Howard is on the editorial board of Shakespeare Studies and Renaissance Drama. She has published essays on Shakespeare, Pope, Ford, Heywood, Dekker, Marston, and Jonson, as well as on aspects of contemporary critical theory including new historicism, Marxism, and issues in feminism. Her books include Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration (1984); Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited with Marion O'Connor (1987); The Stage and Struggle in Early Modern England (1994); with Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories (1997); Marxist Shakespeares, edited with Scott Shershow (2000); and four generically organized Companions to Shakespeare, edited with Richard Dutton (2001). She is a co-editor of The Norton Shakespeare (2nd ed. 2007) and General Editor of the Bedford Contextual Editions of Shakespeare. A recent book, Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy 1598-1642 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), won the Barnard Hewitt award for Outstanding Theater History for 2008. She has just published, with Crystal Bartolovich, a monograph on Shakespeare and Marx in the Great Shakespeareans series for Continuum Press (2012) and is currently completing a book entitled Staging History that uses Shakespeare's history plays as a starting point for considering Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill's use of history in framing debates about current political issues. A book on early modern tragedy is in the works. From 1996 to 1999 Professor Howard directed the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia; in 1999-2000 she was President of the Shakespeare Association of America; from 2004-2007 she served as Columbia's first Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives; and from 2008-2011 she was Chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature. Currently, as a Trustee Emerita of Brown University, she chairs the Brown University President's Diversity Advisory Council and serves on the Advisory Board of the Pembroke Center; she is also a Senator of Phi Beta Kappa. | B.A. Brown (1970); M.Phil., University of London (Marshall Fellow 1972); Ph.D., Yale (Danforth Fellow 1975).