“Such was the darkness of that day . . . that we walked in the clouds, and could not see our way.” So wrote the Rev. John Hale, looking back ruefully on his involvement in the Salem witch trials — the outbreak of paranoia and legal proceeding that began in Salem, Mass., in early 1692 and led to the execution, principally by hanging, of 20 men and women.
A playwright’s job is, in a sense, to pierce the clouds that obscure human motive and behavior. It may not be surprising, then, that dramatists have repeatedly mined the Salem panic, which caused the imprisonment of as many as 150 people, according to one count. Instigated by girls and young women who claimed to be suffering torments inflicted by witchcraft, the crisis famously found its way to the stage in Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama “The Crucible” (which featured Hale as a character). But examples of similarly themed scripts stretch at least as far back as Cornelius Mathews’s 1846 blank verse hit “Witchcraft, or the Martyrs of Salem.”
What does seem surprising is the striking uptick in Salem-themed dramas in the past year or so. For instance, the Coterie, a theater in Kansas City, Mo., recently hosted the world premiere run of “Afflicted: Daughters of Salem,” Laurie Brooks’s play for young audiences.
Last summer, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, in Shepherdstown, W.Va., launched Liz Duffy Adams’s “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World,” set in 1702 and featuring older-if-not-wiser versions of Abigail Williams and Mercy Lewis, two of the young Salem accusers. The 2013 Capital Fringe Festival welcomed the Wandering Theatre Company’s “The Afflicted,” about a modern writer looking back at the tragedy.
Last fall, the Flea, an off-off-Broadway theater, featured Adriano Shaplin’s “Sarah Flood in Salem Mass,” about an emissary from the future traveling back to Puritan New England. Going back further, “Abigail/1702”— by the Washington-raised Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (TV’s “Glee,” etc.) — premiered in January 2013 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
And then there’s an upcoming new TV series “Salem,” co-created by Adam Simon, a sometime collaborator with Tim Robbins’s theater troupe, the Actors’ Gang. The horror-and-romance-inflected show kicks off on the WGN America cable channel on April 20.
All in all, that’s a lot of new storytelling about a 17th-century tragedy featuring women who answered to “Goody.”
Of course, dramatists are not the only ones to have explored the witch trials. Scholars have looked into the episode, too, and have advanced various explanatory theories. One line of thought attributes the accusers’ visions and fits to ergot poisoning (caused by a grain fungus). Other hypotheses have pointed to adolescent hysteria, deep-rooted socioeconomic tensions, encephalitis, and the effects of the Second Indian War.
But the scholarship hasn’t prevented playwrights from filling the story with their own meanings. Miller, of course, saw a parallel between Salem and the atmosphere of hysterical anti-communism in the McCarthy era.
The artists involved in the new dramas see broader resonances in the story.
“It’s such an important story — and what we have dramatically is Arthur Miller’s play, which does a lot of work to make it about the Red Scare,” Shaplin complains. “That’s fine for 1953; but I don’t want to only understand Salem in terms of America in 1950! I want to investigate this story new and fresh!”
Adams tends to agree. “Maybe enough time has passed” and the Salem narrative is “fair game again,” she says.
Fair game, for a number of the writers, means viewing the event through a more feminist lens. As Shaplin puts it, the Salem witch trials involved “young women who seized control of a community, who had power, who exercised the power,” at a time when many women were relatively powerless.
Shaplin and others have issues with the portrait of women in “The Crucible,” which imagined that Abigail Williams acted out of jealousy and desire for revenge, following her brief sexual liaison with farmer John Proctor.
“Miller explained [the crisis] as being rooted in hysterical sexual jealousy, which is a pretty standard mid-century misogynistic take,” says Adams. “Of course, he just made that up, for dramaturgical purposes — which he had every right to do, and it made a good story, but it has nothing to do with the historical facts.”
Even as he introduced a spurned-woman motif, Miller focused on Proctor’s experience, including his battle of wills with male authorities. (Proctor was eventually hanged for witchcraft.) “The Crucible” more or less became a male story.
Contemporary playwrights seem more interested in exploring the accusers’perspective on the tale — understanding what social conditions influenced their behavior and pondering how they may have felt afterward and whether redemption was possible.
“It’s one of the great mysteries of life — forgiveness. Are some things truly unforgivable?” Aguirre-Sacasa said in an interview on the occasion of the world premiere of “Abigail/1702” in Cincinnati. In the interview, which the playhouse conducted and posted on its Web site, Aguirre-Sacasa went on, “I very consciously set out to explore what it would be like for this reviled person — one of the most villainous characters in dramatic literature and American history — to seek redemption.”
Laurie Brooks is another playwright interested in looking at the Salem trauma from the distaff side. The Salem girls had little in their lives except work, religion, sleep and ever-present fear, she says, noting that the fear was a byproduct both of the Puritan worldview — “They believed that the Devil was everywhere.”
“Because of the oppressive nature of Salem Village, [the girls] need[ed] some kind of relief and rebellion,” says Brooks, who is a well-known author of plays for young audiences. “And that’s really not entirely different from the way girls behave today. Boys, too, for that matter.”
In evoking the experience of the Salem girls, Brooks drew on her knowledge of contemporary young people and social constructs like cliques. “Who are the leaders, and who are the followers?” asks Brooks, summarizing her thought process. “How is power taken and given?”
The theme of power allows playwrights to keep an emphasis on the female experience at Salem while also reflecting on other issues. After reading about the witch crisis, Shaplin says he ultimately felt the events had to do with capitalism, including competition among Salem families for property and resources.
In fact, he thinks the surge in new Salem dramas may correlate with the Occupy movement. Like the nonhierarchical activists who rose up to protest economic inequality a few years ago, the young girls who leveled witchcraft accusations in 17th-century Massachusetts were “stepping up and saying, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on! Our parents don’t have a way of dealing with any of this stuff! We’re going to dive into this more spiritual place and try to help and change, or at least be involved with, the workings of the community,’” Shaplin speculates.
Brannon Braga, co-creator, executive producer and writer on the upcoming televised “Salem,” views the Massachusetts events through a grimmer lens. The show, WGN America’s first original series, imagines that there really were witches in Salem — witches who “are using the trials to pit people against each other and take down the country,” explains Braga, whose TV credits include “24” and the “Star Trek” franchise.
Braga says “Salem” — which features versions of real figures such as Mercy Lewis and the slave Tituba — has its own feminist dimension. “We are certainly exploring themes of empowerment and who’s in power and female empowerment,” he says. But he also sees parallels to the “War on Terror.”
“Once you realize that there are witches among you, to what degree will you go to find them and stamp them out?” he asks. “Does it include the suspension of civil rights?” How about torture? The witches in his series “are aware of what mass hysteria is and the damage it can do,” he says.
With its portrait of a guilt-stricken Abigail Williams searching for closure in the dangerous New England woods of 1702, Contemporary American Theater Festival’s production of “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World” certainly seemed to ponder the War on Terror. Adams admits that she was inviting such reflections, but for her the question was also a broader one about collective guilt.
“One of the great questions of a setting like the witch crisis was the question of how do we deal with being complicit in evil? Unless you are a hermit, to be a human being is in a sense to be complicit in systematic wrong. To be an American — well, what democratic regimes have we secretly toppled? What dictators have been propped up? What torture has been done in our name? Not that any nation on Earth doesn’t have blood on their hands. Also, personally: Who hasn’t done wrong?”
Jeff Church, producing artistic director of the Coterie, and the person who commissioned “Afflicted: Daughters of Salem” (which is co-produced by University of Missouri-Kansas City Theatre), also thinks the witch trial narrative points to the issue of collective responsibility. The young accusers of Salem have “the reputation of being the most notorious girls in history,” he says. However, he goes on, “you have to ask yourself, were the girls the only ones who did this, or did the adults have a role in this as well, and the backdrop of the community? And it starts to call to mind things like school shooter situations.”
Playwright Brooks sees yet another echo of 21st-century worries in the new batch of “Crucible” rivals: Riffs on Salem, in her view, are akin to the recent wave of books and popular entertainments set amid dystopias and apocalyptic scenarios — think, “The Hunger Games,” or “The Walking Dead.”
“I think it’s directly connected to the recession and to the world the way it is,” she says. “People are scared.”
Wren is a freelance writer.