Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Witches of Salem: Arthur Miller and Beyond

This 1996 film was based on the Miller play.

Playwright Arthur Miller, I have learned, was not the last word on the Salem witch trials of 1692. Miller’s The Crucible is a powerful drama, the winner of Broadway’s  1953 Tony Award for best new play. In it Miller adapts some of the sordid doings of the Massachusetts Puritans while also making a covert statement about his own era, one in which McCarthyism was rampant and the lives of many good men and women were being destroyed by false accusations. Miller’s characters were actual historical figures—John Proctor, Reverend Parris, Giles Corey, Deputy-Governor Danforth, Tituba—but he did some creative reshaping of personalities and motives. In raising one character’s age and adding the aftermath of a spicy adulterous relationship to the mix, he sharpened the reasons why a restless young woman might lead others to cry out against their neighbors, ultimately sending them to their deaths on the gallows. 

Baseless accusations and over-eager justice seem to be a part of every age, which may be why The Crucible has had a long life in community theatres and high school drama departments. I have personally been part of the cast in two local productions, both times playing a little girl caught up in the madness. It was my familiarity with the play that made me so eager to read The Witches: Salem 1692, the latest tome by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer Stacy Schiff. Though the full historical record remains sketchy, Stacy (whom I know as a fellow member of Biographers International Organization) has worked hard to detail the hundreds of arrests and the twenty public executions that the witch trials produced before those in power slowly acknowledged that “spectral evidence” was not exactly a reliable proof of guilt. She’s very good at taking on the historical perspective and delineating all the reasons (low social status, deviation from orthodox thinking, being on the wrong side of the political fence) why some folks turned out to be  more vulnerable than others.

One of the most striking things about the witch trials was that they were dominated by the testimony of very young women and girls. In Puritan society, such girls would be faced with a life of hard work, drab clothing, and obedience to patriarchal strictures. Stacy sees these girls (especially girls  who had lost parents to disease, death in childbirth, or Indian attacks) as desperate to add drama and color to their mundane existence. As she puts it, “History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort.” 

In writing about witchcraft, as imagined by the Puritans and those who came before them, Stacy makes occasional reference to the witch at the center of one of America’s favorite stories, The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West too was taken down by a little girl, though of course we are all squarely on Dorothy’s side. Stacy’s book made me think about some less-upbeat movies in which young girls with hidden motives take on their elders. In 1961’s The  Children’s Hour, an angry schoolgirl destroys two teachers (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine) by suggesting they are lesbian lovers. And 1956’s The Bad Seed stars blonde and pigtailed Patty McCormack as an adorable child who’ll do anything—and oppose anyone—to get what she wants. Maybe witches exist in the eye of the beholder? 

More about witchcraft in movies six months from now, when Halloween creeps closer.

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