Yr. Humble Chronicler finds himself, for the first time in years, back on stage. Regular readers may recall my alluding to my time spent treading the boards in both an amateur and professional capacity in the past. Well, I’m doing it again.
The play in question is a youth theatre production of Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible. This is a perennial favourite, partly because of its quality and permanent relevance, but also because it has a lot of female roles. One of the standard problems with amateur theatre is that most plays with a substantial cast are heavily male-orientated while most amateur drama groups have more women than dudes.
The play, if you’re not familiar with it, is a dramatisation of the Salem witch trials. This was an unusual case of mass hysteria that took place in 1692-93 in and around the town of Salem, Massachusetts. A great number of liberties are taken with historical accuracy for dramatic purposes, but what happened was basically this: in Salem, a number of people apparently became afflicted by seizures and tantrums, starting with the young girls Abigail Williams and Betty Parris. Witchcraft was cited as a cause. Accusations were initially levelled at more vulnerable members of the town – the Barbadian slave Tituba and the homeless Sarah Good, for instance. These allegations then spread to more “upstanding” members of the community, regular churchgoers and landowners, snowballing out of control. Over a hundred and fifty were accused of witchcraft, including those who suggested that maybe everyone was getting a little hysterical. Nineteen people were executed in all, plus one elderly man – Giles Corey – was tortured to death in an attempt to get a plea from him.
Even by the superstitious standards of the day, this was an unusual event. Indeed, the American colonies were notably more level-headed about witchcraft than communities in Europe, and in Virginia, false accusations came with a fine equivalent to a year’s income for a prosperous farmer.
A possible reason for the sorry mess might have been the isolation of the area. Massachusetts at this time was a loosely-linked group of colonies, with much authority deriving from the Church. When the Church was Puritan, this spelt trouble. Primary-school history will tell you that the Puritans went to America to be free to worship in their own way. In practice, when a sect claims it wants freedom of worship, what it often means is “we want to do all sorts of horrible and dubiously-legal things without being questioned” (coughChurchofScientologycough). And so the Massachusetts colonies, at least the ones that concern us here, were effectively theocracies to rival the Taliban. Non-attendance at church was seen as deeply suspicious, folk song was banned (have you ever heard a Puritan hymn? They sound like a group of cats dying of boredom) and education in anything other than religious matters was considered highly unnecessary and probably Papist.
Coupled with this was the fact that Massachusetts was effectively frontier territory. Not particularly economically prosperous, with no infrastructure and no effective authority, and with famine, disease and native attacks an ever-present threat (due in no small part to the standard colonial method of diplomacy), it was perhaps no surprise that hysteria could take hold.
Then you had the question of personal feuds, of which there were plenty in the town. The minister, Reverend Parris, was utterly crap at resolving these and was in himself not a popular man. So when the accusations started flying, some historians (and Arthur Miller in the play) have suggested that many in the towns saw it as a means to settle old scores.
The character I’m playing is Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, who, in the play, oversees the trials. Now, when I play a real historical figure, I like to research the character to get a feel for him. My information on Louis Wain and Arthur Phillip came from my research into plays in which I have performed. Danforth was a powerful and influential man in reality, owning large amounts of land – his lands are now the site of the appropriately-named town of Framingham, Massachusetts. The character in the play has obviously been tweaked – again for dramatic purposes – and is essentially a composite character with elements of the hangin’ judge. I think he’ll be a lot of fun to play, he’s portrayed as a pious hypocrite, something of a bully and rather insecure. Good times.
I suspect this will not be the last you hear about this play within these pages. The performance will be in early April at the Hampton Hill Playhouse. Come and see if you’re in the area, I’ll give you more info when I have it.