The Witch of Edmonton – Does it have the right title?
Alexander Ray Edser explores how the play’s structure reveals the true power of the work.
In November I posted a feature that explored the elements that are required in a performance work if it’s to be considered a play; much of it was stimulated by current productions at the RSC. A production there of The Witch of Edmonton suggests a further feature.
At first viewing (most of us are seeing the play for the first time) it’s a puzzling piece. Why does it have the title The Witch of Edmonton when the witch herself appears to be of secondary importance? She doesn’t appear until the play is well under way, but is she, nevertheless, an eponymous protagonist?
An examination of the structure of the play resolves these issues; even more, it reveals the play to be a remarkable and powerful work by the three credited playwrights.
The play was written, almost certainly quickly, in 1621, by three jobbing playwrights – Thomas Dekker, William Rowley and John Ford. It has a main plot and a sub-plot. In examining the play structurally, it’s helpful to forget, for the time being, the title, which may be no more than a canny marketing ploy. Why, if she’s part of the sub-plot, does she feel like main plot? And how do the two plots work together?
The main plot revolves around Frank Thorney, a merchant’s son. Frank marries his sweetheart, Winnifride, but they cannot live together. As the play opens they swear undying love and fidelity and part. However, Frank’s father has plans for Frank to marry a fellow merchant’s daughter, Susan. Frank succumbs to pressure, marries Susan, obtains a dowry, and swears undying love and fidelity. Having got himself into this mess Frank now needs to get out of it. He intends to run away with Winnifride (with Susan’s dowry), so he murders Susan. He blames two rivals for the murder, they are arrested, and he takes sanctuary in Susan’s father’s house.
The sub-plot revolves around Elizabeth Sawyer, an old woman, bent with age and poor. She is regularly abused for being a witch so decides to be one. She summons a devil – a dog she calls Tom. They set about doing bad things.
It is usual for sub-plots to mirror the action of main plots. So let us look at the dramatic action, or thematic action, of the main plot. Even from the brief summary above, it will be seen that the main plot revolves round dishonesty, greed, sexual gratification, bigamy, murder, lies, framing others for a crime. I would say this is Wickedness – with a huge capital ‘W’.
The sub-plot indeed mirrors the thematic action of wickedness. Elizabeth Sawyer and her dog, Tom, apparently stop cream from turning into butter, apparently cause a stockman to kiss his cow’s backside. They cause a love-sick yokel to step into a river, they stop a violin from playing at a Morris dance, then turn the formal Morris dance into a rave. I’d call this wickedness with a very small ‘w’.
It is also reported that Elizabeth Sawyer has caused a wife to go mad and kill herself – disputed by a neighbour. The country people set up a test for witchcraft – they set fire to the thatch of her house and if she comes out screaming then she’s a witch. We may come to our own conclusions about the validity of this test; in case we miss the point a character voices it for us, in no uncertain terms.
It is true that Elizabeth Sawyer conjures up a devil (Tom). But Tom is a delightful dog, domesticated and playful. There is no way we, nor the Jacobean audience, could take him seriously as a messenger of Lucifer. Even more so in Jay Simpson’s engaging performance in the RSC production. It’s true that there are strong indications that Tom is also a sexual partner (whether in animal or human form is not made clear.) Again, considering the character(isation) of Tom – who can blame Elizabeth?
We begin to see how the playwrights put forward their message. The earthbound society is far more wicked than anything the Devil could think up. Before we (the audience or society) look further afield we need to examine our own lives – the crime, greed, dishonesty and so on. Ben Jonson put a similar message forward in his play The Devil is an Ass written in 1616.
A sound enough message you might say. But a little further examination pays dividends.
We should note that the Sawyer sub-plot was not totally invented. It was based on a real trial of a real person (Mother Sawyer) in Edmonton, not far from the centre of London, only a few months before the play was first performed. So the play was conceived by the wrighters and performed while there was still ‘hot news’ of the Edmonton witch.
Let us now see how the wrighters handle it. Mother Sawyer appears well after the play’s opening, on her own, gathering sticks. Here are her opening lines:
‘And why on me? Why should the envious world
Throw all their scandalous malice upon me?
‘Cause I am poor, deformed, and ignorant,
And like a bow buckled and bent together
By some more strong in mischiefs than myself,
Must I for that be made a common sink
For all the filth and rubbish of men’s tongues
To fall and run into? Some call me witch,
And being ignorant of myself, they go
About to teach me how to be one . . . ‘
She is soon accosted by a neighbor and beaten, for no good reason. By convention, we believe what she is saying. This, then, is an almost unbelievably sympathetic portrayal of someone in the news for being a witch. It is clearly set out for us that her ‘crime’ is being old, crippled, poor, past child-bearing age, and (worst of all perhaps) useless.
Later she makes the point (or rather the playwrights make the point for us) that her poverty is a factor in the accusations made against her.
In the closing moments of the play she is condemned to death as a witch; this is not surprising as the dramatic conventions would require it – we have seen her conjure up a devil and work with him. But we must take note of the words the playwrights give her: ‘Tis all one to be a witch as counted one.’ Our bold playwrights give her the words . . . paraphrased into modern English: ‘For an old woman to be called a witch is the same as being a witch.’
Her final speeches, while simple, are dignified and full of fortitude; they are theatrically thrilling, and they hammer the playwrights’ point home.
In a superb performance, Eileen Atkins balances dignity with earthiness, strength with humour. We approach the text as literature at our peril; the mix I list is inherently theatrical. Eileen Atkins’ splendid portrayal skews the play towards the witch with good purpose. We must respond to this beautifully drawn character with our heart as well as our head – something the theatre uniquely enables us to do.
But what of the main plot then? Although our focus may be drawn to the ‘witch’ plot, the main plot is not a poor relation.
Frank, the merchant’s son, is the protagonist. He is the bigamist and murderer. Yet, although we should (probably would) read him as evil or wicked, he is not set up this way. At the opening of the play he and Winnifride are declaring mutual love and, since we have nothing to make us believe otherwise, we take it at face value. The reason Frank puts off their living together is to give them time to earn some money. And it’s not even for himself, but for his family:
‘. . . Only but to gain a little time
For our continuing thrift; that so hereafter
The heir that shall be born may not have cause
To curse his hour of birth, which made him feel
The misery of beggary and want,—
Two devils that are occasions to enforce
A shameful end.’
Now we also see something else the playwrights set up at the beginning – the effects of poverty. The very effects that Elizabeth Sawyer will make on her entrance – but Frank gets there first. And if we believe Elizabeth, we must believe Frank.
Although Frank enters into a bigamous marriage, later, there is a strong feeling that he falls into this, or worse is pushed. He fails, not because he’s inherently wicked, but because he’s weak. A quality well brought out in Ian Bonar’s performance; in fact we might add ‘charming’. There is the strongest possible hint that Frank does increasingly bad things because he is increasingly desperate to get out of the mess he’s in.
It is a cliché to say that money is the root of all evil. But it’s hard to get away from this thought. The wrighters throw a good measure of class into their arguments, too. (We might also note, in passing, that Mother Sawyer’s wickedness is not based on gaining great wealth, more on petty revenges.)
It is a convention of the period that the dying character be given a fine speech. Frank is not an exception. But again our wrighting trio will amaze with circular virtuosity. They bring the topic back to money and offer Frank a startlingly powerful mirror to reflect society back to itself – the ‘it’ in the quotation is the dowry money, the ‘he’ Frank’s father:
‘ . . . So I receive it.
He would not bless, nor look a father on me,
Until I satisfied his angry will:
When I was sold, I sold myself again –
Some knaves have done’t in lands, and I in body –
For money . . . ‘
The language of commerce, of acquisition and ownership is still shocking at this point. At the end of the play, whatever we feel about Frank’s actions, the playwrights powerfully bring our sympathies back to Frank. They force us to see him as a victim too. Right and wrong are not black and white.
A little earlier in the plotting we see an intriguing intermingling of the two plots. Frank is taken in by Susan’s unwitting father – a delicious piece of dramatic plotting. Susan sister comes to tend his wounds; as she does so Tom (the Dog) enters and delights in uncovering Frank’s crime. Dramatically ironic, Tom, in being wicked does a good deed. The playwrights wish to bring on the ghost of Susan – to have a person’s dead spirit move the plot forward is a fine theatrical tradition from the period. But the trio of playwrights continue to twist and turn the plot into knots as this instruction demonstrates:
‘FRANK searches first one pocket, then the other, finds the knife, and then
lies down.—The Dog runs off.—The spirit of SUSAN comes to the
bed’s side; FRANK stares at it, and then turns to the other side, but the
spirit is there too. Meanwhile enter WINNIFRIDE as a page, and stands sadly
at the bed’s foot.—FRANK affrighted sits up. The spirit vanishes.’
Here we have two manifestations of the supernatural in the same moment; the two plots fuse, just for a moment in a world beyond our own. Right and wrong are juxtaposed, comedy and tragedy brought face to face. It may or may not make logical sense on the page; but in the acting space there is no problem. Since our emotions are involved we will accept all forces that discomfort Frank and bring him to justice. Once more the boundaries of our moral codes begin to crumble.
Towards the opening of this article I mentioned the play’s title. We may now approach the question as to why the playwrights chose this title. It may have been a canny marketing ploy . . . If so, it is also more than this. The playwrights deliberately use the sub-plot title because they wish to draw our attention to the sub-plot story. The play is about wickedness. The meaning of the play is carried not by any character, not by a single plot line, nor even by two; it is carried by the two plots, of equal importance (which is unusual) working in concert, by the whole play’s construction. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The trio of playwrights has created a powerful work that flies in the face of public opinion; part of a group of playwrights from the period working to address the unacceptable aspects of society – including the position of women in their society.
Many of these aspects have been drawn out in Gregory Doran’s intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive production, in which he is ably partnered by a strong and committed company. The one thing he can’t do is create his production as a response to a current witch-trial news story. Let us understand that, let us see what is before us, let us fully acknowledge the creative powers of the wrighting trio (with or without others). And be amazed.
(Note: I am indebted for much of the historical detail in this article to items in the RSC The Witch of Edmonton programme – Martin White, Eleanor Rycroft.)