Growing up we were taught that witchcraft was very real and very very freaking scary. Witches and warlocks would sacrifice and torture live animals. They could control the demons always battling just above our heads in unseen spiritual warfare and tell them slip into our souls – if even we left a crack of curiosity open – like a car window on a hot day.
We couldn’t even dress up as witches, or watch any “witchy” tv shows like 1960’s sitcom “Bewitched,” not that we had the opportunity to watch much TV anyway. As I noted in my other blog post about another brilliant woman playwright referencing witches, Harry Potter books were strongly cautioned against from the pulpit on a regular basis.
And now here come two more female-theater-artists-idols whom I worship, Sarah Ruhl and Rebecca Taichman, talking about witches and the theatre, and God, do I love it. (Sarah Ruhl’s book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write was something I clung to like a capsized inflatable raft on the white water rapids excursion of early motherhood. And Rebecca Taichman’s direction of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” remains one of the most sensual and viscerally moving productions I have ever seen on Broadway.)
In The New York Time article “Sarah Ruhl and Rebecca Taichman on Conjuring “Becky Nurse of Salem,” Ruhl says, “I was really upset with this historical mischief,” in regards to how the Salem Witch Trials have been inaccurately portrayed or interpreted including Arthur Miller’s “Crucible.”
As a kid, I remember learning about the Salem Witch Trials and thinking, “How scary that there were SO MANY witches then.” ISN’T THAT CRAZY? I was NOT taught that it was scary that so many INNOCENT WOMEN were tortured, ruined or killed. I just thought, thank God, I didn’t live then because – sheesh – all those witches would be terrifying.
“Who knows why we were taught to fear the witches, and not those who burned them alive.“
This phrase is a common meme at this point, but damn I still FEEL IT every time I see it. Because it was me.
And I can never get into the “cute fascination” with Salem. I have never liked the Hocus Pocus movies, and when I hear of people visiting Salem’s tourist spots “for fun” it never sits well with me. I think Salem should be treated with a solemn remembrance, like visiting the site of a mass murder, or a battlefield. The more you learn about Salem the more horrifying it is. Check out “The True Legal Horror Story of the Salem Witch Trials” from New England Law School for a start.
From that article:
One man was pressed to death under heavy stones, the only such state-sanctioned execution of its kind. Dozens suffered under inhumane conditions as they waited in jail for months without trials; many of the imprisoned were also tortured, and at least one died in jail before the hysteria abated in 1693.
So much of the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials comes down to the failure of the court and the laws during that time: Laws that made such things as visions, dreams, and even the testimony of spirits permissible evidence. And a court that accepted accusations so flimsy they would seem laughable today if they weren’t so horrifyingly unjust…
Laws that made such things as visions, dreams and even the testimony of spirits permissible?! Maybe, you mean, like…like a “news report” written by one fanatical and/or power hungry person that then gets passed around through the unseen magical air of the internet …? Like people could just believe the word or feelings of just one or two people and take them as truth to justify whatever unlawful actions against a person or a group of people that they wanted? Like crazy conspiracy theories….or something that get people killed. You mean…Like that? Oh. Wait. Shit.
My grandfather called theatre the “Devil’s Playhouse,” I suppose because that’s what his parents told him, imagining a world of immoral debauchery. A straight line from the Puritans shutting down the theatres in England in 1642, to my Mennonite ancestors arriving in the New World in concurrence with the Salem witch trials in 1692 – to me cowering in my bed as a young girl, squeezing my eyes tight closed so as not to accidentally see the unseen war for my soul happening just inches above my face in a darkened room.
So here’s to “theatre as exorcism” for all the stories we learned wrong.
If it’s the Devil’s Playhouse then let it be for all the ghosts still waiting for justice, still waiting for their stories to be heard, and made alive again for the living to know.
Of course I believe in magic,” Ruhl said. “Why else would I choose this profession?”
Theatre makers get your salt and sage – and conjure up with courage.