Defending the Witch

The Witch of Edmonton is a Jacobean play, often classified as a domestic tragedy – in that it deals primarily with non-aristocratic communities – which was co-written by Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, and John Ford. It is currently enjoying a necessarily brief run at the RSC’s Swan Theatre (Eileen Atkins, playing the title role, is 80 years old) but it was also performed at the same theatre in 1981. Its revival has been greeted with some generally positive reviews and Atkins, in particular, has been praised for a powerful performance. I’m going to have my say about the production elsewhere, at a later date, but here I wanted to address one of the frequent criticisms voiced in reviews: that the play itself isn’t very good. Michael Billington, whose views on Renaissance drama are making me feel increasingly irritated (see my piece on Arden of Faversham for further disagreements), opens his review for The Guardian like this:

Two things stand out in this rare revival of a 1621 play by Rowley, Dekker and Ford. One is the sombre beauty of Gregory Doran’s production, which anchors the play firmly in its original period. The other is the brooding presence of Eileen Atkins as the titular witch. My only doubts concern the quality of the play itself.

He’s not alone. In The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish complains that Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch, is too marginal a figure, laments the ‘fiendishly knotty plotting’ and wishes that the subplot, involving the Bottom-esque Cuddy Banks, be cut entirely. In The Observer, Kate Kellaway describes the play as ‘lively’ and ‘unruly’; the second adjective is more equivocal, but I took this, apparently incorrectly, as a positive. Kellaway then says that ‘too many playwrights spoil the plot’ and that the dramatists ‘seem not to have agreed on whether they were writing a comedy or a tragedy’. It must be said that, while I find the observation unconvincing – loads of solo-authored plays veer between standard definitions of comedy and tragedy and I’m not so sure that such generic indeterminacy spoils anything – Kellaway does admit that the play is entertaining and offers it some praise. Still, there’s a sense that, for many people, this just isn’t a very good play. I don’t agree.

It seems to me that despite all that the fascinating lurches between humour and horror which Kellaway found confusing, the ending settles on a tone which is recognizably sombre, though it does it in a diction which is unusual for tragedy. As Frank Thorney is led off to be executed, he stops to make his peace with the community his actions have torn apart. The ensuing show of forgiveness is genuinely moving. Carter, whose daughter Frank has murdered, is moved to tears by the compassion which unexpectedly flows through him; in turn, he catches the audience off-guard with a metaphor of enchanting simplicity: ‘thou hast made me water my plants in spite of my heart’. Later, in a line which the RSC used to close the play, he ushers the gathered crowd home: ‘so let’s every man home to Edmonton with heavy hearts, yet as merry as we can, though not as we would’. If this was moving in the RSC production (and I felt it was) then it’s because of the quality of the writing, as much as, if not more than, the quality of the acting. There’s much to admire elsewhere as well: Frank Thorney is a fraught, challenging character of considerable complexity, Cuddy Banks – an annoyance to Cavendish – has a perceptive charm which makes him funny and, in his confrontation with the Devil dog, surprisingly powerful, and Elizabeth Sawyer is an engaging and unexpectedly funny character. It’s a play that deserves to be staged.

A full review of this production will appear in Shakespeare.

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2 thoughts on “Defending the Witch

  1. Negative response to the segmented plot is particularly interesting, since this play has been oft-touted by scholars as an exemplar of collaboration, each story line taken by a single playwright. Quite aside from genre (and genre-adjacent tone), did you feel there was a stark quality or stylistic divide, or did the production try to even out those differences?

    1. Thanks for commenting ck! Sometimes the storylines overlap, as you know, so in the RSC you have the Dog joining in with the Morris dancers for a supercharged dance which was at once creepy and funny. I don’t see a stark contrast in quality, though some reviewers did, e.g. Cavendish disliking Cuddy. I actually think it hangs together pretty well. Verse and prose are being used interestingly in the play too and I know Martin’s edition has some interesting comments on it. Hope that at least gestures towards an answer to your question! I don’t actually know as much about the specifics of the Dekker, Rowley, Ford collaboration as I would like.

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