Watching the Witch Trials: The Crucible and Three Sovereigns for Sarah

To get into the flow of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony while I’m writing Down Salem Way, I just rewatched The Crucible, which is a story I love. When I was teaching American literature, one of my favorite lessons was when we read and watched Miller’s work because there’s such depth to the story and it provided much for us to think and talk about. When I rewatched The Crucible, it was helpful seeing the period costumes, the wooden houses, the horse-drawn carriages, and the farming because it helps me visualize what I’m writing about.

It’s important to remember that Miller’s play is an allegory where the witch hunts represent the finger-pointing madness of McCarthyism where no one was safe from accusations of Communism. For anyone familiar with the events of the Salem Witch Trials, it’s easy to say that The Crucible is more fiction than fact. However, the point of the play is not to illuminate the real-life events of the witch hunts but to make a point about how easily we turn against each other when it suits our purposes. The names of those involved in the witch hunts are true and the general events are based on fact; the specifics of the play, however, not so much. Abigail Williams was 11, John Proctor in his 60s, and I feel  confident saying that he looked nothing like Daniel Day-Lewis. To know about the Salem Witch Trials and allow for the way it’s presented in The Crucible, you have to accept Miller’s story for what it is—a parable about how vulnerable we are to our own weaknesses. Miller was a master at dialogue—there is not one word out of place—and Proctor’s speech at the end (where he cannot sign a false confession) sums up perfectly why so many of those convicted of witchcraft wouldn’t falsely confess despite the fact that confession would save their lives.

If you use Amazon , you’re familiar with those lists of “If you like this, you’ll like this…” Sometimes I find those lists annoying, but the day I watched The Crucible another title popped onto my TV screen—Three Sovereigns for Sarah. I wasn’t familiar with this movie starring Vanessa Redgrave, but in a way the 1985 film is the perfect companion piece to The Crucible since Three Sovereigns for Sarah is also about the Salem Witch Trials. The main difference is that Three Sovereigns is based more on factual accounts; in fact, much of the dialogue in the film comes directly from transcripts from the trials in 1692. Three Sovereigns is about three sisters—Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty, and Sarah Cloyse (played by Redgrave)—caught up in the horror of the witch hunts. Rebecca and Mary are hanged after their witchcraft convictions, while Sarah survives, barely, because she was jailed away from the others due to the prisons in Salem and Boston overflowing with suspected and convicted witches. Twenty years later, seeking to clear her sisters’ names, Sarah is given three sovereigns, one for each sister, meant to appease her loss under such tragic circumstances.

Watching the film version of The Crucible does give a sense of life in Salem in 1692, but really I watch The Crucible for the pinpoint perfect dialogue and the message within the story (and, yes, for Daniel Day-Lewis). Watching Three Sovereigns for Sarah gives a more accurate account of what really happened during the witch hunts. As someone currently writing about the Salem Witch Trials, both The Crucible and Three Sovereigns have played a role in helping me bring Salem in 1692 to life.

On the literary side, I’ve downloaded The Scarlet Letter, the classic from Nathaniel
Hawthorne (a descendant of Salem Witch Trial magistrate John Hathorne, Nathaniel having added the w to the spelling of his surname to avoid a direct connection to his decidedly unsympathetic ancestor). The Scarlet Letter is not about the witch hunts, but it is about life in Puritanical Massachusetts, which will also help me get a feel for the time. I’ve also discovered a documentary about the Salem Witch Trials from the History Channel, and I’m looking forward to the new perspective that will bring.

I look at it this way: I get to watch TV and read classic literature and call it work.

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