164: Vinegar Tom

18 Sep

Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom is a brilliant look at witch hunts and persecution. It’s set in England in the 17th century but could be anywhere and anytime because the themes are much more political than historical.

Medieval witches

Witches concocting an ointment to be used for flying to the Sabbath. Hans Baldung Grien, 1514.

In a small village a couple greedily eye off their neighbours’ fields and dream of bigger and better things. Their milk won’t turn to butter and he is no longer interested in sex with his wife, so something must be wrong, and it can’t possibly be their fault.

JACK: Would God send all this to a good man? Would he? It’s my sins those calves shaking and stinking and swelling up their bellies in there.
MARGERY: Don’t talk so.
JACK: My sins stinking and swelling up.
MARGERY: Unless it’s not God.
JACK: How can I bear it?
MARGERY: If it’s not God.
JACK: What?
MARGERY: If it’s not God sends the trouble.
JACK: The devil?
MARGERY: One of his servants. If we’re bewitched, Jack, that explains all.

And so a village comes under the eye of the witch hunters and innocent women are found guilty and hanged. In some ways Vinegar Tom bears a resemblance to The Crucible but Arthur Miller’s play was nowhere near as political a piece as Churchill’s is. There’s a song about aging and the invisibility of the older woman that many women would recognise in their own lives.

Nobody ever saw me,
She whispered in a rage.
They were blinded by my beauty, now
They’re blinded by my age.
   Oh nobody sings about it,
   but it happens all the time.

A young woman, Alice, is a witch because she enjoys sex and is unmarried. Her mother, Joan, is a witch because she speaks her mind. Ellen, the local healer is obviously a witch as she’s a midwife. The only hope of safety for a woman is to be married and quiet, preferably with a brood of children. The trials are a joke: fear and hysteria whipped up in the townsfolk and no chance for the women to defend themselves. Once accused it’s impossible to prove their innocence as something as innocuous as a mole or birthmark is considered proof of guilt and the accusers are prepared to shave every inch of the woman’s body to find the incriminating mark.

Churchill juxtaposes the period drama with songs that she says should be sung by performers in contemporary dress. The songs refer to blacks, women and Jews – showing that the persecution isn’t limited to witches or to the 17th century. It’s still with us now.

Publisher: Samuel French

Cast: 7F, 2M (includes some doubling)

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