SEPTEMBER 24 - 27, 2020

The Witch at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival

The Witch

by Thomas Middleton

Written by Thomas Middleton in 1616 but not published until 1728. Why? English Puritans likely played a part, as some puritans believed plays were “Suckt from the Devilles teate.”
The 2020 spectacle adds to the play’s laundry list of indiscretions with an all-female cast made up of Mayflower women. Puritan women! dressing as men! performing plays! in the woods! — it’s unheard of!

A scene spectacle
Directed by Megan Nussle
By invitation only

Tennessee Williams Theater Festival


By invitation only

“Great Mischiefs.”
-Massachusetts Bay Colony Act to Prevent Stage-Plays, 1750

“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man…for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.”
-Deuteronomy 22:5, King James Bible


For Thomas Middleton to title his 1616 satire The Witch and have spells cast onstage was a deliberate provocation. For almost a century, those  intent on censoring blasphemy in England had been pointing to just such outrages as a good reason to shut down English theaters. “Stage plaies were suckt from the Devilles teate, to Nurce up Idolatrie …the Sacrifices of the Devill, taught by himselfe to pull us from the service of our God" wrote some influential zealot whose name let’s agree to forget.

Another play by Middleton was censored for offending the King of Spain, but The Witch went on without a hitch at London’s Globe Theater, performed by the King’s Men, the company that presented Shakespeare’s premieres. The manuscript of The Witch, copied by the Globe scribe and carefully stored, wasn’t published until 1778. What explains the 160-year gap? Middleton called The Witch "ignorantly ill-fated.” Was he thinking that when the Puritans came to power they would close all the theaters in England? He didn’t live to see that happen, but it did.

By 1620, the time of the Mayflower’s arrival in Massachusetts, censoring stage performances had a long history and would have a bright future, not only in England but in New England. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony a law preventing the performances of plays fined actors and spectators, and whoever provided a venue for “theatrical entertainments, which … tend generally to increase immorality.”

There were, of course, New England provocateurs. When Thomas Morton left Plymouth Plantation to set up the Colony of Merrymount, for two years running he erected a maypole around which Englishmen danced with indigenous women. “Ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians,’ sniffed Governor Bradford who ordered Morton put in chains, then marooned on an island.

The festival production of The Witch, performed by local ladies under the direction of Megan Nussle, imagines a version of Middleton’s text performed by the women of the Mayflower on their first day off-ship, doing laundry and whiling away the drying time with the abomination of having women dress as men. There will be a maypole.

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