Understanding and staging THE WITCH OF EDMONTON [mfa thesis]

My Master thesis as I graduated from the Theatre Faculty of Prague as a Stage Director in 2012 was centered on my staging of the Jacobean tragicomedy The Witch of Edmonton (1621), in what turned out to be the play’s Czech premiere (and dernière?). This thesis might have value as an academic work on political theatre in Renaissance England, studied through the lens of a fascinating play based on a real-life witch trial. It is also a work about the intellectual tools available to create political theatre today. But maybe more interestingly, in its second half it is a first-person account of a 22-year-old director’s process of tackling challenging material, struggling with preparation, rehearsals, big decisions and small conflicts, and the difficulties of bringing his vision to life, and as such it is a rather rare document of a director assessing his own work critically, something to which we are not often privy.


This thesis is based on the author’s experience of directing J. Ford, Th. Dekker, and W. Rowley’s play The Witch of Edmonton (1621) in Divadlo DISK in February 2012 as a final performance in his Directing Master Studies at the Theatre Faculty. What is at stake in reviving such a little-known play from the Jacobean era, and performing it in Czech Republic? Can a text written as a reaction to a precise event (a real witch trial) and built as a quasi-documentary depiction of the society of the time, within the aesthetic codes of the time, be relevant material for a performance today? This thesis argues that yes, and that The Witch of Edmonton can actually be the starting point of what can be “political theatre” in a form not only belonging to a long tradition of committed entertainment (the play’s prologue promising us “mirth and matter”), but especially relevant to today’s audiences and artistic stakes. The first part of the thesis is a detailed contextual analysis of the play, the historical period in which it was written, the conditions of performance of the time, the material it is based on and the way it was dramaturgically built as “political”. The second part focuses on the author’s analytical attempts to extract the text from its historical context, in particular through comparative history and history of ideas and using the concepts of Brecht’s epic theatre, depicting also how this research served as a preparation for the concept of his performance, a concept that is then explicated in detail. The third and last part is a short account and reflection about the rehearsal process and its outcome from the director’s point of view, making a final statement on the achieved practical work.

Click the image below to access the PDF version of the thesis:



“With this obsession of degrading everything, which we all have these days, ‘cruelty’, when I first spoke this word, immediately meant ‘blood’ for everyone. But ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ means a theatre which is difficult and cruel for myself, to begin with.”

Antonin Artaud[1]

Knowing the aim is both a practical exercise and the writing of this thesis, choosing the material for a final production in my master studies meant creating a bridge between my work as a director and my theoretical concerns. My first impulse was exploring Antonin Artaud’s Les Cenci (1935), which was for me of particular interest, since it is its author’s only completed attempt to bring to the stage his concept of “Theatre of Cruelty”, the pillar of all his theoretical writing on theatre, which has been so inspiring for myself as for many theatre-makers since it was first published. But the Cenci project having been turned down by the teachers’ board, I started looking for another play, and Artaud’s interest for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama as a state of theatre previous to the pure domination of text and psychology in Western theatre inspired me to make research in that repertoire: in his Premier manifeste, Artaud suggests working on a play by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (for instance Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, 1606), his own curiosity having been awaken by Maeterlinck’s version (1894) of John Ford’s ‘Tis pity she’s a whore (c. 1629), in which he saw “an example of absolute freedom in revolt”[2] against the whole of society and its moral norms, even the universal taboo of incest being broken. Maeterlinck’s translation, and Artaud’s later enthusiasm, were crucial steps in the modern rediscovery of non-Shakespearian English Renaissance drama, a process which is still on-going today —and to which I feel we are participating by performing The Witch of Edmonton (1621) for the first time in Czech Republic.

I do not believe, however, that the play I finally chose was in any way less challenging than Artaud’s. The challenges were obviously different: finding theatrical solutions Artaud himself seemingly didn’t achieve on the premiere of Cenci, based on his writings and acting work for instance, would have been another task than finding a way to revive a play as scarcely performed since its premiere as The Witch of Edmonton. There are, of course, similarities: both construct a dark vision of mankind through a meditation on the birth of evil (so-called “monsters” vs. ordinary criminals), and challenge the concept of innocence (embodied in one case by Beatrice, in the other by Susan – and the Witch); both work on the concrete influence of hierarchical structures of power in society (especially the family cell: “It’s family that corrupted everything. […] No human relationships are possible between beings that were only born to replace each other and that burn from the desire to devour each other.”[3], states Cenci, as could Frank Thorney who’s story originates in his relationship with his father); and both are based on true stories that had attracted big public attention: respectively, Beatrice Cenci’s trial in Rome in 1599, for her responsibility in the murder of her father who had sequestrated and raped her, and the witch trial of Elizabeth Sawyer in London in 1621. Both plays are fictional reconstructions of the events that led to the trial they are concerned with, a dramaturgical feature essential to their political dimension (to discuss what is hidden but concerns us all). The most striking difference would of course seem to be that Artaud writes from a distance of more than three hundred years, and through the already fictionalized scope of Shelley’s verse drama (1819), and that the authors of The Witch of Edmonton react to a case no older than a few months only: the perspective on the actual inspirational events, or on Renaissance society in general, is necessarily different. This matter will be one of the main concerns of this thesis, as will the compensated distance we are adding to the text by performing it today.

Nevertheless, this connection with Artaud faded away quickly as I started reading the text more carefully –this connection, one could say, doesn’t come from what is specific in Artaud’s thinking, but rather something that primitively belongs to theatre itself in its very origins: the way a community deals with evil, and specifically murder, is a subject matter common to Noh theatre and to Ancient Greek tragedy. But The Witch of Edmonton and Artaud do have in common a return to this original mission: The Witch tells the story of how a community creates monsters and then puts them to death, this material and symbolic process taking two parallel forms: a major malfunctioning of the social patterns (Frank Thorney) and scapegoating and its consequences (the Witch). For Artaud, the audience and the actors themselves are supposed to go through this process: “Theatre, as plague, is a crisis, which unfolds either with death or with recovery.”[4] This could in a way, as we shall see, be applied to The Witch, but we must admit that this play couldn’t be this “typical and primitive theatre”[5] Artaud was calling for (a theatre which would have been far less text-centered than Jacobean drama in general and this play in particular).

Indeed, it is only through a process of distillation that one could extract from the long and complex Witch of Edmonton the elements for the kind of performance Artaud imagined, which would perhaps be less a drama than a ritual, less a statement than an incantation, and which would have a direct sensorial influence on the audience. The very dramaturgy of the play pointed to me an almost opposite direction: that of a careful analysis of the situations, in which none of the possible criteria is forgotten (including elements that are surprising in retrospect, centuries before the development of sociology and psychoanalysis), and everything expressed and commented through a varied, developed and sophisticated use of language. Therefore, despite strong Artaudian themes, the form and content of the play appeared to me as actually more closely connected to the roots of modern political and more specifically documentary theatre, meaning the theory and work of Brecht and Piscator. Exploring the text with the lens of Brecht but being haunted by Artaud definitely opened unexpected artistic tensions.

This political and documentary aspect of The Witch of Edmonton is what I will begin this study with, from a historical and dramaturgical point of view. But, to keep on developing external theatrical references and parallels, it would be artificial to make a complete separation between form and content: the parallel of the storylines, the above-mentioned situation-making, the depiction of an entire community through a large set of characters, and many other dramaturgical elements I wish to study in the second part prove that a Brechtian scope is relevant to understand and stage this play. Outside from a work on the various historical contexts which I believe is eye-opening, I hope to clearly enlighten how the form itself is guided by a distinct anthropological view: unlike Cenci, or Giovanni (Ford’s character that Artaud admired), the characters of The Witch of Edmonton do not endorse full responsibility for their fates: they are progressively losing control of them –but they are doing so not for reasons that we would need to explain with concepts of external Devil or Fate, but through causes that we can objectively define as human, meaning caused by themselves or other characters in the play. This is what gives to this play its appealing time-defying aspect, making it still, unlike purely documentary theatre, “topical as fire”[6] as Artaud himself would phrase it –but this general impulse needs to be deepened by more precise work on text and context, which is the matter of this thesis. I will show in the same part how I used this work on the text to create my concept for the performance as a director, trying to stay truthful to the program defined by the Prologue to the first edition of the play, announcing: “Here is mirth and matter”, meaning both entertainment and material for the audience to process, which could also sum up Brecht’s approach of political theatre. My final notes in Part III will be more specifically concerned with the rehearsal process of The Witch of Edmonton for Divadlo DISK, leading to a premiere in February 2012.

[1] “Avec cette manie de tout rabaisser qui nous appartient aujourd’hui à tous, “cruauté”, quand j’ai prononcé ce mot, a tout de suite voulu dire “sang” pour tout le monde. Mais “Théâtre de la Cruauté” veut dire théâtre difficile et cruel d’abord pour moi-même.”, in Le Théâtre et son double [1935], quoted from A. Artaud, Œuvres, Gallimard, p. 552.

[2] “… un exemple de la liberté absolue dans la révolte…”, in “Le Théâtre et la Peste” [1933], op. cit., p. 519.

[3] “C’est la famille qui a tout vicié. […] Pas de rapports humains possibles entre des êtres qui ne sont nés que pour se substituer l’un à l’autre et qui brûlent de se dévorer.”, in Cenci, II, 1. (A. Artaud, op. cit., p. 615)

[4] “Le théâtre comme la peste est une crise qui se dénoue par la mort ou par la guérison.”, in Le Théâtre et son double, “Le Théâtre et la Peste”, op. cit., p. 521.

[5] “… théâtre typique et primitif….”, in “Le théâtre alchimique” [1932], op. cit., p. 533.

[6] “… actuel comme le feu…”, a phrase used by Artaud to define the subject matters of his theatre: concerned with topics that never cease to be “topical”. In “Premier manifeste” [1932], op. cit., p. 564.

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