A new play about Puritan intolerance in 17th-century East Anglia could not be more timely in our angry world
The pumpkins are grinning once again. Tomorrow night giggling plastic demons, nylon ghosts and pointy-hat witches will be at your door demanding “treats”, in a distorted homage to All Souls’ Night.
Unless you are a modern pagan or overfamiliar with productions of Macbeth, the image of a witch is probably that: a jokey Halloween outfit. Yet the term “witch-hunt” returned as a metaphor 70 years ago via Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, responding to the 1950s McCarthyist search for communists, and it is still useful. Our century grows ever keener on accusatory condemnation.
You find it in gender politics, critical race theory, vaccine disagreements and, not least, in the recurrence of antisemitism. Accusing and condemning are on-trend, and the National Theatre chose a good year to revive Miller’s play.
Now, in a 17th-century hall in Ipswich, there’s a fresh history play about witch-hunters, set in East Anglia rather than Salem. It is a timeless reminder of what happens when blind “righteousness” overwhelms reason and humanity.
It is local history, fitting as the wisps of autumn fog make eerily credible a famously dark time in Suffolk and Essex. Over three years in the 1640s Matthew Hopkins was the self-appointed witchfinder-general: with his followers he “found” and saw hanged more supposed witches than in the previous 160 years. Most were older women, poor cottagers.
Joanna Carrick’s play The Ungodly, researched in parish records and court reports, centres on a young couple in Mistley. They suffer repeated infant deaths and the fragilities of farming life but are pious, ruefully accepting the Puritan ban on Christmas fun, praying for God’s will beside their empty cradles, and wondering if they are being punished for the premarital embrace that produced their first dying child. Ordinary people, kindly and likeable.
But their half-brother is Matthew Hopkins: a prim inadequate, shrinking from the carnal and avid to believe that Satan dwells among them as an airy spirit able to make himself “condensed and thickened” into old women’s pets, the shrieking polecat who scares the horse, the malady that kills the cattle.
There’s potential for the usual Hollywood-Halloween spookiness, but like The Crucible this play avoids it. If evil does walk among us, it is not glamorously demonic but dwells in any disordered, discontented mind. Carrick shows a murderous conclusion growing out of domestic and community life, matter-of-course officialdom, lawyerly questioning and forced confessions. All the absurdities of evidence — about kittens, dogs’ names and who went to a cottage prayer meeting — are carefully noted down in court.
Hopkins’s charismatic piety slowly draws the reasonable young couple to his cause, focusing their real griefs into enmity, fear and hunger for the “purification” of public hangings.
An extra chill is in a fact I never knew: Hopkins died aged just 27 after accomplishing three years of legal murder. It is unfair to say that the sort of passion that blocks reason is unique to younger adults, but it isn’t uncommon there. Note how the phrase “passionate about” is now considered a CV boast or a compliment, rather than a symptom of being unhinged.
I was not the only one to remark in the interval that a modern Hopkins might be throwing orange paint about, shouting “Punch a Terf!” or, without knowing much about history, leading a cry of “from the river to the sea”. He’d have a TikTok following, a blog, a podcast. And in ordinary life you’d watch your words around him in the office if you wanted to keep your job.
No, the witchfinder-general is not a sinister antique but an eternal type, a caution. And if the Enlightenment damped down medievalism with Voltairean reasonableness, today’s unsettled world and wide communications offer it fresh life.
I hope the play, for Carrick’s Red Rose Chain company, will have an afterlife. But it is worth acknowledging its origins too. This Ipswich enterprise is a hybrid, putting on big professional summer shows, Shakespeare at Sutton Hoo, but also running — and sometimes integrating into those shows — a collection of groups.
There’s a robust open youth theatre, a community group embracing mental and physical disabilities and marginalised people, and long-running projects with residents of HMP Warren Hill. During lockdown all those groups worked remotely to produce new work. The prisoners, in that desolate time, operated through handwritten scripts sent to and fro and eventually heard their audio plays performed by professionals, on CDs sent back to them.
Such enterprises are enough to make you think that maybe Britain is not broken after all. But a specifically artistic result is that although Carrick is a proven playwright, there is a collegiate sense about this one. The group’s witchfinder history project, following a Tudor one, got support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (astonishingly, Red Rose Chain has no regular Arts Council grant).
Thus it occurred that many diverse people — young and old, strong and disabled, professional and amateur, including prison inmates — have just spent three years thinking about how charismatic prejudice capsizes reason and leads to horrors. Their research, feelings, ideas and questions fed the play.
Its distillation into a domestic drama reveals a perennial human flaw, the heady groupthink buzz of finding outsiders to blame for your life’s problems. Briefly hesitant, the wife in the play asks: “Will they all hang?” “They must!” is the happy cry from the young witchfinder.
That “must” echoes down the century and across the world. It rings right now on the streets of London.