In 1692, Rebecca Nurse was hanged at the age of 71, a victim of the Salem witch trials.
In 2016, the constant refrain of “Lock her up!” was broadcasted from Trump’s campaign rallies. That same year, playwright Sarah Ruhl took in Ivo van Hove’s Broadway revival of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s 1953 fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials, which she says “really laid bare the bones of the play” for her. “I was alarmed that the emotional center of the play was this young woman wanting to have sex with an older man and pinning the entire Salem tragedy on that,” she says.
That thought became the kernel of her new play, Becky Nurse of Salem, now running Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater through December 31.
Prompted by those Trump rally cries, and America’s indomitable narrative of the Salem witch trials, Ruhl began her own exploration of the legacy of those trials, and the executions. Her research found that in real life, Abigail was not a teenager as Miller portrays. She was an 11-year-old child, and John Proctor was considerably older than the strapping Ben Whishaw of the Crucible revival. So Ruhl set out to write a more historically accurate drama.
But that’s not the kind of play Ruhl ended up writing. She tends to take the familiar and turn it on its side, giving the audience a new way in. Her Peter Pan is age 70. Her Eurydice is as much a story of a daughter’s love for her father as for her paramour. Her Passion Play shows a staging of Christ’s Passion in Elizabethan England, Nazi Germany, and Vietnam War-era United States.
Ruhl’s witch trial play is now a contemporary comedy. Becky Nurse of Salem centers on a modern-day descendent of the falsely charged Rebecca Nurse, who was a real woman. When Becky (played by 2022 Tony winner Deirdre O'Connell) loses her job at Salem’s witch museum, she turns to spells (and pills) to reverse some of her own life's curses. Ruhl’s frequent collaborator Rebecca Taichman directs the dark comedy, with today’s Salem grappling not with witch hysteria, but the opioid epidemic.
Speaking together, it's clear that Ruhl and Taichman have formed their own little coven of two. They began collaborating so long ago that neither is sure of the date; they think it’s 2005. And they think it’s been seven shows. “A good witchy number,” says Ruhl.
The conversation about dates and numbers folds into one of mutual admiration: “Rebecca is so visually ingenious, and so romantic, too. Which I think is a rare trait for a director,” says Ruhl.
Taichman responds with gratitude, “After having made it through these past few years, it feels like coming home. It’s such a tremendous gift and relief to be back in one of Sarah’s worlds. It’s like breathing again. I do feel that we share a dream vocabulary that is about humor and romance and epic mythic questions.”
One question they ask in Becky Nurse of Salem is why the Salem witch trial even happened.
Europe has a long history of witch hunts. From the years 1500-1650, historians estimate that up to 80,000 suspected practitioners were put to death. In colonial Salem, roughly 200 people were accused—30 found guilty of practicing witchcraft and 19 were hung. The hysteria in Salem lasted only a year-and-a-half and is well-documented through trial transcripts and church records. Except for that why.
“Was it property disputes? Was it hysteria? Was it post-traumatic stress from the Indian American wars? Bread poisoning? We just don’t know,” says Ruhl. “We have other kinds of those mass epidemics, bizarre epidemics of behavior in our culture now, but we won’t see them as such for another 100 years maybe.” One such “bizarre epidemic,” Ruhl points out, are those Trump rally cries (and by extension, Trumpism).
Taichman and Ruhl think that society’s fascination with Salem, which is now a town of kitschy tourism, lies in the idea that its history continues to repeat itself in various ways. The term witch hunt still exists as a metaphor for any group of people being unfairly persecuted (Miller’s The Crucible served as an allegory for McCarthyism in the 1950s). Trump even used the term to describe the federal investigations against him, in an ironic twist. It’s also fair to say that women are often at the center of condemnation.
“The idea that women are malevolent creatures with malicious, secret, dangerous intentions, and need to be somehow tamed, remains a story that we hear over and over and over again,” says Taichman.
Ruhl agrees. “I think in moments of authoritarianism, the subversive witchiness kind of bubbles up through the culture,” she adds.
For Becky Nurse of Salem, Ruhl asks mythic questions about power and misogyny and the inheritance of broken models for living. “How do we interrupt cycles that we’re all participating in?” asks Taichman. “Becky Nurse is a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, who was tried and hung. There’s something about really looking at history and trying to face it down.”
To confront that history, Becky turns towards it. She seeks out a witch for spells of protection and love, digging into the magic that has resulted in centuries of false accusations against women. And when things don’t necessarily work out the way she wants, she turns to blame. “I think when you just have blame, it leads to a cycle of more blame,” says Ruhl.
But what is the antidote? How do we break the cycle? “I think it’s love,” answers Taichman.
Adds Ruhl: “If we could meet each other rather than blaming each other. Really meet each other.”
And perhaps it is witchcraft after all that will get us there…in the form of theatre. “Theatre is a kind of witchcraft, a kind of magic, a kind of ritual, an ascent to the invisible world,” says Ruhl. “I believe in it.”