From: Papers on Literature and Art (1846)
Author: S. Margaret Fuller
Published: Wiley and Putnam 1846 New York



  As the tragedy of Witchcraft has not been published, nor is likely to be, while the dramatic interests of the country are unprotected by any copyright law, it may not be amiss to afford the reader a further opportunity of passing his judgment on this, production by a few extracts, and the publication of a contemporary comment on the play, with a letter in the Evening Post, giving an account of its first performance.

  “The curtain rises in the new play upon a scene in a wood, and we are immediately introduced to the witch-haunted atmosphere of the era, for the spirit of that great persecution was abroad, as it were, in the air, and surrounded everything as a mysterious Presence. The first words between two of the yeomanry are tinctured with the popular superstition. We feel from the very moment that there is a general blight, a tendency to evil that cannot be resisted. This is the perfection of the Tragic interest, and it never leaves us through the piece. It was a time of Superstition, when the Prince of the Powers of the Air set up his throne in Salem, clung to the skirts of the dark wood, hung threatening in the blackness of the cloud, interpreted his mysteries in the flight of birds, hung out his inscriptions in the withered folds of old women’s faces, to be read by conceited interpreters of Heaven’s law, and hypocritical men of cruelty. A fearful time that. In the play all this is felt, as the talk of the characters keeps continually approaching by a species of fascination, as it were, the fatal subject. Day by day it gathers strength. From distant regions, it is heard of in the neighbouring villages, and gradually approaches, like some fell disease, closing in upon the life—the devoted town of Salem, and within that town of Salem, at its very heart, the lives, and persons of a man and woman of no ordinary mould among those townspeople, the hero and heroine of the play—the Mother and Son of the story. There are several passions at work in the Drama—there is Bigotry seeking its victim, Christianity borrowing weapons from Hell to circumvent the Devil—the jealousy of the lover serving God and his passion, too, at the same time, and calling Revenge—Religion—there are petty cowardice and curiosity, but far above them all, striking a root in nature deeper even than the miscalled devotion of those times, the relation between a mother and her son—the untaught emotion of boyhood rising up bolder and stronger than the inveterate hardihood and selfish hypocrisy of manhood. By this simple element of strength one human being at least is saved, and the expedients of that miserable age shattered and almost driven back from their strongholds.

  How all this and more is done those who have seen or will soon witness this tragedy, will be at no loss to understand. Mr. Murdoch is labouring to a purpose and with the author. The play is a beautiful example of development. All is elaborately wrought out, the details are numerous, and the result simplicity.

  The plot is simply this. A proud woman of great independence and superior education, retires, when age and trouble have begun to set their marks upon her, to the comparative solitude of Salem. She bore trouble in her heart, was among the townspeople, but not of them, loved lonely walks on the hill side, gathered old Indian relics, which she kept out of reverence for the past. “The true grief to her single breast” was remorse for an act of pride, by which her husband had fallen in a duel. A word from her might have prevented the calamity, and she had not spoken it.

  With such elements, and the material the meddlesome town naturally afforded, and the vile poison of witchcraft already introduced into the land, how easily was this woman implicated. She walked alone and talked much with herself—it was a trick of witchcraft. She possessed little Indian figures, which she called after the names of the local characters of the town—the magistrates and constables, whose religion was to be set at work either through fear or the insult—these were the instruments of incantation, like the waxen images of ancient necromancy. She laughed at the folly of her persecutors—it was of course hardened wickedness. The atmosphere is so choking, that the son yields and for a moment believes his mother’s guilt, but when he listens to her explanation of the silent grief, the lonely walks, he spurns the whole brood in language and acts of unusual indignation. This is the triumph of the actor, as well as of the moral element in the fifth act. But evil men have had their counsel and completed their deed. The Witch is condemned to die!

Gideon. The deed is done! Ruin upon a sacred head
Is piled, and ye are evermore accursed—
What have ye done—thou sepulchre of all belief
                                    (To Deacon Gidney.)
And truth, stares not this lie you have enacted.
Stark and o’erwhelming as a dead man’s face
Against your path! What have ye proven
To drive this penalty against a venerable breast?
Some solitary walks, sacred as night,
Familiar love for hills and woods and fields,
A way through life out of your beaten path
But ever in the road to the pure Truth
And goodness of a heart troubled too much
In conscience for a deed that would have been
A feather’s weight upon your brutish souls.
(To the People.)
Ye are the most accursed deceivers,
Most pitiful deluded men, this clime
Or century hath hatched. Ye have enfogged,
Darkened, and led astray my childish love,
Made this aged mother seem a horror and a hag
To one, who, drop by drop, would once have died—and will—
To save or serve her! Blasted this blest place
And made its men and woman beasts of prey,
Hunting each other to chains and flames and deaths.

  This passage tells much of the story. There are other incidents and personages. The Deacon is strongly marked, so is that feeble little shadow of him and the justice, petty officer Pudenter. The Deacon is described

A sturdy gentleman of solemn port,
Whose eyes are lobster-like in gaze, whose paunch
Is full and hungry ever, his step
Demure and confident as though he trod
On holy pavements always.

  The little official is the type of timid, obsequious sextons, who bang upon the eyelids of the vestry and the clergyman, or any in authority. He always appears in character, and is sure of being laughed at. He bears about him with the best grace in the world the utmost extent of the ridiculous.

  As a specimen of the dialogue, we give the first scene between the Deacon and Ambla, in which he seeks to entrap her.

Deacon. I should be sorry to know your age was racked
With pains, and vexed with old unquietness;
Sleep you well o’ nights?

Ambla. I’m thankful for the rest
I find, and if the other villagers take
What I lose I’m thankful still.

Deacon. You seek your bed
Early, I hope, as doth become your age.

Ambla. A little walk on Magpie Hill; a meditation
At the down-falling of the sun, and I
Am lapped in sleep.

Deacon. Dream you much now,
My aged friend—we at our age, that is, at yours,
Sometimes forego our dreams.

Ambla. I have not dreamed
A dream, for three and twenty years,
Except awake.

Deacon. Was there no vision in your sleep last night?
You heard of Margaret Purdy’s death at Groton?
Her spectre, ‘tis given out, passed over this house
Of yours—in a white flannel at midnight.

Ambla. An angel, she, to honor so this low
Unworthy roof!

Deacon. You think well, then, of her, do you?
She was no praying woman, I am told.

Ambla. There is a silent service, sir, I’ve heard
It said, keeps up its worship at the heart
Although the lips be closed.

Deacon. What! prayer irregular and chance begot!
Sad orthodoxy! I, Deacon Perfect Gidney,—
A humble pattern to this lowly parish,
Am used to have a different way-
I snuff my candle with a prayer,
And with a prayer wind up my watch,
And go to prayer at striking of the clock,
The great one, my learned grandfather’s gift,
In the Hall; and kindle with a prayer
My morning fire.

  This is compact and straightforward, nothing wanting, nothing superfluous. The American writer who can sustain five acts of a play at this standard is an acquisition!

  The scattered poetic beauties of single lines and figures, exercises of an original fancy, are numerous and always aid the dramatic element.

  Passages like the following are sufficient proofs of a new poet and dramatist somewhere among us.

(A Lover.)

I would not give its balmy pains,
For calmest health: its pangs delicious,
Troubles full of joy, wakenings electrical
At dead of night, its dreams by day,
These are its bounties—


(Gideon of his Mother.)

With what a smile she used, when shouting to her,
I came back from my first childish strayings
To the woods—to open wide her garden gate,
Young Salem’s first of gardens tending,
And bring me in.
Chief was she in her majestical mild port
Of all women; guide to the lost and sad,
Helper to all poor neighbourhood—
Kindling her welcome fire, earliest
In this lone place, for wayfarers,
Of all creeds, all colours, and all climes.


(A son’s watchful guardianship).

Yes, yes—we know his weapon
Plays about that low-roofed house, free
And familiar as the breaking day.


(Gideon’s affection for his mother.)

Ambla. Be calm, my son, nor love me too much!

Gid. Too much! the universe can hold it not!—
When from your hand I go, I die a death
At every step; you seem to hold the roof-tree
With your arm, to hang above the fields and whiten them:
Nor could I through the noon-day harvest toil,
Knew I your lap would not receive
My weary head when night draws on,
*   *   *   *   *   *
Gid. Then there‘s calamity at hand that colors everything.


(No evil spirits in the New World).
Believe it not!
Believe it not! —Clear, crystal and unstained,
The gracious Power upholds this round of Earth
New found and, beautiful: no foul nor ugly thing,
Hath power, I’m sure, in this new land—
Goblin nor witch!
He sweeps apast me
With his glittering scythe and victor-arm.


If she be not, and these are hunters
For the sport’s sake, if they pursue her,
Panther-like for the wild beauty
Of her ways
*   *   *   *   *   *
Though I could see an hundred witches
‘Gainst the white moon flying.


(The Spirit of Witchcraft).
There have been doings dark as night,
And close as death: murders and deadliest crimes
Which the clear eye of day has seen not!
Acts to outface the bloody wolf, and scare
The ravenous lion with his unappeasable mane!
Night’s ear hath many counsels of the dark,
She hears the whispers of the self-reproached,
And blacker grows!
*   *   *   *   *   *
When boy and girl pluck flowers together,
Together wade, white-ankled in the shining stream.


Gid. (of his mother.)

Some silent place will miss her;
Out of these woods and from these stillnesses
A power with her may pass, bearing a light away!


Who reverences not the Past, Hereafter
Shill not reverence, nor hold to have had
A present time.


MUST is a lion that turns back
To tear its driver, you know, no less than hunt
What goes before.


What say you to a great-antlered elk
Tangling his horns amid the branches
Of the hemlock wood? to speckled swimmers
In still-water stream?


The Earth hath foothold
For the substantial dark alone.
She passes and with th’ invisible spirit talks,
And dallies with the hands of unfamiliar things.


Gid. What wonder now is this

Ambla. Sometimes it wanders the wood, sometimes
The free-flowered air; come softly on!-&c. &c.


From the Evening Post, New York, May 6th.

  THE NEW DRAMA OF WITCHCRAFT.—We have received a letter from a correspondent in Philadelphia, touching the new play produced in that city on Monday evening last:
PHILADELPHIA, Tuesday, May 5, 1846.

  Mr. Murdoch’s new play of Witchcraft was performed last evening at the Walnut street theatre, to one of the most crowded houses of the season. The play had been prominently announced and spoken of in several of the morning papers, and had evidently created great expectation in advance. Tier above tier, from the orchestra to the gallery, rose the vast surface of heads. Here we thought was the material to try fully the new play. If it could hold the attention of this crowded body, it would be a success far beyond the approval of the few packed critical friends who generally attend on such occasions. The critics were not wanting either; the intellect of Philadelphia was well represented on the occasion. The curtain rose on a woodland scene in old Salem, and presently Mr. Murdoch appeared in his character of Gideon Bodish. He was never dressed or looked to greater advantage than in his closely fitting russet coat; his attitudes were after his manner exceedingly graceful, his voice music itself. In scene after scene, in every act, he drew down repeated applause, as he delivered one passage after another of singular poetic beauty, or fierce indignant eloquence.

  It was evident from the first moment that the play was wholly unlike the ordinary efforts under the name of the “American Drama.” It was bold, confident, original in illustration, and in the incidents and developments of the plot. The stage situations were new. The confirmation of Gideon’s doubts of his mother’s guilt of witchcraft the crisis of the play by a species of sacred divination, an augury from a chance opened passage of the Bible, and the solemn introduction of a child to confront the accused in the grand trial scene, as they were managed, were proofs of undoubted genius on the part of the author.—The play was sown all over with the happiest poetical expressions, not merely in the leading parts, but with an unaccustomed prodigality on the part of a modern dramatist were thrown away, for stage purposes, on the lips even of the supernumeraries. Take such lines as these in the mouth of the mother, as she solves one of the perplexities of the piece her apparent guilt; not that of witchcraft, but the life-long remorse for the murder of her husband in a duel, whom she might have saved by declaring her innocence, which she was too proud to prove:

He thought that I had sinned
Against his love with that gay paramour,
Who was no more than birds are to the tree
They hover o’er, to me who lived in mine
Own thoughts above suspicion’s climbing

or this illustration, finely delivered by Murdoch, of the dark silent approach of the superstition upon the soul—

The night sits on this gloomy heart—
I see an Indian on a hill top standing,
Part of the silent fixedness of things;
He breaks the mighty calm, wherein he stood
Slow striding down the mountain’s side.
Swifter and darker as he nears us we regard him,
Flashing and red, woe’s living thunder cloud,
And now, and now, he bends above us—
Dusk murder in the very person of itself—
So creeps this hideous witchcraft on me.

Or such bits of description as the following, a perfect picture in the limits of a sentence;

You recollect old Tituba, the shrivelled squaw,
Who wigwamed gloomily by the wood’s edge
Some summers past—

or so perfect an illustration as this of the gathering suspicions of his mother’s life in Gideon’s conversation—

Ever in his speech
There lived and moved as in the river stream.
The fish, darkly and yet swift gliding
Old Ambla’s form

  Yet these were not the chief merits, but accessories only to the dramatic action: they never came to interrupt, but to aid the character and story. The longer single passages, or any just exhibition of the dialogue, would lead me beyond the limits of a letter.

  In the general style of the acting—leading parts were taken by Mrs. Wallack, our old favourite Richings, and a very successful comical tipstaff by Chapman—and especially in the grouping and stage appointments no American play that we have seen has appeared to equal advantage. The scenery had been drawn on the spot at Salem, and Mr. Murdoch had been accompanied in his researches for the dress and costume of the period by Rev. Mr. Upham, the author of a book on the Salem Witchcraft. The bill states the costumes to have been “taken from portraits, paintings, &c. in possession of the Salem Historical Library association.” The Deacon, a Justice, an old goodwife were admirable.

  We have rarely witnessed a performance where the interest excited was better sustained. The uproarious elements in the pit and galleries, of which we were fearful, were subdued to perfect silence; the laugh at the comic characters, the Deacon’s bloated presumption and Chapman’s comicalities, was quickly changed to the earnest or pathetic as Gideon or the Mother entered the scene. It was a long and satisfactory study, At the close, Mr. Murdoch was loudly called for, made a short speech to the effect that he rejoiced in the warm reception he had received that evening; that he attributed this solely to the merits of the unknown American author, who did not wish to be known as a dramatic writer, and for whom he had pledged to maintain, and would strictly, the anonymous.

All Sub-Works of Papers on Literature and Art (1846):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.