Three Sovereigns For Sarah
"VANESSA REDGRAVE AND SALEM WITCH TRIALS."
By JOHN J. O'CONNOR
Published: May 27, 1985
There are at least a couple of quite compelling reasons for watching ''Three Sovereigns for Sarah,'' a three-part American Playhouse series that begins tonight at 9 on Channel 13. Victor Pisano's script offers a clear and reasonable reconstruction of the Salem witch trials, one of the more odious and frightening events in American history. And the admirable production, steeped in authentic details, is illuminated by Vanessa Redgrave, giving another of her extraordinary dramatic performances.
Mr. Pisano has acknowledged his debt to ''Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft.'' Written by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, the book documents not only the religious but the social and economic factions that divided the Salem Village of Massachusetts in the last decades of the 17th century. In 1692, at the height of the witch hunts, Massachusetts actually lacked an official charter. There were no local magistrates, no written laws. The people were adrift.
Changing economic forces and family feuds were erupting. The notorious trials are seen growing out of fear, suspicion and jealousy. Religious hysteria was merely the weapon used in a tug of war between haves and have-nots.
The true story is told this time through Sarah Cloyce, played by Miss Redgrave. Sarah and her two older sisters, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Esty, were charged with witchcraft. Her sisters were hanged, but Sarah survived and later filed a petition to reverse the judgments against her family. That was in 1703, and that is when the drama begins as a frail and sick Sarah, one eye almost closed, is brought by her nephew to testify before a private court of the colony that is considering possible restitution to the families of those hanged for witchcraft 10 years earlier.
Sarah's recounting of ''the madness'' begins a few years earlier, in 1689, with the arrival in Salem Village of a new minister named Samuel Parris (William Lyman). His detractors argue that Parris is little more that a failed merchant from the West Indies who is demanding ''a small fortune from our hides.'' But he arrives, bringing his family and two slaves, whose voodoo practices will prove fatally attractive to some of Salem's children. In the end, Sarah will produce a map of the village and will show how a simple line drawn down the middle neatly divided the Parris factions and, not incidentally, the village's property disputes.
The hysteria begins with young girls, full of the promise of womanhood, being overwhelmed by some of their voodoo experiments. But instead of being questioned and reprimanded, they are protected by certain adults who themselves begin acting strangely. For the more impressionable, there is only one explanation. The evil hand is upon them. The village is bewitched. The accusations begin, with the names invariably coming from the adults, not the children. Hearings are organized. ''Spectral'' evidence is allowed. Innocence might be determined by such superstitious demands as being able to recite the Lord's Prayer without a single mistake. Sarah and her sisters are among 400 who will be accused and 150 who will be jailed. Twenty will die for their ''sins.''
This NightOwl Production, listing Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan as executive producers, has been assembled with admirable care. Authentic locations, Howard Cummings's production designs, and the photography direction of Larry Pizer (who has worked with Vanessa Redgrave on two previous films, ''Morgan'' and ''Isadora'') account for the film's splendid visual impact. And the cast, directed by Philip Leacock, is generally strong, from two lovely performances by Kim Hunter and Phyllis Thaxter as Sarah's sisters to smaller, but finely etched, contributions from Patrick McGoohan and Jenny Dundas.
Miss Redgrave is little short of phenomenal, her presence felt even when she isn't on the screen. She is clearly dedicated to the character of Sarah, a strong, forceful woman who is not cowed by the ordinary pressures for conformity.
While others wring their hands, Sarah looks at the lunacy around her and labels it tomfoolery. She may be silenced, but she will never be defeated. She clearly sees the nasty little self-interests hiding beneath the feverish piety. Thanks to Miss Redgrave's towering talent, the Salem witch trials once again become a vivid warning out of the troubled past.
This is the original house owned by "Goody" Rebecca Nurse which still stands on its original site and pedestal in Salem Village which is now known as Danvers, Massachusetts. The house, built around 1675, has its original russet color and most of the structure is original and still sound. The Rebecca Nurse Homestead remains one of the oldest dwellings in America and is open for public viewing. Rebecca Nurse was then in her seventies and one of three sisters accused of witchcraft by girls in her own village church. She is buried somewhere in an unmarked grave on the property.
Genealogical researchers and friends - check this site out: They're good people.
By Victor R. Pisano
Three Sovereigns For Sarah
This black-and-white still for a production poster was taken on the Rebecca Nurse Homestead property in Danvers Massachusetts which was once called Salem Village. This is a real glimpse of exactly what it looked like in 1692 in Salem Village. The village was only eight miles from Salem Towne by the Sea where the Trials and executions took place.
We instructed our production Art Director, Howard Cummings, that we wanted to be able to turn off the sound of this PBS mini-series and to visually be able to experience what it looked and felt like in 1692 in Salem Village. Here, Vanessa Redgrave, portraying Sarah Cloye, stands in front of the Meeting House of Salem Village in a rare costume made of actual handwoven wool and linen of the period. There were 36 authentic costumes built for our actors - all constructed out of original materials. Our costume designer, Carol Ramsey, did extensive research to recreate these pieces of wardrobe. They now exist as the ONLY full set of representative clothing of this period (Period II) in existence made of original materials. The entire wardrobe is now housed and displayed in Salem, Massachusetts in the Essex Institute Museum of History.
Meeting House: This is the only structure of its kind in America. The Meeting House was both the Salem Village church and the Town Hall during this era. It was used daily for both functions. Our production company painstakingly researched the construction of the building which came from surviving church records and regional fragments. Noted local historian and town archivist, Richard Trask, meticulously oversaw this replication project. Wood shipbuilders from Boston were commisioned to construct the Meeting House. It was understandably solid and functional. Initially, we ran into a serious snag however when the building inspector of the modern town of Danvers rejected the re-construction plans as "not meeting local building code." We almost lost the production here and we probably would have without divine intervention. Thank you, Sarah. We fought for and received a waiver after a structural engineering company deemed the old plans "over and above" current code. Of course, they were.
Live Stock: Also in this production poster photo, are two "line-back" cows being tended by historian Peter Cooke of famed Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts - a 1620, Period I, "living" museum in its own right. Peter informed us that this was the common livestock breed of the period before other varieties took over. At the time we took this still, there were only 16 line-back cattle in North America. These two were imported from Wales, UK, and cared for at the Plantation. Again - authenticity was paramount. The Oxen used in many scenes were also of a rare breed indicative of 1692 and cared for on Plimoth Plantation.
Fowl: In other scenes, Sarah and her sister Mary tend a group of chickens only found during the late 1600's - Dunghill chickens. no description needed.
Starting here, in the blend of this visual historical feast, you need only to add good acting, dialogue, and music. I am pleased to say that I received the largest grant in the history of the National Endowment for the Humanities based solely on my original screenplay, THREE SOVEREIGNS FOR SARAH. We shot the first draft and I continue to own the copyright to this wonderful production with a great partner in PBS - and Sarah and her sister's as well.
The TEACHER'S GUIDE will continue these observations in "freeze frame" throughout the three one-hour Episodes.
Victor R. Pisano IMDb Pro Info:
In the spring and summer of 1692, one particular family was at the core of the Salem Witch hysteria and subsequent trials - Thomas Putnam and his wife Anne. Their daughter Anne Ruth Putnam was one of the first afflicted girls of Salem Village. The hysterics began in the Village Meeting House when Anne Putnam Jr., and the minister's own daughter, Elizabeth "Bette" Parris, as well as the Reverend's live-in niece, Abigail Williams, all, came down with some manner of "fits." Some say it was the precociousness of the girls, others rightfully believed it was all a class struggle of the haves-and-have-nots of Salem Village. The girls were simply used as pawns.
Rebecca Nurse was sentenced to death by hanging in Salem Towne by the Sea. Rebecca was 71 years of age and the oldest of the three Towne sisters who grew up in Topsfield, Massachusetts in the mid-1600's. She was one of the first of the Salem Village Meeting House congregation to be accused by the girls of the village. History will preserve that Rebecca came to her property too quickly and she rose in rank. Rebecca Nurse was a commoner called "Goodwife" or "Goody" Nurse - only the wives of male property owners would be addressed as "Mrs." Because of this disparity and the property feuds in Salem Village, Rebbeca Nurse would ultimately hang due to those jealousies.
Sarah Cloyce, portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave, considers her defense as she herself is accused of witchcraft by the girls of Salem Village. Sarah was the youngest of three sisters, Rebecca Nurses, Mary Easty and herself - the Towne sisters of Topsfield, Massachusetts. Sarah, along with her sisters were accused of witchcraft. Sarah was the only of the three to escape the hanging tree. Sarah Cloyce principally relied on "the Good Book," the King James Bible, in her defense by relying literally on passages from Corinthians 3:16 "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are."
In this scene, village women confront Sarah just prior to her trial. They themselves wonder how far the accusations will travel. Most of the women in the village do not have the honor of formally being addressed as "Mrs." That was not permitted. They, like Sarah and her sisters, were called "Goodwife" or "Goody" and therefore were thought to be vulnerable to accusations by the more elite accusors and their daughters.
The High Sherrif of Salem territory, (portrayed by actor John Savoia) was responsible for rounding up those accused of witchcraft by the ever-growing number of adolescent girls of Salem Village. One of the accused, an old man named Giles Corey, was actually accused of witchcraft by his own wife, Martha. Martha turned her husband in after she was accused first. At his hearing, Corey refused to enter a plea of either innocent or guilty. In that era, by refusing to plea, one could not be sent to trial. So the court ordered the Sheriff to place Giles Corey on the ground under a large door-plank on which they placed heavy stones until Corey entered a plea. He stubbornly died three days later in defiance of the court and ultimately his accusatory wife. The last words Giles Corey spoke were - "More weight."