Some early "backstory" history of our Series.
During the long making of this mini-series, THREE SOVEREIGNS FOR SARAH, we employed over thirty (30) actors with speaking parts from all walks of life - dozens of more were extras. Three of our actors were Academy Award Winners, others were noted actors from America, Ireland, and the U.K. But the main body of them were "locals." What I mean by that was that many of the actors in this Series were actually related to the characters they were asked to portray. There were several actors in costume who were connected genetically to those either accused or hanged as witches. Talk about needing no incentive. This is one of the main reasons why we created the GENEALOGY page so that we can keep these wonderful connections going.
About mid-way through the production, the New York Times sent a writer up from the Big City to see what was going on and if there were any other new tidbits about our lead actress - Ms. Vanessa Redgrave. Months earlier, Ms. Redgrave was embroiled in a controversial decision to "dis-invite" her as a narrator with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Board of the Symphony did not take kindly to Ms. Redgrave's remarks when she accepted her Oscar at the Academy Awards. They considered her remarks "anti-zionist" - which essentially, they were. So, the Symphony Board tore up her contract sight unseen.
The brouhaha ended up in a lawsuit, which Ms. Redgrave eventually won at far greater expense than the gig would have paid to her to begin with. But, in her mind, the final verdict exonerated her from what she considered a "witch trial." Hense, this was how we got Vanessa Redgrave to consider our movie - that, and a brilliant script of course. More on that elsewhere.
So, here is the New York Times article at the time we were shooting. It also alludes to the reference I made above about how many of the actors in the mini-series were deeply connected to the "witch thing," like Ms. Redgrave herself.
Victor R. Pisano writer/producer/educator
The New York Times Archives
BOSTON, TELEVISION; THE WITCHES OF SALEM GET A NEW HEARING
By FOX BUTTERFIELD
Casting his eyes somberly on the congregation, the Rev. Samuel Parris intoned, ''In this tiny hamlet of Salem Village, a scourge has silently and most profoundly made its way in. Satan is among us.''
The setting, in a replica of a 17th- century Puritan church, was the critical scene in a new mini-series being filmed for the Public Broadcasting Service about the witchcraft trials in Salem in 1692. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, the three-hour production is entitled ''Three Sovereigns for Sarah'' and is scheduled to be shown under the ''American Playhouse'' banner next May.
Miss Redgrave plays the role of Sarah Cloyce, one of three sisters adjudged to be witches, and during today's filming, she is seated below the Rev. Parris, a 17th-century Bible on her lap. When the minister announces the text for his sermon, ''Have I not chosen you twelve and one of you is a devil,'' a reference to Judas, Miss Redgrave stands up, stalks out of the meeting house and slams the door. She takes it as an affront to her and her sisters (played by Phyllis Thaxter and Kim Hunter). Yet, for devout Puritans of the time, her exit was tantamount to proof of her guilt as a witch.
To enhance its authenticity, ''Three Sovereigns for Sarah'' draws heavily for its dialogue on the actual transcripts of the witchcraft trials and the Rev. Parris's sermons. Miss Redgrave, a tall, spare woman of 47, with blue eyes, pink cheeks and wisps of blonde hair peeking out from under a red bonnet, said she had prepared herself for her role by reading three volumes of the court proceedings.
The character she is portraying, Sarah Cloyce, is finally spared, though her two sisters, Rebecca and Mary, are hanged, and she spends the rest of her life trying to get their verdicts posthumously reversed. The mini-series draws its title from three gold coins that a Royal Commission of Inquiry, sent by Queen Anne of England, awarded her in 1703, nearly ten years later. To Miss Redgrave, long active in political causes, most recently on behalf of the Palestinians, the film has contemporary significance.
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''There is still a tremendous amount of mystical demagoguery around,'' she said during a break in the shooting. The actress was clad in a long, rust-colored linen dress with a white smock. ''There are still people who believe in astral bodies,'' she added, referring to some of the evidence allowed in the Salem trials. Many of the cases were decided when the teenage girls who were thought to be possessed by the devil broke into screams and claimed to see Satan hovering around the accused.
The idea for the dramatization originated with Victor Pisano, a native Bostonian, who wrote the screenplay and is producing the film. Mr. Pisano originally intended to focus the story around Rebecca, the oldest and best known of the three sisters - she was examined by the magistrates and deemed a witch while lying ill in bed, too weak and deaf to understand the questions put to her. ''But after I came across the scene of Sarah storming out of the church, I knew then that was the real story,'' said Mr. Pisano.
There have been other dramatic treatments of the Salem witch trials, in which 19 people were hanged and more than 150 were thrown into prison. The best known, perhaps, is Arthur Miller's 1953 play ''The Crucible,'' written in the shadow of McCarthyism. But Miss Redgrave said she was excited to work in this new production because ''it's based on the real history of what happened.''
Indeed, the mini-series draws heavily on a highly regarded 1974 book ''Salem Possessed,'' by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, which shed new light on the whole Salem incident. Mr. Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts who is serving as an adviser to the television dramatization, believes that ''Salem was not a community that went hysterical in 1692 but a divided community.'' Salem was in the midst of major economic and social changes at the time, Professor Nissenbaum argues, and ''it was no coincidence'' that the people doing the accusing were in the group that was losing out, while those attacked as witches were newly prosperous.
In fact, in October 1691, only three months before the accusations of witchcraft were made, the more affluent group took over the local Board of Selectmen and tried to force the Rev. Parris out of his job, Professor Nissenbaum relates. It was the Rev. Parris's daughter Elizabeth and her cousin Abagail who first fell into frenzies and made the initial charges of witchcraft.
''In a religious society like the 17th- century Puritans, a political struggle is very easily seen as a demonic fight against the forces of God,'' Professor Nissenbaum adds.
The mini-series, which is budgeted at $1.5 million, is largely financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. To help keep it authentic, an exact copy of a 17th-century church, or meeting house, has been built in a field across a dirt path from the original homestead of Rebecca, one of the three sisters. Rebecca's house painted a silvered cranberry, is now a museum. It is located where the accusations of witchcraft actually occurred in what is now the town of Danvers but at the time was called Salem Village. The trials and subsequent hangings took place in the seaport of Salem.
The production is being filmed in many of the original settings north of Boston, and there is irony in Miss Redgrave's appearance here, for this week she is also in Federal District Court in Boston suing the Boston Symphony Orchestra for $5 million for breach of contract and violation of her civil rights. The lawsuit grew out of the symphony's cancellation of her performance in 1982 as the narrator in Stravinsky's ''Oedipus Rex.'' Miss Redgrave contends the orchestra called off the concert, damaging her career, after pressure from Jewish members of the board of trustees who objected to her pro-Palestinian activities. The symphony has asserted that the concert couldn't go ahead as originally scheduled because of threats to disrupt it from the Jewish Defense League and warnings by some members of the orchestra that they wouldn't perform.
Oddly, Miss Redgrave's first work, after the concert was canceled, was in the feature film adaptation of Henry James's novel ''The Bostonians,'' in which she plays an outspoken 19th-century suffragette who lives on Boston's Beacon Hill. ''Three Sovereigns for Sarah'' is her second role since the 1982 incident, making her something of a local fixture.
Mr. Pisano said he is proud that the project is largely an indigenous production, with a local film crew and 25 of the 36 speaking parts going to Boston-area actors. He even found a direct descendant of Rebecca, Herb Lear, who was given a bit part in the film. Mr. Lear, a cheerful middle-aged man who has been costumed for the film in a green frock coat and brown britches, has become a favorite of Miss Redgrave.
''In the scenes, we're doing in the meeting house, I can feel his eyes urging me on,'' the actress said while sitting outside waiting for her cue. ''It's a connection to history.''
From inside the simple brown- stained building came the shrieks and cries of teenage girls. Another villager was being accused of consorting with the devil.
Photo: Richard Trask
We shot this mini-series during both the heat of summer and the chill of a New England winter - all on original locations. Here, my daughter Jessica, eight years old at the time, had just finished a scene with Vanessa Redgrave where she played the Jailer's young daughter on the farm where Sarah was imprisoned. I had taken some time off as well to be an "extra" so I could be fed an early lunch with my actress kid. We fed our people well.
Just after this photo was taken, we all were very excited when People Magazine came to the set to do a background piece to their upcoming TV review. We were even more excited after the first Episode aired and People Magazine labeled THREE SOVEREIGNS FOR SARAH the "Best of Tube" for the year 1985. That's the best show on television that year - 1985. Of course, there were fewer networks back then, but I would like our chances even in today's saturated TV environment.
Here is the accompanying Review from People Magazine:
Picks and Pans Review:
Pick: "BEST OF TUBE"
American Playhouse: Three Sovereigns for Sarah
by JEFF JARVIS
POSTED ON MAY 27, 1985 AT 12:00PM EDT
PBS (Monday, May 27, 9 p.m. ET)
Last year American Playhouse won a well-deserved Emmy for its miniseries Concealed Enemies, the story of the Alger Hiss trials. This year Playhouse could win another with Three Sovereigns for Sarah, the story of 1692’s Salem witch trials. (Witch-hunts are not all that American Playhouse does well.)
Vanessa Redgrave stars as one of three sisters charged with witchcraft, the only one to escape the hanging tree. A decade after the witch hysteria ends, Redgrave appears before Patrick (The Prisoner) McGoohan, who’s one of three English judges sent to the colonies to investigate the trials. She wants to tell the true story: how the madness began with some innocent girls’ games of fortune-telling, and how local politics turned the games into grisly terror that killed 20. As she begins to talk, the scene shifts back to Salem, where young girls act possessed (overdoing it some with their screaming and wailing). With the help of the adults, the girls point accusing fingers at the unpopular people of the village. S
Sovereigns presents a quietly drawn but horrifying picture of evil people who see evil all around them. The show has been meticulously researched, but writer-producer Victor Pisano did not let musty historical details interfere with his drama. Unlike most historical minis, the dialogue in this one is rarely stilted; the people are real, brought to life by a first-class cast, including Phyllis Thaxter and Kim Hunter as Redgrave’s sisters.
Sovereigns is engrossing, great TV.
(Parts Two and Three air on the following Mondays.)