America’s obsession with witches began in 1692, with the infamous Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. This grisly event has inspired writers since the 19th century. Playwrights such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Cornelius Mathews, and, most notably, Arthur Miller have all put their spin on the historical event, with Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible taking the Broadway stage five times.
The Salem Witch Trials are often sketched out this way: in the Puritan community of Salem, a group of young girls began to have fits, display unusual injuries, and cry out that others in the village were tormenting them. With accusations of witchcraft thrown about in the deeply religious community, a panic broke out that led to the trials, which resulted in 19 people hanged and one pressed to death. More died while still in prison.
The events became a touchstone of American culture, from the employment of the phrase “witch hunt” in American politics to this day—a term colloquially associated with Salem—to the lighthearted family fun of Disney’s cult favorite film Hocus Pocus (which is in development for a stage adaptation). Below, discover how this moment in America’s history has thoroughly possessed playwrights (including Salem descendants) and audiences for centuries.
Becky Nurse of Salem by Sarah Ruhl
Ruhl updates America’s famous witch trials for the modern age with the story of Becky Nurse. A descendant of Rebecca Nurse, one of the women hung for witchcraft in 1692, Becky is an outspoken modern woman who loses her job giving tours at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft after she disparages The Crucible. Frustrated and looking for a helping hand, Becky visits a local witch—and things quickly go downhill. Becky faces her family’s legacy and finds her voice in this dark comedy, which questions how much really has changed for American women in three centuries. Ruhl’s play made its world premiere in 2019 and will soon take the stage at Lincoln Center Theater beginning November 8.
The Devil in Boston by Lion Feuchtwanger
Published in 1948, The Devil in Boston was written by Lion Feuchtwanger, a Jewish immigrant from Germany. He obtained asylum in 1941 and wrote the play while living in Los Angeles. The Devil in Boston explores similar themes to The Crucible, including the resonances between the 1692 witch hunt and growing anxieties about communists in 1940s America. Feuchtwanger focuses on Elizabeth Parris, one of the girls who accused others of witchcraft during the trials, and Cotton Mather, a preacher who played an important role in the historical event.
Abigail/1702 by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Set 10 years after the trials, Aguirre-Sacasa’s work explores what happened to Abigail Williams after the events of The Crucible. A ringleader of the girls who made accusations of witchcraft, Abigail’s past continues to haunt her despite a new identity and a new address in Boston. Struggling to atone, a stranger’s appearance in Abigail’s life forces her to confront her past, with one final attempt at redemption. New York Stage and Film presented the work as part of its 2012 Powerhouse Season, with productions following at Cincinnati Playhouse in Park in 2013, and a West Coast premiere at Long Beach's International City Theatre in 2015.
Sarah Flood in Salem Mass by Adriano Shaplin
In 2013, Off-Off-Broadway’s the Flea Theater staged Shaplin’s play about Sarah Flood and her friend Juyoung, messengers from the future, who travel back in time to Puritan-era New England in the hopes of saving everyone victimized by the Salem Witch Trials. Interested in how the girls of Salem seek power—or is it empowerment?—in Puritan society, Shaplin mixes historical fiction and science fiction. Sarah and Juyoung become swept up in the drama and inevitably the question is raised: what happens to the future when you change the past?
Afflicted: Daughters of Salem by Laurie Brooks
Commissioned by Kansas City, Missouri’s the Coterie Theatre, where it premiered in 2014, Brooks investigates what led to the Salem Witch Trials. The play is about five young girls who led the accusations of witchcraft: Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam (Brooks' own cousin, many generations back), Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren, and Elizabeth Parris. Afflicted imagines the girls as a group forged to help them find power in—and rebel against—a society that seeks to oppress them.
Salem by Kira Stone
Accused witches are put on trial in this new concept musical from Stone, herself a descendant of Susannah Martin who was hung for witchcraft in Salem. The audience acts as a modern-day jury, listening to the accusations of witchcraft hurled by another group of women. Overseen by a male judge, the trial takes a turn when the accused end up holding the jury and the judge hostage. The historical mashup features dark pop melodies and received virtual performances in 2020 at New York Theatre Barn.
John Proctor Is the Villain by Kimberly Belflower
One work rejecting the traditional view of The Crucible's John Proctor as a force for good is Belflower’s John Proctor Is the Villain. The play, set in a modern-day high school’s English class, follows a group of students reading The Crucible as their community faces its own scandals. With the class’s five teenage girls questioning Proctor’s good image. They argue that he was a sexual predator for having an affair with 17-year-old Abigail Williams; the play is an examination of Miller’s classic for a post-#MeToo world. John Proctor Is the Villain made its world premiere earlier this year at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre.
Witch Hunt by Ashley Griffin and Zane Carney
Announced earlier this year, this new musical is currently in development. Also taking inspiration from the story of Abigail Williams, Witch Hunt follows a group of repressed children, all born to well-known Washington figureheads. Caught having a rave at a satanic temple, the kids attempt to reclaim their voices by posting that they are victims of witchcraft on social media. The kids begin to turn on their families under the leadership of Abigail—who uses the witchcraft hysteria to get justice after years of being suppressed from holding her rapist, John Proctor, accountable. A concept album is expected to be released in the next year.