The “Merry Devil of Edmonton” and “The Witch of Edmonton”

The following is adapted from the introduction to my adaptations of The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton.

Out of Shakespeare’s Shadow

     That fellow from Stratford casts a long, virtually impenetrable shadow over the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. Few today would be able to think of another playwright from the period — I hear a few of you shout “Marlowe”. Fewer still would be able to name a non-Shakespearean play from the period — “Dr. Faustus” one or two yell, as Marlowe peeks out of Shakespeare’s shadow again. But Shakespeare and Marlowe were just two of a multitude of playwrights of the period, and many, many plays of varying quality have come down to us that have nothing to do with Bill the Bard. But how many of those plays ever see a stage today? And how many of those plays have you seen performed? I confess, apart from an occasional bit of trans-Atlantic leakage from the BBC, I’ve never seen a production of a non-Shakespearean Elizabethan play. On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the number of Midsummer Night’s Dreams I’ve tripped over, from Patrick Stewart in a loincloth as Oberon at Stratford in 1977 to Edmonton’s Winter Shakespeare Festival’s production in 2020.

     I don’t think it in anyway diminishes Shakespeare’s genius to suggest that the time is long past for him to yield the stage for an evening or two to some of his illustrious but neglected colleagues. There is so much good and great theatre out there in the world (And I don’t mean just the English Language stage tradition – I dream of seeing a production of Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño !): I can’t help thinking that it is the responsibility of theatre artists to provide, and theatre audiences to demand, a broader view of our shared inheritance of great drama. I am so very grateful that Benjamin Blyth and Danielle La Rose of the Malachites feel the same way and are bringing The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton to the place these plays truly belong: a stage in Edmonton.

The Merry Devil of Edmonton

     The Merry Devil of Edmonton first came into my life as an accidental side benefit of my (possibly) pathological book collecting. A few years ago I was walking home from The Bookseller (96th Street and Whyte Avenue in East Strathcona, hard by the Mill Creek Bridge) examining my latest finds with happiness, when my eye fell with startlement on a title in a small volume of Elizabethan Tragedies: The Merry Devil of Edmonton. “Why have I never heard of this?!” I exclaimed, perhaps aloud. There and then began a decade or so of study, writing, and mild badgering of the Edmonton theatre community about the need to somehow bring the Merry Devil (and, later, The Witch of Edmonton) to the stage in their namesake city in the distant woods of Rupert’s Land. A passing mention of the plays to Danielle La Rose of the Malachites (over frozen haggis, if I remember) about a year ago, led to a staged reading of the two plays at Edmonton’s first Winter Shakespeare Festival in 2020.

     The Merry Devil as it has come down to us is what would be termed a “bad” text. Many passages seem garbled and whole scenes appear to be missing. I have emended one speech, in Act IV, Scene ii, to remedy a generally recognized corruption of the text. Three scenes, those of Fabell disguised as Hildersham meeting the knights in the Rectory of Holy Trinity, of Sir John’s singing in the woods of the Mill Creek Ravine with his friends (the songs themselves are traditional), and of Smug and the Tavern Signs are my own creations. I have added these scenes to clarify very apparent inconsistencies in the play as it has survived. The events in my added scenes are hinted at in the play and the latter two survive in a chapbook version of the adventures of Peter Fabell, Smug the Smith, and his friends. I have little doubt that in some Elizabethan performances of The Merry Devil of Edmonton similar scenes would have been performed.

     Peter Fabell (like most of the characters in The Merry Devil of Edmonton) is a folkloric figure with perhaps some basis in fact. He bears resemblance to the Faust legends, but, unlike Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Fabell traditionally outwits the Devil, saving his own soul (by being buried in the exterior wall of the Church in the Village of Edmonton, in the space between consecrated and unconsecrated ground) while having enjoyed the benefits of his Demonic contract.

     In our play, Fabell is still a young man, just beginning on his magical career of outwitting demons and the older generation. But he is already a powerful trickster figure. With his tricks Fabell helps his young friends overturn the plans of their parents. In fact, Fabell works to effect the transition of his society from the Medieval to Modern — in Marshall McLuhan’s words, “out of the world of roles into the new world of jobs” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 22 in my old Signet paperback copy). Young Raymond, Millicent and their friends, and particularly Fabell, are not willing to quietly submit to the roles prescribed to them by their elders. Instead they set about, with the help of Fabell’s wit and magic, the job of creating their own future, and, in the end, they draw their elders into that world as well.

The Witch of Edmonton

This natural infirmity is most eminent in old women, and such as are poor, solitary, live in most base esteeem and beggary, or such as are witches; insomuch that Wierus, Baptista Porta, Ulricus Molitor, Edwicus, do refer all that witches are said to do, to imagination alone, and this humour of melancholy.
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Pt. I, Sec. 2.

     The story of Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch of The Witch of Edmonton, is a most quintessential tragedy, made even more tragic by the fact that Elizabeth Sawyer was a real woman tried and executed just a few years before the play was first performed. Mother Sawyer was scapegoated and killed for witchcraft. This in spite of the fact that the educated of her time, such as the real-life scholar Robert Burton, writing about what we might term “geriatric depression” in 1621 above were quite convinced that witchcraft was not really a “thing”. Mother Sawyer is a woman far more sinned against than sinning. She is condemned as a witch by neighbours who project their own fundamental ugliness onto her truly superficial ugliness. She wishes nothing else than to cling to her meagre existence, to be left alone, but she is condemned, beaten, and killed by the wealthy and the privileged, while those same wealthy and privileged go about their sinful business. Mother Sawyer so rightly describes that business of the privileged as actual “witchcraft”. Mother Sawyer is a tragic and pitifully realistic counterbalance to the educated and urbane Fabell. Both Fabell and Sawyer deal with the Devil, but it is only in poverty that the Devil truly has full, unrestrained power to do his damage.

     For the Winter Shakespeare Festival, I very heavily abridged the text of The Witch of Edmonton to bring it within the time constraints of the staged readings. This was a quite painful process: there is much poetry in this telling of the true-life tragedy of Elizabeth Sawyer. Much of the abridgement came down to the removal of single words, often of lines or brief speeches, but once of a large portion of a scene. The process was very opposite to that of adapting The Merry Devil, which largely involved adding my feeble creations rather than vandalizing a wonderful and coherent piece of art.

A Note on Locations

     The localities mentioned in the original text of the plays — Edmonton, Waltham, Enfield, Cheston (Cheshunt) — are now neighbourhoods of North London, but in Elizabethan times they were rural towns and villages in their own right. Just so, many neighbourhoods of our Edmonton were their own towns and villages not so very long ago. My own neighbourhood, Strathcona, was once a city in its own right. Since truly human truths are true wherever their story is told, I felt it would be both true and entertaining for modern Edmonton, Canada audiences if I quietly replaced the localities of London, England, circa 1600 with names of neighbourhoods, churches, and other landmarks around my home in 21st century Edmonton.
The Village of Edmonton in the plays, Fabell’s and Mother Sawyer’s home, is the namesake of our City of Edmonton, where so many today are energetically working like Fabell’s cohort, or tragically struggling like Mother Sawyer, to use imagination and wit to invent and reinvent themselves and their home. It has been small but enjoyable work to move the localities from the banks of the Thames to the banks of the North Saskatchewan.

Vanessa and the Mob

     There is a lady who lives in my neighbourhood– let’s call her “Vanessa”. She has a small dog, and she sells slim street newspapers each Saturday outside the “Farmers’” Market just down the Avenue from my house. If you live in Old Strathcona, you probably recognize Vanessa. The vast majority of the shoppers who pass by Vanessa drive cars from the suburbs each Saturday to get their little bit of “local” stuff before driving back to their distant homes. They can afford to shop at the Market. Vanessa can’t afford to buy her groceries at the “Farmers’” Market.

     Vanessa’s dog looks anxious, perhaps anxious to please. She is very calm, but when you talk to Vanessa– really talk to her — you get to know that she has — with reason – plenty of anger in her.

But Vanessa is kind.

     I help Vanessa out sometimes – less than I am able. And Vanessa has helped me, too, out of all proportion to the occasional twenty or collection of empties I’ve given her. She’s a “Street Person”, perhaps, but she’s definitely not “down and out”. Vanessa has a home. I have seen Vanessa survive surgery, eviction, alcoholism, and stuff I suspect but hesitate to imagine. Vanessa and her little dog are survivors.

     This evening, as I sit thinking about The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton in my comfortable home in a comfortable neighbourhood of a comfortable Canadian city in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century — a time when all statistical indicators tell us unequivocally that I live in the best of times ever for humans on this planet (despite the quite apparent coming climate apocalypse) — I think of Vanessa and her little dog. And I see that I am Fabell — little but fortunate, not a survivor — and Vanessa is Mother Sawyer, gathering sticks just to survive. I wish so much Fabell had been a totally real person, not largely myth, and that he had used his cunning to help the tragically real Mother Sawyer, even if only with a shilling, or a few sticks, or nothing more than a kind word.

     And if, as it came for Elizabeth Sawyer, the mob ever were to come for Vanessa, in this modern time, in this Gilded Age of (anti-)Social Media in which it seems so easy for mobs to appear, I hope that I would help her, that the whole neighbourhood would help her, that Edmonton would help her, somehow.

     But I wonder . . .

Twin wishes, for these Plays, and for the Reader

     I wish that through my small efforts of adaptation, through the creativity of the actors performing the staged readings at the Winter Shakespeare Festival, and through the publication of my adaptations in a little volume, The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton will have been, first of all, appreciated, if only for an evening, by an audience in Edmonton; and secondly, that at some point in the not too distant future these two plays will be taken up and be given a fuller production — and a new home — by Edmonton’s wonderful community of theatre artists.

     Foibles afflict all of our lives, and we all need distractions from the little and the big things that disrupt our days and nights. I hope you, Reader and Theatre-goer find these two undeservedly unknown plays at least a small, pleasant diversion. Most importantly, may all your future foibles be nothing like Mother Sawyer’s tragedy, and much, much more like Smug’s comedy.

     And if you see Vanessa anywhere in your travels, say “Hello. I hope you’re doing okay.”

     And give her a fiver, for her paper.

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