Tag Archives: Theatre

Arthur Miller in Salem

So this is where we are with the Phillips Library relocation, for lack of a better term: the Peabody Essex Museum, having made the reluctant admission that the collections will not be returning to Salem in December (after informing several parties this fact in the late spring of 2017), has agreed to keep the historic reading room in Salem open, but that’s about it: what will actually be in there is unspecified, except perhaps for volumes of the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, a venerable journal that the PEM did away with almost as soon as it had absorbed the latter. There have been two pieces in the Boston Globe, and several meetings of both the Salem Historical Commission and the Mayor’s “Working Group”, which are charged with dealing with both the exterior and interior aspects of this PEM problem. Meanwhile, the Phillips collections are en route to the 1980s toy factory off Route One in Rowley, far removed from the context of their creation, and inaccessible by public transportation.

Books-on-Shelves-870x490 I am assuming that these are Phillips materials, from the website of Smith +St. John, a “real estate and development management” company that has been fulfilling a variety of functions for the PEM, including: “Administrative leadership – when the director of the Phillips Library retired in October 2014, Smith + St. John principal Gregor Smith was asked to serve as interim director while the Museum conducted a national search to fill the position with the right rare book scholar”. Unusual to have a real estate developer serve as director of a research library, no?

Throughout these 2+ months, I have never heard one admission from a PEM representative that what they were doing was in any way detrimental to Salem, the very crucible of their collections, despite the fact that they are always lauding themselves as the country’s oldest continuously operating museum based on the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society of Salem. They remain very publicly and exclusively focused on the priority of preservation, but I see no acknowledgement that the Phillips is both a library and an archive: with public records therein, as well as materials that people will come specifically to Salem to see. There’s no better way to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between place and exploration than the example of one of the Phillips’ Library’s most famous researchers, Arthur Miller, who wrote about his trip to Salem for Crucible material and inspiration in several essays as well as his 1987 autobiography Timebends. He was drawn to Salem in the spring of 1952, but found it to be “a sidetracked town…with abandoned factories and vacant stores” according to his 1996 recollections in the New Yorker. No one wanted to talk about the trials then; it was the archives that first made the story come alive for him, the trial transcripts which he read in the “gloomy courthouse” and then other texts in a repository he identifies alternatively as the “museum” or the “historical society”: the Phillips Library.

archival collage 2

Salem's Museum NYT 1953 Feb 8.JPG

In his 1953 New York Times article “Journey to the Crucible”, Miller recalls a “silent” library/museum, in which an old man, looking like a retired professor, is reading a document. Two middle-aged couples come in from their automobile outside and ask to see the pins: the pins the spirits stuck the children with. The pins are in the courthouse, they are told. They look about at the books, the faded fragments of paper that once meant Proctor must hang tomorrow, paper that came through the farmhouse door in the hands of a friend who had a half-determined, half-ashamed look in his eyes. The tourists pass the books, the exhibits and no hint of danger reaches them from the quaint relics. I have a desire to tell them the significance of those relics. It is the desire to write. That’s a pretty good description of intellectual/creative inspiration! And he goes on, taking it outside, into the streets of Salem: the stroll down Essex Street I remember, and the empty spaces between the parking meters, the dark storefronts…but further down a lighted store, and noise. I take a look: a candy store. A mob of girls and boys in their teens running in and out, ganging around on the vacant street, a jalopy pulls up with two wet-haired boys, and a whispered consultation with a girl on the running boards; she runs into the store, comes out with a friend, and off they go into the night, the proud raccoon tail straightening from the radiator cap. And suddenly, from around a corner, two girls hopping with a broomstick between their legs, and general laughter going up at the specific joke. A broomstick. And riding it. And I remember the girls of Salem, the only Salem there ever was for me—the 1692 Salem–and how they purged their sins by embracing God and pointing out His enemies in the town. Salem girls. No researcher is going to find such archival ambiance, and such an illuminating juxtaposition between past and present, in the midst of an industrial development in Rowley. Arthur Miller returned to Salem in late 1991 for the announcement of the planned memorial for the Tercentenary in the coming year, expressing concern about the commercialization of the Trials (which “trivializes the agony of the victims”) but also appreciation for its historical resources. And with the removal of the latter, we are increasingly defenseless against the former.


Female Fancy-Dress, 1609-1980

I am so looking forward to Halloween night next Tuesday, not only because our long municipal nightmare will be over here in Salem for another year, but also because I actually do enjoy creative Halloween costumes, and they do appear on this night, glittering like stars in a sky of more generic garb. If an entire family is going to make the trek to Salem to trick-or-treat on Chestnut Street, they will often go all out, and in years past I’ve seen the Swiss Family Robinson, The Jacksons, the Addams Family (actually I think these three were all just last year), the Coneheads, the Jetsons, and a variety of historical characters, en masse and individually. I wish there were more conceptual costumes and less inspired by popular culture but that’s probably asking for too much for a holiday that is supposed to be for and about children. The most creative (and conceptual) costumes I have ever seen were made (or proposed) for masquerades or fancy-dress parties prior to 1920 or so, after which Halloween began to emerge as a major American holiday and the witches and the pumpkin-heads pushed out the nymphs and the sprites and the various ethereal forest creatures. Costumes begin with Queens, who were entitled to prance about in court masques long before actresses were, so I’m going to begin my portfolio with the Queen of the Amazons, one of many costumes designed by Inigo Jones for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masques, which were commissioned by King James I’s (and VI’s) Queen Anne, my vote for bestdressed Queen of all time. Jonson’s The Masque of the Queens was presented at Whitehall Palace in February of 1609, the third masque written for Anne and the first to include an “anti-masque” featuring witches, of course, the opposite of the virtuous ladies played by the Queen and her ladies. Penthesilea, the Amazonian Queen, enters first (after the witches).

Costume Masques

Costume rowlandson500

Costume collage 3Inigo Jones’ Penthesilea costume for the Masque of Queens, 1609, British Library; Thomas Rowland’s Dressing for a Masquerade, British Museum;  Léon Sault’s designs for the House of Worth, 1860s: Eve with a snake and a Sorceress, Victoria & Albert Museum. 


A bit less custom, and a bit more commercialized, costuming commences in the later nineteenth century: more for fancy-dress parties than for Halloween. All sort of costumes can be found in pattern books from this era, such as Jennie Taylor Wandle’s Masquerade and Carnival. Their Customs and Costumes, published by the Butterick Publishing Company in 1892. As you can see, the Halloween archetypes (devil, witch, sorceress, little and big bat) are already popular. Women’s magazine also offer up lots of fancy-dress inspiration: below are some very……naturalistic costumes from the Ladies Home Journal in 1914 and a few more conventional examples from 1920.

Costume collage

Costume masqueradecarniv00wand_0053

Costume masqueradecarniv00wand_0114

Fancy Party Costumes LHJ Nov 1914

Costume collage 2

The transition from fancy-dress to Halloween costumes comes just around this time, 1920: I am marking it with an aptly-titled commercial publication,  Dennison’s Bogie Book, issued by the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts in 1920. This “book of suggestions for decorating and entertaining at Hallowe’en, Harvest Time, and Thanksgiving” contains lots of instructions, indicating that we’re at a moment where traditions are being invented. Of course all you need to have the perfect Halloween are Dennison products, which all seem to be made of orange and black crepe paper. It seems like full-blown commercial Halloween is right around the corner, but yet when I look at the photograph of Batgirl, St. Ann (wow, she’s the outlier here!), and Wonder Woman from New York city photographer Larry Racciopo’s Halloween (1980), it doesn’t seem like we’ve come that far at all.

Costumes 1920

Halloween Costumes 1980 Bat Girl, St. Ann, and Wonder Woman photographed by Larry Racioppo, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


The Spring of Presentism and the Salem Witch Trials

My department has been co-sponsoring topical symposia for the past few years, first on the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and last year on northern slavery. These are day-long events, very much open to a very participatory public. This year, we are focusing on the Salem Witch Trials, in recognition and commemoration of its 325th anniversary, as well as the imminent dedication of the Proctor’s Ledge execution site. The Trials are a rather intimidating topic to take on, especially as we are attempting to focus not only on the well-established narrative of events but also on their comprehensive impact on Salem’s own history and identity: time and place. The symposium, entitled Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692, is jointly sponsored with the Salem Award Foundation and the Essex National Heritage Area, and will be held on June 10: the registration will be live in a few weeks and I’ll post a link here.

Salem's Trials Card Cover Mockup Framed

The symposium committee has been meeting for a year and I think we have a great program: presentations and panels on the trials themselves, teaching the trials (a key challenge for educators in our region), some European comparisons and context, a panel on the making of Witch City, an opportunity for descendants of the victims to record their “testimonies”, the attendant expertise of Salem experts Emerson Baker, Margo Burns and Marilynne K. Roach, and a keynote address by Dr. Kenneth Foote of the University of Connecticut, author of Shadowed Ground. America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. It’s rather late in the game to add anything, but I keep thinking we’re missing something, something about the dreaded “pit of presentism” into which the discourse of 1692 always seems to fall. I suspect presentism will pop up in several places, however, and most definitely in the discussion on the development of the “Witch City” identity.  We had hoped to keep this discussion centered on a relatively distant past–the 1890s in particular–when you start seeing witches on everything coincidentally with the 200th anniversary of the Trials–but I’m realizing that we can’t stop there: we must proceed to the 1950s, when the solid foundation of witchcraft–presentism was laid with the sequential publication of Marian Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts. A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). From that point on, psychological diagnoses, allegories, and moral judgements flow, and flourish. The 1890s Witch City projections are coming from inside Salem, and are strictly commercial, taking the form of logos and trinkets for the most part, but the 1950s projections are external and national, even international, derived from the massive popular reception of Starkey’s and Miller’s works–and all the publicity they both received. Just look at this lavish spread of photographs by Nina Leen taken for a feature article on The Devil in Massachusetts in the September 26, 1949 issue of Life magazine: Starkey with her cat and wandering around Gallows Hill, “the girls”, a Putnam descendant posing, the newly-restored Witch House. Salem as set piece.

Starkey 5

Starkey Gallows Hill

Starkey collage

Starkey 3

Starkey 10 Photographs by Nina Leen taken on August 8, 1949 for the September 26 issue of Life magazine, ©Time, Inc.

And onto this set strode Arthur Miller (who strangely does not credit Starkey), inspired to write the play that is continuously on stage and in print and is as much or more about his time as their time. The past as present for all time, it seems.


Arkham/Salem

I have never been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft but having spent most of my professional life in the company of 20-year-olds here in Salem I’ve definitely been exposed to the man and his works, especially as they (supposedly) relate to our gothic city. Many of my students believe that the Lovecraftian city of Arkham was modeled on Salem, and its Miskatonic University, our university. They might be right about the former, as the fictional Arkham does indeed have a lot of Salem features, but Lovecraft’s Miskatonic U. is a lot more ivy-covered than our concrete Salem State: most experts assert that is modeled after Bradford College, a now-defunct college up in Haverhill, or perhaps even Brown University, located in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. We have a great nursing program but no medical school (to service our sanitarium) or Department of Medieval Metaphysics. Apart from the University, The Arkham/Salem connection seems so well-established that I’ve always been curious that Lovecraft has not been assimilated more comprehensively into the relentless Witch City campaign, but that seems to be changing now: I’ve seen Lovecraft walking tours and an exhibit over the past year, and for the next few weeks the Salem Theatre Company is staging an adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep, the Lovecraft story most closely associated with Salem through its references to the old Derby house and the old Crowninshield place.

Thing on the Doorstep

One of my former students directed me to a site that really drives home the Salem/Arkham connection: The Miskatonic Railroad, 18821907. The centerpiece and absolute focus of this Arkham is Salem’s fortress-like train station, which was demolished in 1954. I don’t believe that Lovecraft ever mentioned the Salem Depot in his works, but it certainly appears Lovecraftian, both in photographs and as recreated for the model Miskatonic Railroad. Its creator, John Ott, doesn’t care much for the rest of Salem, but he is duly impressed by our long-gone station: “Salem today rates about a seven on the dreary scale—not much to see, despite its touristy cant. But up until about sixty years ago, Salem boasted the most spine-tingling eerie Gothic-Norman stone train station in North America”.  Apparently he doesn’t share Lovecraft’s affection for Federal architecture!

Salem Train Depot SSU

Salem Train Depot Razing SSU

Arkham Ott

Arkham Ott 2

Salem Train Depot side view LOC

Miskatonic RR Station

Photographs of the old Salem Train Depot from c. 1905, 1910 & 1954 (the razing!!!), from the Dionne Collection at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections and the Library of Congress interspersed with John Ott’s model Miskatonic Railroad Station. Many more images (and stories) of the latter here.


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