Miss Wilkins's “Giles Corey, Yeoman”

From The Critic Vol. 19 No. 583 (Apr 22, 1893)

It is not probable that any theatrical manager will venture the experiment of producing the “Giles Corey, Yeoman,” of Miss Mary E. Wilkins, especially after the failure of the mutilated and perverted version of it produced in this city and elsewhere by the Theatre of Arts and Letters. Nevertheless, it is not only an admirable and interesting piece of literary work, but could easily be made exceedingly effective in stage representation. It is a genuine tragedy in prose, founded upon historical facts, constructed with classic severity and directness and written with rare simplicity and power. The scene is laid in Salem, Mass., in 1692, and the personages are actors in the melancholy scenes enacted there during the witchcraft madness of that memorable year. It is a very long time since any modern playwright has produced anything so vividly illustrative of a bygone period, so true in detail and atmosphere, so vital and unexaggerated, so pathetic or so free from anything like melodramatic device. In short “Giles Corey” is a drama of the highest class, a chapter taken from the great book of life and converted into action with so much art and verisimilitude that a capable performance of it might almost cheat a spectator of moderate faith into believing that he had been transported backward through two centuries.

The story is told with a completeness and proportion indicative of rare dramatic sense, and increases steadily in interest through a succession of logical stages to the tragic climax. In the first act the household of Giles Corey is introduced, and the existing situation is revealed by a succession of the most natural incidents in the world. Corey himself — a sturdy old soldier and frontiersman, fearless against mortal foe — has been infected, it appears, with the prevailing superstition, and is unable to sympathize with the contempt which his wife Martha and daughter Olive — true daughters of the Covenant — express for witchcraft and all the powers of the air. He has heard the shrieks of the “afflicted” maidens, and never having heard of hysteria, cannot account for them, or for certain mysterious mishaps in his own farmyard. Not for a moment does he dream that his old servant Nancy Fox is practising all kinds of mummeries with dolls and pins and doggerel invocations, and, by her gossip, helping to direct the suspicions of the credulous neighbors against his wife and child, or that he himself has endangered them by some thoughtless banter of his own. But the mischief, nevertheless, has been done effectually; and in the second act the scene is transferred to the home of one of the bewitched girls, where John Hathorne the magistrate and the minister Samuel Parris meet to investigate and to collect evidence which to their bigoted minds is conclusive against both Martha and Olive, who are forthwith ordered into custody. The third act is devoted to the trial of the accused women, and is written throughout with a keen eye to dramatic effect, nice discrimination of character, and often with an eloquence which is all the more effective on account of its utter simplicity. Especially noteworthy are the speeches which Martha delivers first in her own defense and afterwards, when she perceives her own fate to be hopeless, in behalf of her daughter. Olive is set free, but Martha is convicted, and the act ends, most impressively, with the arrest of old Giles, whose furious denunciation of the Judges has brought him too under condemnation. The fourth act is devoted mainly to scenes between Olive and her lover and their vain efforts to secure mercy for her parents. In the fifth the tragedy deepens. Martha has died upon the gallows, and Giles is in his cell in Salem gaol. The old man is tortured by remorse at the thought that his own light words have helped to put the noose around his wife's neck, and has resolved to expiate his folly by standing mute and thus incurring the dreadful trial by torture by the weights. In a noble and pathetic scene with his distracted daughter, he tells her that her constancy under this affliction will keep his property from attainder and end the current madness by stirring the popular conscience. His final injunction to her is to marry on the day of his execution, and so, with the dauntless courage of the Puritan, he goes to his death. The curtain falls finally, at the end of the sixth act, which occurs in a lane near the place of execution, upon the announcement to the waiting magistrates that “Giles Corey is dead and he hath not spoken.”

So bare a skeleton as this can only convey a faint suggestion of the intense and cumulative human interest maintained by the copious and illuminative detail supplied or suggested by the whole story. The art with which it is told is especially noteworthy. In no single instance does Miss Wilkins attempt to gratify the popular demand for mere vulgar horror or “sensation.” There are no death agonies before the people. Everything of that kind is left to the imagination and is thus made doubly impressive. There is not even an attempt at description. A few brief allusions, introduced with masterful simplicity, become more eloquent than the most elaborate word-painting. Nothing could be much finer than old Giles's comment upon the news of his wife's death: — “Martha had a fair neck when she was a maid,” and again, “It was a wet day and the rain pelted on her. I remember it was a wet day. The rain pelted on her, and the wind blew, and she swung in it.” Whole pages could give no more vivid picture than is afforded by those few words. A hundred similar examples might be quoted did space permit. Although in actual representation it doubtless would be necessary to shorten the dialogue, there is scarcely a line in it anywhere which could justly be called superfluous, or inappropriate to the character to which it is allotted. Every personage is most graphically and consistently sketched. The pious busy housewife Martha, the prim but cheerful and dutiful Olive, the old iron-sides Giles, the fanatical Parris, the superstitious Nancy, the jealous Ann, the “afflicted” girls, and the child Phœbe, all are painted with the freest and the truest touch and with masculine vigor. It is a remarkable achievement full of the brightest promise for the future.

The book is published by Messrs. Harper & Bros.