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Vinegar Tom is the title of a 1976 feminist play by British playwright Caryl Churchill. The play examines gender and power relationships through the lens of 17th century witchcraft trials in England. The script employs features of the epic theater associated with German playwright Bertolt Brecht, particularly the non-realistic use of songs. The play's title comes from the name of one character's pet cat, supposed to be her familiar spirit, likely inspired by the supposed imp of one Elizabeth Clarke, a woman tried and executed for witchcraft in Essex in 1645. The play was inspired by the Women's Rights Act in 1970 and explored the thought that women were treated unequally to men in England, both at the time in which the play takes place, and the time in which the play was written.
The play tells the story of Alice, who is in her twenties and living in a small village. Alice and her mother Joan are accused of witchcraft after an altercation with their neighbours, followed by several mishaps upon their neighbours' farm - supposedly the result of Joan's "witchcraft". It is later implied that Vinegar Tom, Joan's cat, may have been behind it all. The plot includes witchcraft, some slating of the Christian faith, and the oppression of women. It was written at the height of the second feminist movement in the 20th Century. Churchill, a highly influential feminist writer, uses this script to display how much control men have in society and how women have historically been treated as chattel, taught to be subservient to men. All of the songs are set in the present, rather than the time period of the play, and reflect, in one way or another, the gender and sexual discrimination present in society. Betty, one of the play's characters, is classed as mad or ill simply because she does not want to marry. The play also outlines society's rejection of people who do not conform to the mainstream, or who are "different".
'Vinegar Tom' was written by British playwright Caryl Churchill in 1976. Churchill collaborated with the feminist theatre company 'Monstrous Regiment' during the writing process, while completing work with another company 'Joint Stock'. Churchill and members from 'Monstrous Regiment' had met at a pro-choice protest march in the 1970s and quickly discovered that they were mutually interested in putting on a production about the social hardship of women in 17th century England and how marginalised women of this period, would often be branded as 'witches'. Churchill and 'Monstrous Regiment' saw this moment in history as a useful vehicle, and parallel, for highlighting contemporary (late 20th century) attitudes towards women and so interspersed various scenes in the play with contemporary songs, to be sung in modern dress.The music for the songs was composed by Helen Glavin, a founder member of Monstrous Regiment, she also wrote the lyrics for "If you drown",one of the songs in the play. The group worked closely for several months on the development of Vinegar Tom. On October 12, 1976, Vinegar Tom was presented for the first time at the Humberside Theatre, Hull, England. The original cast included:
- Joan: Mary McCusker
- Susan: Sue Todd
- Alice: Gillian Hanna
- Goody: Helen Glavin
- Betty: Josefina Cupido
- Margery: Linda Broughton
- Ellen "cunning woman": Chris Bowler
- Jack: Ian Blower
- Man, Doctor, Bellringer, Packer: Roger Allam
- Kramer and Sprenger: Chris Bowler, Mary McCusker
The opening of the play shows a woman (Alice. The audience do not know her name yet), who is in her early 20s and a character named, simply, Man. Rather than individualising the character 'Man' by giving him a name, Churchill uses a shorthand, story-telling technique, as used by Brecht, in order to show a 'type' or 'archetype', to the audience. By 'distancing' the character in this way, the audience is more likely to think about the situation/issue (a man using a woman for sex/the issue of sin and punishment/witchcraft) rather than become over-absorbed in who the characters are.