Vinegar Tom

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Vinegar Tom
Written byCaryl Churchill
Date premiered12 October 1976
Place premieredHumberside Theatre, Hull
Original languageEnglish

Vinegar Tom is the title of a 1976 play by the 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 with its realistic use of songs as well as the added anachronism of the actors, who performed the songs in modern dress, despite the fact that the play was set in the 17th century.[1] There were seven songs and twenty-one scenes.[2] 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, the couple Jack and Margery. These two experienced a number of frustrations including attempts at economic expansion and sex as well as other misfortunes. They did not want to believe that God judged them bad so they started interpreting the unfortunate developments as acts of Joan's witchcraft.[2] It is later implied that Vinegar Tom, Joan's cat, may have been behind it all. There were other accused in the story of the same crime, so that the narrative became a tale of the 17th century England using witchcraft as a means to shift the blame towards nonconforming woman such as the old, poor, single, cunning or skilled, to help temper social unrest.[3] Aside from witchcraft, the narrative also included themes such as the Christian faith and the oppression of women.

For context, one should take note that the play was written at the height of the second feminist movement in the 20th Century. Churchill, a highly influential feminist writer, used this specific 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 outlined society's rejection of people who do not conform to the mainstream, or who are "odd" or "different". It was shown how going against the norm, no matter the time period, is not accepted by traditionalists. In the play, this behavior was seen as inhuman and a trait of an individual conspiring with the devil.[4]

Background information[edit]

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 at the same time completing work on another play, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, with a different company, Joint Stock.[5][6] 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 float",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. It was directed by Pam Brighton[2] while the original cast included:[7]

  • 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.

Reviews of the initial production included a positive review in the Tribune and a more mixed review from the Financial Times.[8] The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature (2006) describes Vinegar Tom as "a complex and historically expansive investigation of the policing of women's bodies and desires".[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Janik, Vicki; Janik, Del Ivan; Nelson, Emmanuel (2002). Modern British Women Writers: An A-to-Z Guide. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 82. ISBN 0313310300.
  2. ^ a b c Fitzsimmons, Linda (1989). File On Churchill. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 32. ISBN 0413147304.
  3. ^ Wilson, Katharina; Schlueter, Paul; Schlueter, June (2013). Women Writers of Great Britain and Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge. p. 98. ISBN 0815323433.
  4. ^ Matsuo, Alex (2014). The Haunted Actor. Bloomington, IN: Author House. p. 93. ISBN 9781491849811.
  5. ^ Chris Megson (20 March 2014). Modern British Playwriting: The 1970s: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations. A & C Black. p. 88. ISBN 978-1-4081-7789-1.
  6. ^ Kimball King (3 April 2013). Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights. Routledge. pp. 91ff. ISBN 978-1-136-52119-5.
  7. ^ Caryl Churchill (1982). Vinegar Tom. Samuel French. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-573-61973-1.
  8. ^ Linda Fitzsimmons (10 March 2014). File On Churchill. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 32–35. ISBN 978-1-4081-4915-7.
  9. ^ Una Chaudhury, "Caryl Churchill", in David Scott Kastan, ed. (2006). The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Oxford University Press. p. 475. ISBN 978-0-19-516921-8.