Reclaiming Tituba

The real story behind Arthur Miller's character

Winsome Pinnock

A sign leaning against a tree points out the former location of the house of Puritan minister Samuel Parris, where those accused of witchcraft allegedly gathered to hear stories of witchcraft told by an enslaved woman named Tituba, in Salem Village (now Danvers), Massachusetts, in August 1949. Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

According to historical records of the 1692 Salem witch trials, Tituba, an enslaved woman who was part of Reverend Samuel Parris’s household, was the first person accused of witchcraft to make a confession. Confession was a clever strategy: it ensured her survival and, because prosecutors needed her to share the identities of her necromantic consorts, it gave her the agency to turn the tables on her captors. The more than two hundred denunciations that followed overwhelmed Salem Village, unleashing havoc and profound devastation in the community. For a brief moment, power was wrested from the white men on the church committee and given to an enslaved woman. Why, then, has Tituba been relegated to the shadows of history, the story of her heroic resistance to her enslaved condition going largely untold? Why did avowedly liberal playwright Arthur Miller reduce her to a minor character in The Crucible, his beautifully dramatized evocation of the trials? Why did he portray her as a stereotypical African voodoo priestess, denying her the complexity and human­ity that he bestowed on other characters?

I do not know of any fellow playwrights who do not admire The Crucible for Miller’s impeccable stagecraft and his skillful use of historical research. As he portrays, Salem Village did become enthralled by the trials in 1692. We now know that many of those who pressed charges against their neighbors did so for financial gain or to settle property rights disputes. Miller subtly adapted that history to enhance the drama of the trials and ratchet up the tension: when a handful of flawed and ordinary individuals are accused of witchcraft, they face the moral dilemma of securing their freedom by owning up to the charges or by professing their innocence (in other words telling the truth) to face condemnation and execution. Will they risk their lives to speak out against the witch-hunts? I fully appreciate Miller’s approach to this question. Where I have trouble is reconciling the historical Tituba, the clever strategist, with Miller’s version of her. While other characters are tested to their limits, Miller’s Tituba is denied agency and interior­ity, known in the play only for allegedly leading girls in salacious naked dancing and in the sacrifice of chickens.

i first encountered tituba as a thirteen-year-old in mid-1970s England, when my school produced an excerpt from The Crucible. I was one of four Black girls in my drama class, but none of us was cast as Tituba. I was assigned to play John Proctor’s servant Mary Warren, who becomes an accuser in the witch-hunt. (Out of necessity, productions at my progressive all-girls state school—the equivalent of a U.S. public school—used color-and gender-blind casting long before they became a theatrical trend.) I was a keen drama student with aspirations to become an actress, and my ambi­tions were encouraged and nurtured by my teachers. My school drew from a pocket of disadvantage and deprivation embedded in the rather well-to-do environs of Islington, in North London, and the teachers believed that involvement in the arts would give the students aspirations as well as the skills to achieve them.

Most of my female teachers were heavily involved in second-wave feminism; in 1972, the school hosted Britain’s first feminist conference. The teachers wove the second wave’s newly won liber­ation into their teaching, urging us—their young, female students—to interrogate literature from a feminist perspective. They made no mention of race as such. I suppose the thinking then was that fem­inist ideas were true for all women regardless of economic back­ground or ethnic identity.

One of my beloved drama teachers explained that The Crucible was allegorical, that Miller used the Salem witch trials to speak out about McCarthyism—a period of moral panic in U.S. history in the late 1940s and the 1950s when many institutions and individ­uals with left-leaning politics were accused of being Communists or fellow travelers whose goal was to overthrow the U.S. gov­ernment. So seriously was this perceived threat taken that many of those individuals were forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee or the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s), where they were required to disclose whether they had ever belonged to the Communist Party. Those who refused to answer, or who said they had but refused to give the committees the names of other Communists, were blacklisted, losing their livelihoods.

Looking back, I am intrigued by the fact that my teacher did not discuss the play in terms of gender or racial politics. Perhaps she sought to avoid any exploration of race, which typically elic­ited embarrassment and rage among the Black students and guilt and assertions of superiority from a few white students. I gave no thought to the teacher’s avoidance of scenes directly related to Tituba or to her identity as an enslaved African woman. I did not want to think about the slave trade; it was enough that we had been given a brief and traumatic introduction to the subject when we were shown the famous diagram of enslaved Africans packed like sardines on the slave ship Brookes. Of course I knew that I was descended from enslaved people. My mother often talked about her interactions with her great-grandmother, who had been enslaved in Jamaica.

I was excited by their blazing teenage rage in the same way that I had been captivated by the first Shakespeare play that I had seen, The Taming of the Shrew.

I threw myself into the role of Mary Warren. I was a quiet, shy, and awkward child, experiencing all the discomfort one felt in those days of being an overweight Black girl. And yet in my mind’s eye I saw myself as a leading lady; it hadn’t dawned on me that if I became an actress, I would probably not be cast in the leading roles I fantasized about. Glenda Jackson, working-class and smart, was my role model. When I watched her on television collecting her Oscar, I dreamed that I might one day do so too.

It was a wonder to me that some of the other girls in my drama class seemed so confident offstage, yet when they were tasked with performing they became shyer and less graceful, tripping over words and unsure of where to place their bodies. I observed the opposite phenomenon in my school’s most gifted performer, a girl who was invisible until she performed with a luminous and truth­ful intelligence. I had an inkling of the transformation she expe­rienced because for me, stepping onto the stage was like walking through a portal into a parallel universe where I was both myself and not myself, drawing on my own experience and observations of the world while reciting lines written by someone else.

Even as a child I understood the hard work it took to per­form with such naturalness. When preparing for my role as Mary Warren, I didn’t work as obsessively as I had a few years earlier when I had been cast as a shepherd in a Nativity play and had approached my single line of dialogue with the meticulousness of a dedicated method actor, but I set about learning my lines, delving into the emotional significance of each one.

We performed an excerpt from Act III, the courtroom scene at the play’s climax, in which John Proctor, in order to secure the freedom of his wife, Elizabeth, accuses the young girls of feign­ing bewitchment. Proctor presents Mary Warren to the court to prove that the girls are lying (as she had earlier confessed to him). However, Warren changes her testimony when she realizes that the ringleader of the girls, Abigail Williams, is going to protect herself by accusing Warren of witchcraft. To save herself, Warren joins the girls in crying out against the Proctors.

As part of a site-specific immersive theater experience for chil­dren, we performed the excerpt in a real courtroom. Like many teenage girls I always felt like an outsider, and the scene in which the young female outsiders exert control over the adults was truly thrilling. I was excited by their blazing teenage rage in the same way that I had been captivated by the first Shakespeare play that I had seen, The Taming of the Shrew. I had sat up and leaned forward in my seat at the first appearance of the “shrew”—a snarling, angry, fighting girl—only to move back again as the play approached its end and the shrew was “tamed.”

It was around this time that I started to write—short sketches that were loosely underpinned by feminism. I continued to write when I finished high school in the late ’70s and started to attend feminist consciousness-raising sessions where the talk was of untold histories and where I heard for the first time second-wave feminism’s mantra, “The personal is political.” My interest in the­ater deepened even though most of the plays I saw, including those by great Black playwrights, like Ola Rotimi’s adaptation of Oedipus in The Gods Are Not to Blame and Derek Walcott’s play Beef, No Chicken, were written by men. I can’t recall going to see a single play by a female playwright on a mainstream stage until the mid-1980s.

I told myself that I would dedicate my work as a dramatist to the project of excavating and reclaiming untold stories, situating marginalized females at center stage. I planned to write a series of monologues for Black female performers that would focus on characters in plays, films, and news stories who had been relegated to the sidelines. One monologue would be for Tituba. I intended to release her from Miller’s play and allow her to tell her “real” story.

It took years for me to delve into some of the questions I had about Tituba’s evolution throughout history, but my monologue, titled Tituba, finally came to fruition in 2016 when Sphinx Theatre Company, a well-known feminist theater company in the United Kingdom, asked me to participate in their annual festival of short plays.

Cleo confided in me that the monologue would be a gift to those performers who had found themselves in similar dilemmas, as well as a tribute to the real Tituba’s memory.

I spoke to a performer, whom I’ll call Cleo, about my planned monologue Tituba. She told me that she had played Miller’s Tituba while in her second year at a prestigious London drama school in the 1980s. The school’s third-year students were the performers, but there was one problem: there were no Black students in the third-year class. Around that time, the British theater world was reeling from a huge controversy over the white actor Michael Gambon por­traying Othello on the British stage in blackface. As a result, it was certain that no white performer in Cleo’s drama school would “black up,” and Cleo was asked to perform with the third-year students.

Cleo found herself besieged by friends giving advice: some felt that taking on the role, with all its problems, would only serve to further stereotyped representations of Black characters and their painful effect on wider society. Others felt that she was a strong enough performer to play the role with integrity and nuance; she could deconstruct the stereotype from within. In the end, Cleo took the role. She described how, during rehearsals, she watched as the male students highlighted their text with page after page of highlighter compared with the single lines attributed to her char­acter; she described her desire, at the time, for lines as powerful as Proctor’s famous “I will fall like an ocean on that court.” Her drama-school experience as Tituba had been fraught with tension. Cleo confided in me that the monologue would be a gift to those performers who had found themselves in similar dilemmas, as well as a tribute to the real Tituba’s memory.

cleo’s enthusiasm focused my search for the real Tituba. I quickly discovered that most historians agree that it is impossible to write a definitive history of the Salem witch trials. I would add that it is impossible to write a true history of the trials. Historian Marion L. Starkey, author of The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials, asserts that historian Charles Upham, who spent years on his 1867 history, Salem Witchcraft, comes closest to doing so (Upham’s book was also an inspiration to Miller). But even Upham was influenced by the persuasive power of fiction. The sources for his interpretation of Tituba are unknown, but some have suggested his narrative history may have been influ­enced by Lois the Witch, Elizabeth Gaskell’s fictional retelling of the Salem story, which alludes to a circle of girls in thrall to magical tales told to them by someone named Tituba.

I soon came across Elaine G. Breslaw’s meticulous monograph Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies and Chadwick Hansen’s essay “The Metamorphosis of Tituba, or Why American Intellectuals Can’t Tell an Indian Witch from a Negro.” Breslaw points out that Tituba was a generic term for an indigenous female, which means that any number of women may have been known by such a name, and as such, the real Tituba’s story is lost in time and space. But both Breslaw and Hansen come to the same surprising truth: Tituba was not an enslaved African woman at all, but an enslaved indigenous woman from the Caribbean or South America. According to Hansen, the symbiotic relationship between historians and literary authors affected the historiographic representation of Tituba’s ethnicity, transforming her from the indigenous woman of historical record to fictional and stereotyped African sorceress, a transformation that reaches its apotheosis in Miller’s The Crucible.

Hansen traces Tituba’s transformation into an enslaved African woman to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s play Giles Corey of the Salem Farms, in which she is described as half African, her father having been an obi, or obeah, man. Obeah was derived from the preserved spiritual practices of enslaved people from the African continent. The fusion of these practices with Christian ritual ensured the survival of traces of the original practices over centu­ries of enslavement.

The practice of obeah by enslaved people was outlawed across Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean and also in Guyana, starting in 1760, and was incrementally decriminalized in the twenty-first cen­tury. Seen as heathen and anti-Christian, obeah was feared to have insurrectionary potential: those who practiced voodoo or hoodoo could use it to empower their followers, motivating them to over­throw their captors and to destroy the capital acquired by the back­breaking work of enslaved people. I am intrigued by this paradox: that enslaved peoples stereotyped as ignorant savages were at the same time imagined to be able to harness the dark and magical forces of the universe to achieve revolutionary ends. Stereotyping such a potentially powerful force as the product of the ignorant savage mind, and setting it in opposition to the rationalism of Christianity, was an efficient means of repression. This stereotype was enshrined in law by banning obeah.

Stereotyping is used to legitimize colonialist conceptions of racialized binaries of inferiority (African blackness) and superi­ority (Western whiteness), and stereotypes require acceptance of obvious ideological inconsistencies. For instance, the stereotype of “laziness” attributed to enslaved people who worked from dawn to dusk in appalling conditions allowed the “industrious” slave owners a degree of freedom, the goal of wealth being the ability to indulge in idleness. Theater and performance are powerful means of reifying stereotypes: theater makers often draw an audience into closeness with characters and their worlds by making them seem real in the moment. This is especially true of naturalistic plays, like The Crucible, in which the dramaturgy relies on the psychological motivation of the characters. As a minor character in that play, it is clear that Tituba’s main function is to highlight the interiority of the other characters.

In Longfellow’s play, Tituba appears as a haunted and haunting presence. She is the first character introduced and hers is the first monologue in the play, which gives her a Shakespearean promi­nence. Even her monologue, in its references to flowers and plants, has traces of Shakespeare, echoing Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. Like Perdita, she understands the symbolic power of plant life. Unlike Perdita, her knowledge is both symbolic and real because she also understands the destructive power of poisonous plants and vows to use them in revenge against the people who have enslaved her and her people. Longfellow’s characterization is in many ways in keeping with his portrayal of Native Americans in “The Song of Hiawatha” as a passive people close to nature and destined to obsolescence by the doctrine of manifest destiny, which legitimized the erasure of Native Americans for the survival and expansion of white America.

Tituba is described as “An Indian woman” in Longfellow’s cast list, but when she attends to Mary Walcott, who has the “affliction” brought about by the bewitchment, she tells her that the Black man Mary sees in a magic mirror is Tituba’s father, an obi man. Tituba is the sole Indian presence in the play, her isolation compounded by her Shakespearean “madness” or brokenness. Ascribing to Tituba a mixed ethnic identity further emphasizes this perceived brokenness and the idea that she belongs to a people on the verge of extinction. Her Indian heritage is on the point of being subsumed by African heritage. Her threats of revenge are toothless because she is an embodiment of the living dead, a ghost, because she is descended from enslaved people who have experienced social death.

Longfellow’s characterization of Tituba as half African was accepted as historical truth by some historians, including Starkey. Starkey further embellishes Tituba’s character by describing her as lazy and speaking with a Southern drawl, attributes that are not recorded in the witchcraft trials’ records. Tituba again appears as half African in William Carlos Williams’s play Tituba’s Children, written in 1950, just three years before the production of The Crucible.

There can only be one hero at the cen­ter of a well-made play, and Tituba just wasn’t important enough.

By the time she appears in The Crucible, Tituba is described as “[Samuel Parris’s] negro slave.” She is now fully African. Hansen expresses bafflement at why Miller, who was decidedly liberal, chose to silence Tituba and relegate her to the margins of history. But perhaps Miller himself offers an explanation. In his 1996 article for The New Yorker, “Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible,’” he writes that he composed his play during a troubled period both in American politics and in his personal life. McCarthyism had taken hold in the United States; his marriage was failing. A telling detail from a report of the trial written by Parris gave him the sudden insight that Abigail and John Proctor had been lovers:

My own marriage of twelve years was teetering and I knew more than I wished to know about where the blame lay. That John Proctor the sinner might overturn his paralyzing personal guilt and become the most forthright voice against the mad­ness around him was a reassurance to me, and, I suppose, an inspiration: it demonstrated that a clear moral outcry could still spring even from an ambiguously unblemished soul. Moving crabwise across the profusion of evidence, I sensed that I had at last found something of myself in it, and a play began to accu­mulate around this man.

History and fiction are enmeshed in this intriguing statement. Making John Proctor and Abigail Williams lovers is a powerful dramaturgical choice: it gives each of them profound motivations that drive and enhance the tension. It is worth noting that there is no record of Williams and Proctor ever meeting. (In fact, Williams was just eleven or twelve at the time of the trials in 1692; Miller raises her age to seventeen to legitimize her romance with Proctor.) Miller identified closely with Proctor, and even seventy years after the first production, the actor who plays Proctor is typically a con­ventional leading man, often resembling Miller himself.

Miller’s identification with Proctor, which allowed him to expi­ate his own personal and public dilemmas, may offer insight into why Tituba was pushed to the margins: Miller could not relate to an enslaved African woman. There can only be one hero at the cen­ter of a well-made play, and Tituba—whether brown or Black—just wasn’t important enough.

Tituba’s omission has a modern-day corollary. As my drama teacher had explained, The Crucible is an allegory for McCarthyism. Today, the McCarthy witch-hunts are best known for the way they ensnared white, left-leaning men in Hollywood and elsewhere, including Miller himself, and the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters, producers, and directors (not including Miller) who refused to answer the questions posed to them by the House Un-American Activities Committee and were imprisoned and black­listed as a result. Much less well known are the stories of the Black men and women who were accused and convicted as Communists, losing their homes and livelihoods in some cases, because they fought for social justice and equality for Black and brown people.

Among them was the political activist Claudia Jones. In 1949, she wrote the essay “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” She was later found to have violated the principles of the Smith Act of 1940 and the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, which forbade involvement in “subversive activities” leading to the overthrow of the U.S. government. Just as Tituba confessed to being a witch, Jones confessed in court to being a Communist, stating that it was the only party that was committed to fighting racial injustice. She “proudly” pled guilty to “holding communist ideas” and “being a member and officer of the Communist Party of the United States.”

After she confessed, Jones was deported to the United Kingdom, the only country that would accept her. (She was deemed a British subject because her parents were born in Trinidad.) She contin­ued her antiracist activism in London. In 1959, she founded the Notting Hill Carnival in response to the racist murder that year of a young Black immigrant from Antigua. The Carnival is now a large-scale annual summer event that colorfully and exuberantly celebrates Caribbean food, music, and culture.

When I consider the historical era in which Miller wrote his play, I can see how downplaying Tituba’s role in the witchcraft tri­als and transforming her into an African woman was an intriguing and alluring dramaturgical choice. If in the 1950s Miller had writ­ten Tituba as an indigenous woman, a shattering and despicable history of violent erasure would have been brought onto the stage. Tituba might have even delivered the powerful line “I will fall like an ocean on that court” because she would have been the charac­ter most justified in doing so—her suffering would have eclipsed Proctor’s/Miller’s.

to better understand the real Tituba’s plight, I read the tran­scripts of the 1692 trials. As Tituba comes to life, speaking in real time, her confession is every bit as enthralling and suspenseful as any of the most dramatic scenes in Miller’s play. When she describes the devil as someone who “goes in black cloathes a tal man with white hair I thinke,” one is surprised by her audacious­ness; this description clearly matched the appearance of Samuel Parris, her “owner” (Miller agreed Tituba was describing Parris). When Tituba describes one of the demons that consorted with Sarah Osborne as “a thing with a head like a woman with 2 leeggs and wings,” she could almost be describing a harpy, a creature from Greek and Roman mythology that has since been heralded by fem­inists as a symbol of female rage and resistance.

The transcripts present a Tituba quite different from Miller’s version. To gain a sense of what it feels like to perform this char­acter through Miller’s lens, I spoke to two performers who have played her, Anni and Sara. Both described having to construct history and agency for themselves to make playing her possible at all. In one open-air performance, Anni told me that when a plane passing overhead drowned out Tituba’s line “Devil take me home!” she looked up and followed the trajectory of the plane through the sky with an expression of desperate longing. That unscripted moment, she believed, allowed her modern audience an opportu­nity to empathize with Tituba and understand her predicament as an enslaved woman. Also in that production, Anni’s Tituba was given a central role in the Parris household and could demonstrate a degree of ownership of the home in the way she occupied the space. Sara described to me feeling haunted by the real Tituba during the rehearsal process, her dreams taking her to the forests where secret meetings took place, where she hears the howling wind and is startled by the snapping of twigs.

They both attribute Tituba’s isolation within Salem Village to her lack of backstory, and so I gave her one in my monologue. In Tituba, after being beaten by Parris, Tituba recalls her life before she was kidnapped into slavery and dreams about her mother’s longing for her missing daughter: “I see my mother standing at the seashore where she waits every day for me to return. She blows bubbles into the water, filling each with the whisper of my name, telling the river to carry them to the sea, which she hopes will find me. She performs the dance of the night dancers, willing its magic to keep me safe.”

Later in Tituba, Tituba wakes to find the room transformed:

I open my eyes to a strange sight: the room is full of bubbles. They float through the air and make a curious music. I pop one with my fingers. As it pops it releases a sound. My mother’s voice. I pop another and another. Her voices fill the room. She chants my name, calls me back to her. Not the name given me by the traders, but the name she gave me; my real name. They cannot take my name. I have kept it locked away inside me. Not even John knows my name. But now I unleash it into the room. I say it over and over again, send its power into my wounds and a rapid healing ensues: blood congeals, scars harden, clamping like armor onto my back. I say it louder so that it fills the space like a battle cry.

One of the most impassioned speeches in The Crucible is Proctor’s monologue about his name: “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” I wanted Tituba to have a similar moment to show that her name is sacred to her. Keeping her name a secret is a symbolic way for her to hold on to her culture and sense of self, a means of resisting enslavement.

The representation of Tituba in the last production of The Crucible I saw surprised me by not reflecting the substantial momentum gained by the global Black Lives Matter movement, which arose in force after the death of George Floyd in 2020. In one tableau the faces of Tituba and the girls were illuminated by the orange glow of a fire as Tituba casts a spell. In another scene, Tituba was portrayed as a frightened woman of low status who can barely speak English. The scene was over very quickly, denying the audience the space or time to experience her interiority. There are so many ways interiority can be achieved onstage—unspoken stage action, body language. I have seen productions where Tituba is not afraid when confronted by Parris; she stands up to him, she does not cower. I have seen her walk with purpose, asserting her right to be present, inhabiting the stage space with dignity.

Setting out on a journey to reclaim Tituba is like stepping into a house of mirrors.

I wanted to give Tituba the freedom of being the only performer on stage. After the first performance of Tituba, the performer who played the role described to me her initial fear of stepping alone onto a darkened stage; this was quickly followed by a sense of empowerment as she was illuminated by a spotlight and as the play gathered momentum in tandem with Tituba’s increasing strength. By the end of Tituba, Tituba is fully aware of the power she holds and delights in it:

Abigail, Betty, Mercy, and Ann know that, unless they do what I want them to, they will be lashed to near death by my con­fession. One by one they corroborate my story and start to cry out: I see Martha Corey with the devil. I seen Dorcas Good with the devil… Bridget Bishop, John Lee, Sara Cloyce. Father against son, brother against sister. I could not have predicted this out­come. I seen Sarah Wilds with the devil; Perhaps I really am a witch. Certainly, I can see the future: farms go untended, cows and sheep perish, money lost, twenty-four men, women and babies killed. The suffering passed down for generations. Such is my power… The Reverend Parris will visit me in prison. He will sweet talk me to name the names of those on the church committee who oppose him. He will make promises he cannot keep, leave Tituba to rot in jail before she disappears from his­tory. Oh yes, things will return to normal in time… But for the moment Tituba is free and Salem is in chains.

Setting out on a journey to reclaim Tituba is like stepping into a house of mirrors. A hundred different images are reflected back, some distorted by a trick mirror’s curves, each Tituba haunting and haunted by the others, while the real Tituba remains unknowable, elusive, and slippery and—just like the stories of other enslaved peoples—lost in time.

Winsome Pinnock is an award-winning British playwright whose plays include Tituba, The Principles of Cartography, Mules, Leave Taking, and Rockets and Blue Lights. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022


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