1 9 8 5 (USA)
3 x 60 minute episodes
There was hysteria in the Massachusetts village of Salem at the end of the 17th century when two young girls accused more than 400 villagers of witchcraft. According to descendants of the victims, 19 were hanged, one pressed (crushed) to death, and over 150 were jailed.
Told in flashback, the PBS miniseries Three Sovereigns for Sarah focuses on Sarah Cloyce (Vanessa Redgrave) and her two older sisters, Rebecca Nurse (Phyllis Thaxter, pictured) and Mary Eastey (Kim Hunter), who are accused of being witches.
Dialogue in the episodes is based on trial transcripts and first-hand accounts, including Sarah’s diary.
Salem Village is a rural community with no local magistrate, laws, official charter, government or minister.
The landowners vote to hire one of the ministerial applicants, Samuel Parris (Will Lyman), who had turned to the ministry after failing as a merchant in the West Indies.
Parris is a cold and uncaring man seeking self-worth and power through control of his religious congregation, who feed his hunger for success.
He has brought with him to Massachusetts an indigenous Caribbean slave woman named Tituba (Sylvia Anne Soares) who amuses herself with fortune-telling before an eager audience of Salem schoolgirls.
When the minister’s 9-year-old daughter Betty (Stacey Caplin) and 11-year-old niece Abigail Williams (Kyrsha Wildasin) are caught seeking futuristic messages from an egg yolk, the girls escape punishment by claiming to be “possessed”.
Now the centre of attention, the girls – like children everywhere – know how to make the most of the spotlight. Ordered by Reverend Parris to name the cause of their hysteria, they point the finger at “mean old women”.
Soon a mother, Ann Putnam (Maryann Plunkett) joins them as she sees a chance to get even for her family’s misfortune, unjust inheritance and diminished power in the community.
In the Puritan religious atmosphere of Massachusetts in the 1600s, Sarah’s sisters and others believe God will save them from their accusers. But when the scriptures are used against them at their own trials, Sarah vows to fight them.
But Sarah languishes in jail for more than a year before the Governor of Massachusetts finally puts an end to the madness. He pardons the accused, we are led to believe, not out of compassion and reason but because the state’s jails are overcrowded and also, perhaps, because his own wife had been accused of witchcraft.
Ten years later, Sarah convinces a three-man Royal Commission sent from England that she and her sisters – both of whom were hanged as witches – were innocent, whereupon the Chief Magistrate (Patrick McGoohan) of the Commission gives her three gold sovereigns as compensation (hence the title).
The story is beautifully acted, although the poignancy of the performances – coupled with the story itself – makes for unpleasant and painful viewing, frightening in its portrait of human hatred, cruelty and blind unreason.
The three episodes aired in the US under the American Playhouse title. Victor Pisano wrote and produced.
Reverend Samuel Parris
Sylvia Anne Soares
Ann Putnam Sr.
Ann Putnam Jr.
Daniel Von Bargen