“The Devil is alive in Salem, and we dare not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points.”
The Crucible is a weighty play, not one to be taken lightly. Arthur Miller‘s classic drama was written in 1953, at face value a dramatisation of the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s but widely taken as an allegory of the political witch-hunts of McCarthyite America – of which Miller himself was later a victim.
With the benefit of 62 years of hindsight, The Crucible has become a beacon of American drama and as important to that country as Hamlet is to British theatre. As a piece it is wordy rather than action-packed, but is unquestionably among the most powerful plays for the stage in the English language, for which a degree of gravitas is essential.
For directors, it is a challenge: like Shakespeare, each subsequent production must build upon the last and to imbue every aspect of the play with a fresh interpretation and added significance. Some Shakespearean settings work a treat, but some flop precisely because the settings, costumes and style of production seem little more than a baffling distraction to the audience. Ambitious and talented young director Caroline Steinbeis faced the dilemma head on with her production of The Crucible at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. She is quoted thus:
“The Crucible was the first play I ever performed in a school, aged 12. Revisiting Miller over 20 years later, it is with shock and awe that I am shown again how close we all stand to the abyss; how quickly a group of people are blasted apart by revenge, greed and teenage reverie, and all for that moment when we give in to our innermost desires. What a huge challenge and what a pleasure to be making this production for the Royal Exchange.”
In other words, she sees eternal themes within the drama, not merely a time-fixed history, nor even an allegory to one set of events: there is relevance to everyone in everyday life, due to the very essence of human nature. Her goal is to make the production relevant to a new audience and in the process shed light on societal behaviours at every level, even within contemporary life – and you only have to think of the current witch hunt against Islamic influence or the dramas surrounding Edward Snowden to see parallels.
With that in mind, a word about the characters. They appear in a mishmash of costumes, some modern and some patently not. They speak in a variety of accents, some of the Mummerset ilk. The play is set in an unspecified period in an unspecified location – certainly not Salem in the 1690s, but sufficiently ambiguous that they could be speaking in any time and any place – which I’m quite sure is deliberate.
Ms Steinbeis certainly begins as she means to go on – the stark introduction of light and sound sets the tone before an actor has appeared. Her Crucible is staged in an amphitheatre – a wide but shallow bowl subtly underlit to form a ring of light under the rim. To one end is a platform, to the other what amounts to a jetty with wooden poles used at various times as seats. In the centre of the bowl is what looks like a pattern formed from muddy puddles, of which more anon. Of props there are few and of furniture none. This is a bare stage on which the human drama is composed.
Then the children appear, running across the stage in their simple games, observed by the old heads. One falls into a coma, then we are plunged straight into human crises that in a Salem riven by fear and paranoia, “god fearing folk” will misinterpret. They it is who see the devil and witchcraft in any event, not least anyone who choose not to believe in their religious charades.
At first it is the Rev Samuel Parris who fears what other folk might think, but then attention switches, initially to the play’s primary antagonist, 17 year old Abigail (Rachel Redford), who has been having an affair with John Proctor, otherwise a decent and honest farmer. As it turns out, no amount of testimonials to Proctor’s decency make any difference – the court condemns him, but Proctor turns the tables by choosing to go to the gallows rather than losing his name.
Therein lies the point: our identity is our inalienable birth right and should never be taken in the name of conformity to whatever orthodoxy. At that point, the worlds of Miller’s Crucible collides with the dystopian future of Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (written a mere four years earlier,)
The play (plot summary courtesy of Wikipedia below) is cut back, not as severely as many Shakespearean epics but enough to focus attention on the human dramas escalated into a war between good and evil conducted through the courts. It is certainly not an open minded assembly – hence the use of the phrase “witch hunt” whereby the court retrospectively finds evidence to back up accusations from the superstitious mob. The wicked injustice comes from the fact that by not confessing the accused could be hanged for contempt of the court, but if they confess they might be put to death in other ways.
And so to the water. Water is a key metaphor in Steinbeis’s production, witnessed by the posters featuring a clothed woman underwater. During the second half the stage fills ankle-deep with water from beneath, and rain falls from the lighting rig above. The characters are progressively soaked. There is no pretext in the text for this, and some of the audience around me sounded a tad bemused by the onset of amphibian dramatics.
The metaphor reminds me of the practice of “ducking” witches, whereby witches those who have confessed were tied in the “ducking stool” and immersed in deep water. If they floated they were considered witches and therefore burned at the stake; if they drowned then they were not witches:devil and the deep blue sea. Maybe that’s not the director’s intention, but as a tenuous link it created some slight tension.
The playing is undeniably passionate and effective, especially Jonjo O’Neill‘s angst-ridden Proctor, an everyman persecuted to the grave by Deputy Governor Danforth, played with hawkish self-importance by Peter Guinness. To quote the Guardian:
“it is notable that Deputy Governor Danforth’s justification for his kangaroo court (“No man who is pure of heart may need a lawyer here”) echoes the NSA dictum that, as long as you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
Proctor’s wife Elizabeth (Matti Houghton), herself a victim through her husband’s adultery, ably differentiates between the conspiracy of which she is accused from her coolness towards the husband she continues to support. I’ve heard several viewers complain that some speeches from other players were marred by mumbling and lack of clarity in diction, though given my partial deafness I had expected worse.
There are powerful moments throughout, none more so than when Abigail coaches the other children to copy every word and action of the simple Mary Warren (Ria Zmitrowicz), each of which prompts the audience to think – though it could be brought into sharper focus with a few more comic tinges. However, the parallel with every-present surveillance is well made, for in this Salem you cannot move without someone spreading malicious rumour and gossip – much of which ends up deciding life and death.
Shorn of its period features this is an effective Crucible, but still a mixed bag of effects and deceits, some of which work and others that don’t. Nonetheless the wow factor is there, and it sent Saturday night’s audience home with many a brooding thought.
Here’s a response from my best friend, who happens to be an English teacher:
Carol and I very much enjoyed out visit to The Exchange yesterday. Thank you for the tip-off. You mention the costumes. It was very noticeable that it was the women who were wearing the more traditional costumes, though they were much more colourful than I would imagine authentic Puritan costume to be. The male characters wore the more modern costumes. I think you’re right; this almost certainly underines the production’s universal, timeless themes. I thought it was interesting, however, that it was the women who wore the costume which might typically symbolise restraint/constraint. There can be few historical-based plays where it is (young) women who have the greatest empowerment of all the characters involved. As for the rain/water, while I would not gainsay your witch-ducking theory, it has to be said that water is just about as versatile a symbol as there is. Eliot recognises this in The Wasteland. Water is life – we cannot live without it; yet it can represent death – through drowning; as pathetic fallacy it tends to represent downtimes. – “It’s raining in my heart”; it is, above all, as a Christian symbol, most notably in baptism, representative of cleansing/purity. As the final lines of the play, accompanied by fresh rainfall, are “He has his goodness now; God forbid that I should take it from him,” it is the sense of purification that I am most inclined to interpret it as, though I rule out nothing.
The Reverend Samuel Parris, watching over his sick daughter Betty, is wondering what is wrong with her. It is soon revealed that the entire town is talking about rumors that Betty is sick because of witchcraft. Rev. Parris had seen both Betty and his niece Abigail dancing in the forest with his slave, Tituba, the night before. That evening in the forest, he also saw Tituba waving her arms over a fire, a dress on the ground, and someone naked running around their circle. When first questioned, Abigail denies that she or Betty have been involved in witchcraft, but she admits that they were dancing in the forest with Tituba. Abigail lives in the Parris household. She used to live and work at the home of John and Elizabeth Proctor, but was dismissed over an illicit relationship with John Proctor.
When another couple, Thomas and Ann Putnam, arrives at the Parris household, they admit they had consulted Tituba, in the hope she could conjure up the spirits of their seven dead offspring. They wanted to find out why all seven babies died so soon after childbirth. To Reverend Parris’s horror, the Putnams emphatically state that his slave Tituba consorts with the dead. The Putnams’s only living child, Ruth, is now struck by a similar ailment as Betty Parris. When the minister and the Putnams are out of the room, Abigail threatens to harm the three other young girls in the room if they speak a word about what they did in the forest with Tituba.
John Proctor comes to see what is wrong with Betty. He confronts Abigail, who says that Betty is just pretending to be ill or possessed by evil spirits. As Proctor and Abigail have this conversation, it becomes clear that the two of them had had an affair while she worked in the Proctor household and Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, was ill. Abigail tries to flirt with Proctor, but he tells her the relationship is over. Proctor during this conversation does show slight signs of the feelings he once felt for Abigail but does well to hide them, as he regrets the affair. Abigail blames Elizabeth for John’s behavior, and tells him they will be together again someday.
When Betty starts to fit, Parris and the Putnams return with Rebecca Nurse. She has had many children and grandchildren and knows that Betty and Ruth are pretending. She says they will stop when they tire of it. Soon, the Reverend Hale arrives at the Parris home. Hale is a famed witch expert from a nearby town. Suddenly, in front of Hale, Abigail changes her story and begins to suggest that Tituba did indeed call on the Devil. Tituba, surprised at this accusation, vehemently denies it. But when Hale and Parris interrogate Tituba, under pressure she confesses to witchcraft, and fingers several other women as “witches” in the village, including Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. While Tituba and Abigail are accusing women in the town, several other young girls, including Mary Warren (who now works in John Proctor’s household) follow Abigail’s lead and begin accusing other women as well.
This act gives an introductory insight into Abigail’s leadership, as she frightens the other girls into following her lead. The girls now have power and in Salem, a place where women, especially young girls, have little influence, they take this opportunity of power by the end of Act One by naming people in the town to be accused of witchcraft. These names have been mentioned, not by the girls or Tituba, but by Parris and others. The names the girls and Tituba mention are regurgitations of names given by the men.
Act Two begins with Proctor and his wife Elizabeth mourning that their own household helper, Mary Warren, is caught up in the frenzy of accusations. Elizabeth is afraid. They know that Abigail is behind these accusations, and Elizabeth urges Proctor to go to town and reveal Abigail’s hoax. Elizabeth makes an allusion to the affair Proctor had with Abigail, and catches him in a lie – he told her he was not alone with Abigail at the Parris home, but in fact he was. Proctor, irritable and defensive, complains that Elizabeth still doesn’t trust him and never will, even though he has been a good husband for the last seven months since Abigail left.
Mary Warren returns to the Proctors’ home, exhausted from her day assisting in the trials. Proctor reprimands her for being away all day – after all, he declares, Mary is paid to help Elizabeth in the household and has been shirking her duties. Mary states that her work in the courts is of great significance; and, with an increased air of importance, Mary insists that she no longer should be ordered around by John Proctor. In a lighter moment, Mary gives Elizabeth a puppet doll that she stitched during the day – but, after heightened tension between Mary and Proctor, Mary claims she saved Elizabeth’s life because Elizabeth’s name came up in the trials that day. When Mary goes to bed, Elizabeth says she has known from the beginning that her name would come up. She tells Proctor that he needs to set things straight with Abigail. He committed adultery with her – and having sex with a woman, Elizabeth says, is tantamount to giving that woman “a promise” – an implicit promise that the two lovers will be together permanently some day. Elizabeth says Proctor must break this promise deliberately. Proctor becomes angry, and again accuses his wife of never forgiving him for his indiscretion.
At this inopportune moment, Reverend Hale arrives. He is investigating the people whose names have turned up in the trial. Several other figures from the court show up, including Giles and Francis whose wives have been arrested for witchcraft. They are looking for proof of Elizabeth’s guilt, and inquire about any poppets in the house. Elizabeth says she has no poppets other than the one that Mary gave her that very day. Upon inspection, Mary’s doll is shown to have a needle stuck in its center. Earlier that day, Abigail Williams claimed to have been mysteriously stuck with a needle, and accused Elizabeth Proctor of being the culprit. As Mary does identify the doll as hers, the men cart Elizabeth Proctor off to jail anyway, against the angry protests of her husband.
In Act Three the court is in session. Giles interrupts the proceedings by shouting that Putnam is only making a grab for more land. He claims to have evidence to back up this assertion. Judge Hathorne, Deputy Governor Danforth, and the Reverends Hale and Parris join Giles and Francis in the vestry room to get to the bottom of the matter. Proctor and Mary Warren enter the room. Mary testifies that she and the other girls were only pretending to be afflicted by witchcraft. Judge Danforth, shocked, asks Proctor if he has told the village about Mary’s claims. Parris declares that they all want to overthrow the court. Danforth asks Proctor if he is attempting to undermine the court. Proctor assures him that he just wants to free his wife. Danforth proceeds to question Proctor about his religious beliefs. He is particularly intrigued by the information, offered by Parris, that Proctor only attends church about once a month and plows on Sunday, a serious offense in Salem.
Danforth informs Proctor that he need not worry about Elizabeth’s imminent execution because she claims to be pregnant. She will not be hanged until after she delivers. Danforth asks if he will drop his condemnation of the court, but Proctor refuses. He submits a deposition signed by ninety-one land-owning farmers attesting to the good characters of Elizabeth, Martha, and Rebecca. Parris insists that they all be summoned for questioning because the deposition is an attack on the court. Hale asks why every defense is considered an attack on the court.
Putnam is led into the room to answer to an allegation by Giles that he prompted his daughter to accuse landowners of witchcraft. Giles refuses to name the man who gave him the information because he does not want to open him to Putnam’s vengeance. Danforth arrests Giles for contempt of court. Danforth sends for Abigail and her troop of girls. Abigail denies Mary’s testimony, as well as her explanation for the doll in the Proctor home. Mary maintains her assertion that the girls are only pretending. Hathorne asks her to pretend to faint for them. Mary says she cannot because she does not have “the sense of it” now. Danforth pressures Abigail to be truthful. Abigail shivers and the other girls follow suit. They accuse Mary of bewitching them with a cold wind.
Proctor confesses his affair with Abigail and explains that Elizabeth fired her when she discovered it. He claims that Abigail wants Elizabeth to be hanged so that she can take her place in his home. Danforth orders Abigail and Proctor to turn their backs, and he sends for Elizabeth, who is reputed by Proctor to be unfailingly honest. Danforth asks why she fired Abigail. Elizabeth glances at Proctor for a clue, but Danforth demands that she look only at him while she speaks. Elizabeth claims to have gotten the mistaken notion that Proctor fancied Abigail, so she lost her temper and fired the girl without just cause. When asked if Proctor had committed adultery with Abigail, Elizabeth lies. Proctor cries out that he confessed his sin, but it is too late for Elizabeth to change her story. Hale begs Danforth to reconsider, stating that Abigail has always struck him as false and that he believes Proctor.
Abigail and the girls begin screaming that Mary is sending her spirit at them. Mary pleads with them to stop, but the girls only repeat everything she says. The room in a shock erupts into a hectic frenzy of fear, excitement, and confusion. Mary gives into the pressure of the other girls and joins them in the frenzy. She accuses Proctor of being the devil’s man, pressuring her to join him and of witchcraft. Danforth orders Proctor’s arrest against Hale’s vocal opposition. Hale, disgusted with Danforth and unable to continue believing in the court, denounces the proceedings and declares that he is quitting the court.
Act Four opens in a Salem jail cell. It is the day when Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor are to be hanged. Both have resisted confessing up to that point, but Rev. Hale – unseen at the court since Proctor’s arrest – is trying to encourage their confession. Even though he knows their confession would be a lie, he wants to save their lives. Rev. Parris is also trying to get them to confess, but that is because he wants to save his own life: since the trials began, Parris has received some not-so-subtle threats to his life. To make matters worse, Abigail has fled, taking all of Parris’s money with her. Since Proctor went to jail, over one hundred people have restored their lives by “confessing” to witchcraft, but the town is in shambles. There are orphans, livestock wandering all over the place, and people bickering over who gets whose property.
Judges Hathorne and Danforth call upon Elizabeth, still imprisoned, and now obviously pregnant, to talk to her husband to see if she can get him to confess. When Elizabeth agrees to speak with Proctor (who has been in the dungeon, separated from the other accused), the couple finally gets a few private moments alone in the courthouse. Elizabeth reaveals that Giles, who refused to give a plea, was pressed by stones and died. Because he did not say if he was guilty or not guilty to the charges, his sons are entitled to inherit his land. In these warm exchanges, Elizabeth says she will not judge what Proctor decides to do, and affirms that she believes he is a good man. While Elizabeth will not judge Proctor, she herself cannot confess to witchcraft, as it would be a lie. Proctor asks for Elizabeth’s forgiveness, and she says he needs to forgive himself. Elizabeth blames herself for the affair, claiming to be a “cold wife.” She asks John for forgiveness and says she has never known such goodness in all her life as his. At first, this gives Proctor the determination to live, and he confesses verbally to Danforth and Hathorne. The men bring Rebecca to witness Proctor’s confession, hoping that she will follow his example. The sight of Rebecca shames Proctor. Proctor cannot bring himself to sign the “confession”. Knowing that the confession will be pinned to the church door for his sons and other community members to see is too much for Proctor to bear. Nor will he incriminate anyone else as a witch. After he signs the confession he snatches it from Danforth. He believes it should be enough to confess verbally and only incriminate himself. Proctor pleads with the court, who have taken his soul and his life, to leave his name. When the court refuses this, Proctor, deeply emotional, tears up the written confession. Shocked, Hale and Parris plead with Elizabeth to talk sense into her husband, but she realises that this is, at last, his moment of redemption: “He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!” And so he goes to his death. The curtain falls just before John Proctor is hanged.