Sunday, August 12, 2012

When the Political Becomes Personal: Soulpepper's Production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Hannah Miller in Soulpepper's Production of The Cruicble - Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The Salem witch trials of 1692 do, at first glance, seem so awfully far away. Oh those Puritans and their superstitions! How primitive! 

But American playwright Arthur Miller thought differently. In them he found what he thoughts was an apt metaphor for the ills plaguing his own day. His 1953 play, The Crucible, revisits that historic event to expose the venality of modern times. The result is an allegory about the abuse of power that still resonates with audiences some 60 years after its New York premiere. To see it on stage at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts where Soulpepper Theatre Company is performing The Crucible now through Sept. 22, is to feel the deadly chill of those hysterical persecutions all over again.

As directed by Albert Schultz, The Crucible appears plainly in Puritan dress, its biggest extravagance being the flourishes of nasty emotion pushing the play onwards to its desperate conclusion. But change the clothes and this could be Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or, for that matter internecine Yugoslavia before NATO decided to carpet bomb the warring parties into submission. Heck, it could even be your typical toxic workplace, anywhere where people who once civilly co-existed decide one day to turn against each other, sacrificing decency and good sense along with innocent lives.

Michael Hanrahan, Stuart Hughes & Derek Boyes - Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 
Yes it is, to quote at least one patron heard mumbling his way out of The Crucible on Thursday night, “heavy.” A play that depicts practically an entire town imprisoned with many horribly and publicly executed on trumped up charges of witchery, is not, by definition, a happy night at the theatre. But don’t let the darkness dissuade you. This is a stellar production, incisively and delicately directed by Schultz who has made The Crucible one of this summer’s must-sees. Emotionally terrifying, it has the feeling of a thriller that grabs the viewer by the throat by appearing as something frighteningly real. For all the talk of Lucifer, the true monster is the human heart pierced through with jealousy, envy, lust and greed, vices that grotesquely distort goodness to make it look and act as something evil: the devil within. 

Ostensibly about a God-fearing community of Massachusetts Puritans who get swept up in the hysteria of adolescent girls caught dancing in the woods, the play takes a spiritual journey into the human heart to show it as the seat of both godliness and evil. The young women accused of consorting with Satan in turn accuse their accusers, and ultimately anyone else who ever made their teenage hormones rage with fear and lust, upturning a society that once prided itself as being peaceful. The ruse catches fire, spreading to inflame the passions of even learned men of the law who use the letter of their profession, as well as that of the Bible, to bring down an entire village of perceived enemies of God. They strive to make the irrational rational and so end up appearing more like the devil than the devil himself. Their power mongering claims an Everyman by the name of John Proctor (Stuart Hughes) who isn’t entirely good but not entirely bad either. His one act of adultery is responsible for the conflagration of wicked deceitfulness that engulfs his society, leading ultimately to his destruction. The perpetrator is Abigail Williams (Hannah Miller) whom he seduced and then abandoned when guilt made him return to his duty as a husband and father. His private battle with sin and redemption encroaches on the war of words waging in the law courts of Salem. Proctor occupies a moral grey area within the Puritan’s starkly defined world of black and white. He is flawed but ultimately his weakness becomes a source of strength. He dies in clear possession of his soul.

As far as is known, John Proctor is a figment of Miller’s imagination, a character created to help the playwright express a theme of betrayal such as he had experienced it in the years immediately leading up to his writing of the play, considered by many to be his finest. In 1947, his friend and colleague, the esteemed director Elia Kazan (he had previously directed Miller’s Death of a Salesman, another American classic) had testified before the House Un-American Committee (HUAC), exposing fellow artists with Communist sympathies.

Elia Kazan
Kazan had in his youth been actively involved with the American Communist party, as were a lot of people in Hollywood, but became disillusioned with what the Soviet Union had turned into. Whatever his reasons, by pointing an accusatory finger Kazan helped U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy persecute thousands of Americans alleged to have communist sympathies. The McCarthy witch hunts, so-called because of their resemblance to the fear and hysteria that had spread like wildfire through Salem almost three hundred years earlier, led to the creation of the Hollywood blacklist. People of exceptional talent who refused to participate in the Red Scare were sidelined (Lillian Hellman, Ring Lardner Jr., Dashiell Hammett, Paul Robeson, and Dalton Trumbo among them) while mediocrities (third-tier actor Ronald Reagan being the most famous example) who actively played along were publicly rewarded. It’s not surprising that Miller felt that it was Salem all over again. While not initially on the list, Miller witnessed the ruination of many friends and associates who were. He never forgave Kazan for what he considered to be an enormous act of betrayal. His revenge was The Crucible, which deeply shocked those who first saw it. Miller had deliberately created the play to serve as a mirror in which he hoped his fellow citizens might see themselves and weep. They cried, all right. Cried foul.

The story takes an interesting turn here. When Miller had finished the play, he sent it to Kazan. Kazan sent it back to Miller with notes and comments thinking that was what Miller was looking for. Miller wrote Kazan a note saying "no, this is about HUAC and the fact you named names." Kazan himself never responded, but his wife sure did. She wrote Miller a note telling him his metaphor didn't work because there were no witches in Salem, but there were certainly Communists in Hollywood.

Shortly after the play’s debut on Broadway in January 1953, Miller himself was called before HUAC, and when he refused to comply, he was blacklisted in Hollywood and his passport was revoked, though his plays continued to be produced. This is all background material, not part of the play proper, but fascinating nevertheless. It helps elucidate the work’s brilliance as a thinly veiled indictment of McCarthyism and other abuses of power condoned by the state. But beyond the political, The Crucible concerns itself with the human condition, showing it to be precariously perched between the sometimes competing worlds of the mind and the spirit, societal control and personal freedom. The play also highlights the tenuous divide separating rationality from irrationality, and how quickly even the best laid plans can fall into chaos when emotions run amok.

Arthur Miller
Perhaps because the mass hysteria as depicted in the play is emotionally overwhelming, Schultz counters it with a production that for the most part is artfully restrained. His superb cast of players often stand stock still or else piously kneel, Bibles in hand, embodying the Puritan belief in hard work and self denial. The severity of their religious fervour is captured by Steven Hawkins’ austere lighting design and by Lorenzo Savoini’s pragmatic set design consisting of plain wooden tables and squeaky barn doors. Savoini also designed the plain Puritan costumes done up in black, white, brown or grey cloth. The clothes are meant to be concealing. But Schultz allows for bonnets to be knocked off by fits of desire, causing cascades of hair to fall down over the harlot Abigail Williams’ stark white face: the passion behind the primness.

There are other breathtaking moments of sensual beauty in this play, such as when John Proctor takes pains to describe a Massachusetts evening as being like a flower: “Lilacs have a purple smell,” he says to his wife, Elizabeth. “Lilac is the smell of nightfall.” It’s a pungent image and it comes as something of a surprise in a play concerned mostly with shades of black and white.

Delivering the line is actor Stuart Hughes giving a stirring portrait of a man caught between his humanity and his community’s ideals. He creates a memorable portrait of unease. As his wife, Patricia Fagan is a study of elemental purity, glacial in her need to suppress the hurt of her husband’s betrayal. Hannah Miller as Abigail Williams is icy in that other way: a cold bitch who murders to get her way. She leads her gaggle of ghoulish girlfriends, including Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster as the would-be confessor Mary Warren, in a series of spine-tingling screams that could scare an exorcist. Certainly, they bend the ears of Derek Boyes as Reverend Parris, Oliver Dennis as Reverend John Hale and Joseph Ziegler as Deputy Governor Danforth, among other men of the cloth, who are easily beguiled by these not-so-innocent babes in the woods. Or should we say bewitched?

 Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her latest book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, will be published in Canada on September 29, 2012, followed by a US release two weeks later. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller.

1 comment:

  1. "As far as is known, John Proctor is a figment of Miller’s imagination"- this article
    John Proctor is a real person, not " a figment of Miller’s imagination"
    Proctor was originally from Ipswich, where he and his father before him had a farm of considerable value. In 1666 he moved to Salem, where he worked on a farm, part of which he later bought. Proctor seems to have been an enormous man, very large framed, with great force and energy. Although an upright man, he seems to have been rash in speech, judgment, and action. It was his unguarded tongue that would eventually lead to his death. From the start of the outbreak of witchcraft hysteria in Salem, Proctor had denounced the whole proceedings and the afflicted girls as a scam. When his wife was accused and questioned, he stood with her throughout the proceedings and staunchly defended her innocence. It was during her questioning that he, too, was named a witch. Proctor was the first male to be named as a witch in Salem. He was hung.