The Crucible ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Crucible

The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Directed by Anne Thompson and William Henderson. Designed by Bruce Gladwin, lighting design Niklas Pajanti. With Nicole Nabout, Shona Innes, David Trendinnick, Fiona Todd, Peter Houghton, Evelyn Krape and Christopher Brown. The Eleventh Hour, 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy, until October 1.

It was not only the rise of McCarthyism that moved me, but something which seemed much more weird and mysterious. It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance...the astonishment was produced by my knowledge, which I could not give up, that the terror in these people was being knowingly planned and consciously engineered, and yet that all they knew was terror. That so interior and subjective an emotion could have been so manifestly created from without was a marvel to me. It underlies every word in The Crucible.

Arthur Miller

Miller could be writing about contemporary America: a consciously engineered terror which attains a "holy" mystique, where dissent against the ruling powers attains the status of blasphemy. The Crucible premiered in the US in 1953, but its political insight strikes fresh sparks in the age of the Global War on Terror (or GSAVE - the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism - for those who missed the changing of the acronyms). If ever there were a play for our times, The Crucible is it.

It also happens to be a personal favourite of mine. With Death of a Salesman and A View from a Bridge, The Crucible shows Miller at the height of his dramatic powers, in fruitful agonistic struggle with theatrical aesthetic and form. He was not yet America's Great Playwright, and the urge to didacticism - always strong in Miller - had not yet gained the upper hand. Here is passion tempered by formal intelligence, ideological critique informed by intuitions of human contradiction and frailty. These plays exemplify the very best of the American liberal tradition.

The timeliness of The Eleventh Hour's decision to stage Miller's masterpiece (for it may be fairly called that, especially if, following Randall Jarrell, one thinks of a masterpiece as a work of art with "something wrong with it") is therefore praiseworthy. But it must be said that the company's treatment of the text is utterly baffling.

The focus of the production is deliberately shifted from complex political critique to Miller's private life ("the affair that led to the destruction of his first marriage"). To this apparent end, the directors - Anne Thompson and William Henderson - have eviscerated the text. The Crucible runs for something like half its original length, and many of its secondary characters have been cut out completely. Its formal structure looks something like Fallujah after the Americans finished with it, with the odd graceful wall poking out of the ruins to show what had been there.

The company's stated objective in the program is to "wrest this classic from its traditional performance framework" in order to "create a performance landscape that allows the force of Miller's extraordinary language and the passions fuelling it to live in a new way." To be honest, I am not at all sure what this means; but I do know that a work of art is inseparable from its form. There is no purer "content" which might be ripped out of a frame: in a radical sense, the frame is the content. In other words, you fiddle with a work as artfully made as The Crucible at your peril.

I should say at this juncture that I am no friend of the museum treatment of "classics". A good play should be able to withstand - in fact, requires - intense interrogation and disrespectful, even violent treatment, if it is to live in performance. True, texts can be cut and sometimes to their advantage, Hamlet being only the most obvious example. And one thinks of the power of the Wooster Group's treatment of The Hairy Ape, performed as extreme physical theatre, as if it were a boxing match, its vocal assault electronically amplified... but the Wooster Group performed O'Neill's play, however they attacked the text. The Eleventh Hour, on the other hand, put The Crucible through some process of "composition": that is, they rewrote it. The big question is, why?

Partly, perhaps, to focus an emotional experience on some perceived essential quality of language? The play is performed as stylised physical theatre: certainly the cast is choreographed with a beautiful precision, and lushly lit in the dark cavernous spaces of the theatre to create tableaux which sometimes possess an arresting and disturbing beauty. And, except in the later scenes (which are also the least grievously cut) where, perhaps, the passion of the writing begins to inhabit the performances, the language is declaimed with deliberate artifice, each word enunciated as if it exists on its own. I don't understand this decision, as it wrecks Miller's rhythms; in plays, as in poems, rhythm is the heart of linguistic vitality.

Clearly the directors wish to take The Crucible beyond its naturalistic conventions - which, in Miller's hands, have more than an edge of the poetic - to a more heightened experience. I suspect that in doing so, they mistake the artifice of Miller's naturalism.

Miller wrote a play in four acts, each in a different setting, through which the action evolves seamlessly and dynamically. The more you study the play, the more you admire its economy, how artfully he integrates emotional and political worlds, suggesting the complexity of a small community by a deft phrase here, a throw-away line there. Miller invokes the remorseless machinery of tragedy: The Crucible is, if you like, an instrument tuned finely in all its parts to create the final cathartic scene, where John Proctor grasps his "goodness" at last in the face of his own wilfully chosen death.

The Eleventh Hour's "composition" of Miller cuts these fluid, intricately worked acts into a series of truncated scenes separated by blackouts. This transforms the action into a series of tableaux, and the sense of stasis is reinforced by hymns sung by the cast at each blackout. These refinements have some fairly profound effects on the play's political texture. More devastatingly, I think, they fatally corrode the emotional force of the play: though the final meeting between Elizabeth (Fiona Todd) and John Proctor (Peter Houghton) still holds some of its original power, basically because most of it is still there, it is deprived of much of its poignancy because we have not seen the simple domestic scene that introduces Elizabeth, in which the bones of their marriage are laid bare through their painful, tentative conversation.

By assuming that Miller's political impulses evade the personal, the company also mistakes him. His politics were never simple - he refused the claim that he wrote "political plays" - and never eschewed the personal. "I can't write plays that don't sum up where I am," he wrote. "I'm in all of them. I don't know how else to go about writing." Miller's plays place themselves, optimistically, in the tradition of liberal individualism. John Proctor's choice not to betray his friends and to redeem himself is the archetypal gesture of the individual asserting his (in Miller's case, it was nearly always "his") identity in the face of social repression. For Miller, this was an anguished and continuous conflict between imperatives of inner and outer selves which could end only with death.

But he was more than an observer of the human conscience. The idea of property, of who owns what, is meticulously noted in The Crucible; Miller is extremely conscious of the economic relationships in the small Puritan community of Salem. Removing altogether characters like Giles Corey, the cantankerous landowner who will neither plead guilty or not guilty so his sons can inherit his property after he dies, removes a crucial subtext from the play: the Protestant equation of ownership with virtue. It's the poor and dispossessed who face the hangman first, and conflict over property fuels many of the accusations of witchcraft. Miller is too acute to portray the accusers simply as venal hypocrites; what he shows is how public hysteria can all too easily meld with private self interest.

One aspect this production highlighted for me, and which might have been a fruitful area of further exploration, was a brooding sense, as pervasive as the Puritanical sexual repression, of unacknowledged violence. Proctor's threat to whip his servant, Mary Warren (Evelyn Krape), is viscerally disconcerting. Tituba (also Evelyn Krape) is a slave, taken by force from Barbados, and before that, from Africa. Abigail's (Nicole Nabout) recollection of her parents' violent deaths at the hands of Indians reminds that the disputed properties of Salem have a prior claim, that of the native Americans who first lived there, and whose lands were taken by force. Behind the hysteria of the witch hunt lies also the guilty conscience of the coloniser, the sense of a primal crime.

There are lines in The Crucible which strike with renewed force, because they have, again, found their time. The polarised vision of Good and Evil that informs the present White House and, unfortunately, the discourse of our own government - "you're either with us or against us" - is unsettlingly echoed in Danforth's declaration that "a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it". The seduction of the absolute and the destructiveness of certainty have particular resonance now, and have implications for both the private life of conscience and that of public action. It wasn't that Miller thought anything as banal as "the personal is political", which I rather fear informed the interpretation here; but he was an acute observer of the relationships between these different spheres of being.

I liked the simple and effective design - trestle tables which were manipulated to create several performance levels. And despite my serious reservations about the production, I enjoyed individual performances, especially those of David Trendennick as Parris and Danforth, and Christopher Brown as the tormented Man of God, Reverend Hale. It makes you sigh for a missed opportunity: if, as the director's note says, one impulse behind this experiment was "to try to understand the relationship between private emotion and political action", it would have been far more illuminating to perform the play Miller actually wrote.


Ben Ellis said...

One of Chicago's more interesting fringe directors, Sean Graney of The Hypocrites, has also been re-imagining the performance boundaries of Miller - here, with Death of a Salesman:
look at Chicago Tribune's review here

Could be an interesting point of comparison, in as much as we could trust the Chicago Tribune...

I saw an Hypocrites production earlier this year of Sam Shepherd's True West, but it was fairly plain vanilla stuff. (And not a Graney production.)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ben

Thanks for pointing me to that review. Wish I could have seen it! It sounds rather like some French productions, France being the home of the auteur director - Didier Berzace's accalimed production of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version at La Commune, for instance, which featured a backdrop which was a whole wall of desks. The crucial comment for me touches on the interpretation:

"'s a measure of the palpable quality of Graney's production for The Hypocrites that one never feels that an auteur director is somehow messing with the author's agenda — or even his original style. For those of us who have seen or read this play scores of times, this is such a distinctive, gripping and daring (and also unusually intimate) production that it lends the familiar material a striking freshness."

What one hopes for -



rh said...

Jens Porup, I certainly hope this is a joke...

If not:

are you serious! How on earth are audiences, artists, directors and writers themselves meant to grow if we maintain this outdated and flawed tradition of the author hero? The idea that all texts must be performed again and again as written is absolutely absurd. This is exactly the sort of 'museum treatment' that produces tired old interpretations and shows.

If artists regarded copyright as you think they should then large chunks of modern art and culture would simply not exist. See, for example, hip-hop culture, pop art, Picasso's experiments with collage, etc. etc. One could argue that the history of postmodern western culture is the history of the cut-up.

I mean, sure, if this was a large coporation making heaps of cash from a struggling artists work then go crazy, shut it down all you want.

But this? A fringe theatre experiment! Hasn't the Millar estate got enough cash

Alison Croggon said...

Indeed... I must confess, I do feel rather conflicted about this. On the one hand, I would feel bad about a production being shut down, if that should happen. On the other hand, I'm with Jens on the need to respect moral rights of any given piece of work, if not so absolute - there are, in fact, many circumstances where it may be legitimate to change an author's work in the process of bringing it to the stage. The translation of Rattigan's play in the Didier Berzace production that I mentioned earlier, for instance, simply dropped some terms that were simply too arcane, bring so specifically British mid-century for a French audience to understand. And they also erased all the stage directions (although, in my experience, that's more common than not...) These changes allowed Berzace to re-envision Rattigan for a new audience without "messing with his agenda" - and it won Berzace the Moliere for best direction this year. As a new presentation of a classic, Berzace's approach is exemplary.

On the other hand, if The Eleventh Hour got the rights for The Crucible by not telling the rights people what they intended to do with it, it's not exacty honest dealing. And, as a writer whose entire living comes from my work - novels, plays and (laughably) poetry - I support moral rights and copyright. It's not a question of "author as hero"; it's a question of artistic respect. If you want to do something else, write a new text... And, more germanely, for me, copyright is literally a question of food and rent. (If you want to change that, change capitalistic society). So those who would contemptuously brush these rights aside in the name of "artistic freedom" somewhat miss the point, I fear, and speak from a privileged position. Moral rights assert the right of an author to have her work presented in the way she wrote it. There's a lot of leeway in that, as the history of 20C theatre shows.

Yes, there's cut-ups and sampling and so on. This production, though, wasn't either of those things.


rh said...

"As a director, you may interpret the text in any way you please. But you may not, under any circumstances, EVER, alter so much as an iota of that text."

I just think that this is an impossible dream.

Any performance of a text alters it, it must, any text spoken is a text altered. Marks on a page are used in the creation of signs and bodies in a space. If you want total control over your words then write a novel, or direct your own production, as Beckett did.

I realise that large chunks were cut from the script and that perhaps there should have been some 'adaptation' type credit. But the 'moral rights' clause in the contract would surely prohibit the company from advertising alterations.

"I,Director, Academic, by some chance misfortune deprived of the opportunity to write The Crucible/Hamlet/Mother Courage will now proceed to demonstrate my innate superiority over the messy business of actual creation by improving, second-guessing, and trimming someone else's work."

So staging a work is not creation? Surely this point of view speaks from a position of privilege which would run theatre into the ground. The Berliner ensemble performed Brecht's Mother Courage for decades, right, o.k that's been done, so...that's it? That's what theatre is?.. The 'realisation' of the author's work, bound by moral rights and 'artistic respect'?

To quote the sex pistols (who stole it from the Stooges): No Fun!

Didn't Hiener Muller say something about 'to perform Brecht uncritically is to insult him?'

(BTW I am in no way of stopping anyone from getting paid for thier food and rent. I perhaps should have made this clearer in my comment. It's just that Arthur Millar doesn't have any current need for food and rent money. And as for changing captilistic society, i'm all for that...)

Alison, your mention of 'leeway' in the use of text is precisly what i was getting at when i mentioned cut-ups and sampling. I admit, my expertise is perhaps more toward music and visual arts, but this idea of 'leeway' is where creation happens.


Certain individuals sitting in thier bedrooms in the late seventies admired James Brown's repetitive raw drum loop (or break) in his track 'Funky Drummer' (1969) so much that they bought 2 copies of the record and played just the drum break again and again and again. They read poetry and lyrics over this theft. Heaps of other people also stole this idea and created possibly the most exciting and innovative artforms of the late 20th century. These bedroom warriors were far from being in a privileged position. They were forced to operate in leeway spaces because turntables and mikes were more accesable than guitars and drums.

(for a by no means exhaustive list, see

There are massive differences between artforms, I am not suggesting that music and theatre are equivalent. I just wanted to make the point that destroying classics can be creative, even neccessary. The world changes, so must art.

Sorry for getting off the topic of the play, but talking about this stuff sens me on tangents, after all not everone's a writer.