Theatre in Wales

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More Truthful than History?

The Crucible

University of Wales, Aberystwyth – TFTS , Parry-Williams Building, University of Wales, Aberystwyth , November 28, 2003
The production of The Crucible staged by the Department of Theatre, Film, and Television studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth this weekend is a great demonstration of the use of myth to interpret history and current events. Even before the play begins, one can confront myth in the program notes on “The Salem Witch Trials.” “Legend has it,” the program reads, “that Abigail Williams,” the girl who instigates the witch hunt, “turned up later as a prostitute in Boston.” It is good that this is identified as a legend. Other myths aren’t. The end of this note states that on the day in 1692 when the Reverend Samuel Parrish, disgraced by the end of the witcchunting fever, was thrown out of his Salem church and onto the highway, “the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.” In that case, Massachusetts must be the only American state which does not have ‘In God We trust’ stamped every piece of its currency.

Turning from program to production, director Jack James and the company try to make something meaningful and emotionally realistic and engaging out of Miller’s 1953 play. At some moments, they succeed. The first moments, in which the people of Salem Massachusetts sing a hymn while frozen in cell-like compartments formed by the intersection of bare wood ladders and the performance space’s permanent scaffolding is one such example. Another is the final moment, when Elizabeth Proctor stands alone onstage while her husband is executed off, and a vengeful rendition of the same hymn sung by the crowd is cut off by the snap of the rope. Neither of these are in Miller’s script. I realise that Miller has received lots of accolades for capturing the McCarthyite moment, and that there are echoes of his characters in President Bush and his shadow-boxing supporters in the ‘war on terror.’ However, Miller makes the McCarthy witcchunt look incredibly simplistic, and the characters who are drawn in by the tales of witches are portrayed as cowed and confused yokels. In Miller’s allegory, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his henchmen Roy M. Cohn and David Schein are a gaggle of girls. The metaphor of red scare as witchhunt doesn’t work exactly, because, whereas witches empowered by the devil have, as far as reason can determine, never existed on earth, the convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951 convinced many McCarthy-era Americans that the ideological figure of the Communist traitor was real.

The stilted reconstruction of late-sixteenth-century language does not help. There are plays written in that era which sound more natural when read out loud today. The most unconvincing moment in the play comes when Abigail Williams leads the girls in a bout of faked hysteria to condemn Mary Warren, the only girl to come clean about the ruse. Linked together like train cars, the four girls bellow and shriek while moving in a slow, perfect circle around Mary. Whatever this was meant to communicate figuratively, it looked very silly, and did not sound convincing. Miller’s play might explain the position of those heroes who refused to ‘name names,’ but it fails to explain why McCarthy’s crazy arguments were so convincing to the people who listened to him before it became perilous not to.

In James’s staging, standout performances include Ella John as John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth. John makes Elizabeth something more than a moral paragon and invests her with a simmering anger totally devoid from the dead-eyed, slouching Elizabeth played by Joan Allen in the film version. Rob Neave turns the witch-hunter Joseph Hale into a central figure, though he plays his two phases of conviction—that the convictions are valid and purgative, and then that they are false and evil—with more passion than he dedicates to the character’s struggle with uncertainty. As Parris’s Barbados-born African slave Tituba, whose voodoo rituals get her in trouble, Kym Walker communicates cultural, linguistic, and emotional disorientation.

As Francis Nurse and Giles Cory, two old men who lose their lives trying to save their wives’, Mark Williamson and Andrew McLeod make their relatively small roles loom large. Rebecca Nurse, played by Grace Alexander-Scott, is a saint with a tired yet melodic voice. All three suggest old age in spirit instead of caricaturing it in their behaviour. Abigail Proctor is played with lots of spite and great oratory by Lizzie Pollard, but her character is a flimsy soap villainess, not a psychologically believable human being. I quote the Boston-based playwright Geralyn Horton’s 2002 critique of Miller’s construction of Abigail and her ex-lover, the hero John Proctor, from the historical sources:

“Miller makes Abigail Williams, the child instigator of the accusations who was a servant in the Proctor household and 11-12 years old at the time, into… an older teen—who has seduced her "master", John, and wants to get rid of his wife Elizabeth so that she can replace her as John's wife. Miller makes pre-adolescent Abigail a temptress and old-enough-to be-her-grandfather (55) John's adultery and subsequent guilt a major element of his plot. This indeed has a "universal" quality-- it's like blaming Helen for the Trojan War, Eve for the Fall-- and so it passed unremarked at the premiere.”

Horton concedes that, in the 1970s, Miller replied to feminist critics “by affirming that he had made changes in the facts of the historical record to be "more truthful than history.” I have nothing against poetic license, but I suspect there have been many more witch-hunts provoked by attraction and fear of femme fatales than by the actual fury of scorned women. What real siren-treachery has counterbalanced the destructive fantasies that led to the execution of Gertrud Margarethe Zelle (a.k.a Mata Hari), the 1918 ‘Billing Affair,’ the post-Second World War ordeal of ‘Tokyo Rose,’ and the persecution, for witchcraft, of many more women than men? Miller might consider whether the conversion of personal fantasy and phobia into a ‘more truthful’ form of ‘history’ isn’t pretty much what McCarthy did—and perhaps what certain other politicians, now, are trying to do

Reviewed by: Rebecca Nesvet

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