26 December 2015

'The Crucible' (Shaw Festival, 2006)

[On 8 and 11 December, after ROT published my friend Kirk Woodward’s article “Eric Bentley On Bernard Shaw” (3 December), I posted a two-part report on my attendance at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, in August 2006.  The post was a large excerpt from a complete report of that trip from which I excised all the performance discussions except those of the two Shaw plays in that season’s bill.  One of the other plays offered that year was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and because I’ve just posted a report on another Miller production, Incident at Vichy, on 16 December, I thought it would be worthwhile to run my excerpted remarks from that 2006 production of another Miller history play.  I hope ROT readers will find the comparison interesting.]

The trip to the Shaw Festival, which was organized by the Round House Theatre of Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland, left on Monday, 7 August, and returned on Monday, 14 August 2006; both Mondays were travel days, allowing for five days of theater (and a little sightseeing, too, of course).  The theater pre-booked six shows for us (leaving four from which we could select however many additional performances we wanted); Miller’s The Crucible was scheduled for the 2 p.m. matinee on Wednesday, 9 August, our second performance of the trip.  The show was presented in the 850-seat Festival Theatre, the largest and newest of the Shaw’s three performance spaces, opened in 1973After a rather wan theater experience there the previous evening at Arthur Kopit and Cole Porter’s High Society, the 1997 musical adaptation (based on the 1956 musical film) of Philip Barry’s 1939 Philadelphia Story, it was a terrific start to a most enjoyable week of theater.

The Shaw Festival has a “mandate,” to present the plays of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and his contemporaries.  (An explanation of this somewhat flexible directive is provided in my omnibus report on the festival.)  The Crucible was written three years after Shaw’s death, isn’t set during the Irishman’s lifetime, and even its inspiration, McCarthyism, didn’t really get started until after GBS’s death, so how did it qualify for the Shaw Festival?  In the category of plays by a GBS contemporary then, Crucible qualifies for inclusion in the festival’s program because Miller (1915-2005) lived during the latter half of Shaw’s long lifespan.  

The Crucible premièred on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld) in 1953.  It ran 197 performances and garnered the 1953 Best Play Tony for Miller.  The play’s been revived on Broadway four times since then and a new mounting is scheduled to come to the Walter Kerr next year as part of the informal celebration of the playwright’s centennial this year.  (The new revival will be directed by  Ivo van Hove, the Flemish avant-garde director who is also responsible for the current, highly-praised production of Miller’s View from the Bridge at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre.  The upcoming Crucible’s cast is expected to include Ciarán Hinds, and Ben Whishaw and Saoirse Ronan in their Broadway débuts.)  There have also been three Off-Broadway productions between 1958 and 1990.  In Canada, a French-language production was staged in Montreal in 1966 and that same year, an English version was presented in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  In 1961, composer Robert Ward adapted The Crucible into an opera, which won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Music Critics Circle Citation.  British Independent Television aired an adaptation in 1959 with stars including Sean Connery and Susannah York.  George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, and Melvyn Douglas starred in a CBS-TV broadcast in 1967; the BBC mounted another TV version in 1980   A French film, under the title Les sorcières de Salem and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, was released in 1957 and in 1996, Miller himself wrote a film adaptation of the play (for which he received his only Oscar nomination—for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published) starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, and many other stars from Hollywood and the British screen and stage world.  In 2014, London’s Old Vic filmed a stage production that was released as a movie in the U.K. and Ireland.

The play’s story, set in Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692, unfolds during the prosecution of the infamous Salem witch trials (1692-93).  Some 20 colonists were tried for practicing witchcraft and executed during this notorious episode as neighbor turned on neighbor.  Miller was already researching the story and considering it as the basis for a play in 1952 when his friend Elia Kazan, the Group Theater member who had directed Miller’s first two stage successes, 1947’s All My Sons and 1949’s Death of a Salesman, was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (known informally and universally as the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC).  HUAC (abetted by Wisconsin’s Joseph McCarthy in the Senate) was on its own witch hunt in the 1950s, searching everywhere for communists.  It was focusing on the American entertainment business, both television and film in Hollywood and theater in New York.  Once again, friend turned on friend and colleague on colleague.  Informing on others who might have associated with communist or socialist organizations as long ago as the 1930s was encouraged—and failing to do so could end in an actor’s, director’s, or writer’s imprisonment for contempt of Congress, while those implicated, even just suspected, would face, first, blacklisting in their industry and, second, incarceration.  As in Salem, little proof was required—just someone to point an accusatory finger.  Kazan, who’d been called once before, decided to name names rather than face the ruin of his nascent and burgeoning career as a successful film director. 

Miller saw parallels between HUAC’s and Tail-Gunner Joe’s commie witch hunts in the 1950s and the Salem trials in the 1690s.  This is what The Crucible was intended to examine in the story of John and Elizabeth Proctor, a Salem farmer and his wife caught up in the midst of communal hysteria and fear, duplicity and self-serving denunciation by one neighbor against another, one former friend against another.  Miller used actual transcripts and records of the hearings as the basis for his script—though, of course, he took some artistic license to create the drama.  The play still speaks powerfully to us today, even though HUAC and Joe McCarthy are both gone—and so is Soviet communism.  The spirit of McCarthyism continually raises its ugly head, both abroad and in our own country (think Islamophobia, for instance, or a few decades ago, Japanophobia, the fear that the Japanese were buying up the whole country).  Witch hunts, it seems, never really go out of style.  The witch-hunters just find new targets.

After John Proctor, a married man and independent-minded farmer, decides to break off his affair with 17-year-old Abigail Williams, Reverend Samuel Parris’s niece, she leads other local girls in a magical ceremony in the woods at night to cast a spell on Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, to cause her death.  When the girls are discovered dancing with Tituba, Reverend Parris’s slave who practices voodoo in secret, they are brought to trial for practicing witchcraft.  Accusations begin to fly, often for motives more temporal than spiritual, and a literal witch hunt gets underway.  Before long, Elizabeth Proctor is suspected of witchcraft, and John’s attempt to defend her only makes matters worse and he ends up in the dock, too.  Soon, the entire village is embroiled in the hunt for witches and every settler is either an accused or an accuser.  Those who confess to witchcraft will be spared execution and many do so, but Proctor and some others refuse to make false confessions.  In the end, Proctor will hang, though the play ends before he goes to his death.

Some critics apparently felt that Benedict Campbell’s Proctor was too strong a man to have been tempted by Charlotte Gowdy’s Abigail.  I didn’t agree.  Aside from the fact that the fall of such a man makes the situation the more dramatic, I see no contradiction in the fall of a strong man at the hands of a weaker woman.  I believe it has happened—both in life and in literature.  Further, I don’t see Abigail, no matter who plays her, as so ineffectual: she does launch and maintain the conspiracy; she faces down the threats and intimidations of both Proctor and Danforth; and she keeps the girls under her control, especially the erstwhile defector Mary Warren (Trish Lindstrom), even right under the gaze of all the powers of Salem.  I had no problem with this pairing.

The other ensemble members were all good, carving out believable personae for their characters, both the righteous ones and the benighted, venal ones.  This was an ensemble production—I didn’t mean to single Campbell out for his acting; it was just the role that made him need comment—and the company portrayed a convincing community, albeit one coming apart at the seams from internal conflicts.  (This may be the one major fault in the play in production as far as its political point is concerned: even Jim Mezon's Deputy Governor Danforth, the self-righteous inquisitor, is understandable in his wrong-headedness.  Not forgivable—but understandable.  It was totally correct for the actor to play him this way—as a flawed human who believes in what he’s doing even when he’s wrong—but as a political allegory, he should be inhuman and evil, like, say, Dick Cheney, Vladimir Putin, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.)  The acting in The Crucible was all at a very high pitch.  In almost any other case, it would probably have been considered over-the-top scenery-chewing.  Here, it just seemed appropriate.  After all, think about what’s happening to these people: they’re being accused of the most heinous crime possible in their society—consorting with the devil.  Not only that, but it’s a false charge based on lies no one wants to acknowledge.  They’re caught in gigantic Chinese fingercuffs: the harder they struggle to get out, the tighter they’re bound.  And the end result isn’t jail or loss of property, it’s death—death and ignominy their families will have to live with after they’re gone.  If that’s not reason to rant and fulminate, I don’t know what is. 

The acting, as I intimated, was excellent.  Bernard Behrens, for instance, does a wonderfully fractious Giles Corey.  I especially noted the way the actors handled the array of local characters in the village.  This company demonstrated that they have the skill  to focus on bit characters with the same care that British casts apply (especially in films and television).  This was particularly in evidence in Crucible, though Miller’s characters are much more fleshed out in the text; there is even an edition of the published script with historical character notes from the playwright’s research.  I’ll draw a conclusion from perhaps insufficient evidence and say that this acting skill, the focus on incidental characters, is an inheritance Canadian actors received from the decades during which they were an adjunct of British theater up till the middle/late ’50s and early ’60s.  I know Canadian theater (and culture in general) struggled to carve out its own identity, separate from both its former British colonial overlords and its behemoth neighbor to the south, but it seems to me (being an outsider and not so emotionally invested in the struggle) that the theater, at least, has gotten some benefit from that long tutelage.  At the same time, they handle the Stanislavsky/Method stuff pretty well, too—something the Brits have only come to terms with in the past few decades.  So, in the short run at least, the Canadians got the best of both theater worlds.

The Crucible was the first production of the festival where I began to notice the design.  (In almost all of the festival presentations, the sets, especially, were remarkable elements of the productions.)  I’m not sure that I can adequately describe the kinetic set, so you may just have to accept my assertion that it was striking and intriguing.  The designer is Peter Hartwell, whose work I don’t know but he’s designed for many top U.S. companies, including New York’s Public Theater.  (The whole production design is good: costumes by Teresa Przybylski; lights by Kevin Lamotte; and original music by Paul Sportelli, the Shaw’s musical director for eight seasons.)  The performance started with a scrim across the proscenium opening, painted with a black-and-white forest as if we were standing in its midst.  The sounds of a Puritan hymn filtered in and we saw the enlarged shadows of people from the waist up, their arms raised to heaven.  As the people moved forward and the shadows shrank to human proportions, Sportelli’s music, based on the Puritan hymn, became distorted and skewed to make it sound ominous and frightening in contrast to the flat, univocal sound—the Puritans apparently didn’t approve of harmony—when the hymns were sung in church.  As the scrim rose, the townspeople scattered and we were in the upper floor of the house of Reverend Parris (Ric Reid), the bedroom of his afflicted daughter, Betty (Katie Cambone-Mannell).  (A variation on the scrim technique was used again at the top of act two.)   

The playing area was a square of raw planks in the center of the stage; the surrounding areas of the stage were dim and ambiguous.  Over the actors’ heads was a huge wooden frame filled in by panels of Plexiglas like a giant window or skylight.  The frame was angled like a slanted roof, but there were objects attached to it—a baby carriage, for instance—and there was a door in it.  Attached to the frame at the stage-left edge of the platform was a wheel like a small waterwheel.  When the scene changed—to Proctor’s first-floor room, for example—the frame rotated as if driven by the wheel, like a gigantic grinding mill—a dark Satanic mill—or a torture rack, coming to rest in a different position.  It formed the back wall of the room behind the court (hence the door), the ceiling of Proctor’s front room (parallel to the floor this time), and the wall of the cell in which Proctor is tempted by Danforth, Reverend John Hale (Peter Krantz), and Reverend Parris to sign his confession while he confronts his wife. 

All the set (with the exception, of course, of the clear plastic windows) was rough wood—planks, timbers, beams.  The few pieces of furniture—Betty Parris’s bed, the Proctors’ table, the benches at the court, and such.—were all crude, simple constructions as you might imagine in a 17th-century Puritan colonial village.  Though the set was fragmentary, all the elements—the furniture, props, and costumes—were essentially naturalistic (however symbolically they were used), as was the acting, yet the whole thing had an air of Russian Constructivism to it—an (infernal) machine for acting.  One significant design element was stylistically opposed to the basically naturalistic unit.  It seemed as if designer Hartwell was evoking a threatening and torturous world driving the little village of Salem.  It was all very effective.

I did have one, small problem with the staging—a directorial misstep, I think, rather than a design error.  For almost all of the play, that square, plank platform demarked the "on stage" playing area—the limits of the rooms in which the action took place.  Off the platform, between it and the wings, was no-man’s land—ambiguous territory.  No actor violated this space in any of the scenes, except in the second set that represented the Proctors’ first floor.  Characters entered and exited the house by walking across the no-man’s strip at stage left, and that was fine.  It should have represented the "outside" of the house.  But several times, when characters were coming and going (when the court officers arrived to arrest Elizabeth Proctor), several delivered lines from the ambiguous area as if they were still inside the house.  If they had indicated somehow that they were talking to someone inside while they were outside, that would have passed, but they didn’t.  It broke what I thought was established convention for the production, and I didn’t know why the director, Tadeusz Bradecki, did it.  There were about a half dozen people in the scene, and I wondered if the director thought it had gotten too crowded—but, first of all, I didn’t see that problem and, second, if he had to move some actors off to disperse the scene, there should be some adjustment to show that they are now outdoors.  The acting was far too good for this to have been just bad acting, a failure to execute a minor technical adjustment. 

Some in our group questioned another directorial choice, with which I had no trouble.  In the final scene, when Proctor first confronts his wife alone after months of imprisonment and separation, a lot of the Round House spectators thought Elizabeth (Kelli Fox) or John ought to have crossed in and embraced, or at least touched, the other.  Bradecki had them standing at pretty much opposite sides of the cell—and I saw this as perfectly appropriate under the circumstances as the production played them.  The psychological gulf between them, from John’s adultery, Elizabeth’s sense of guilt for having driven him to that and her slowness to have forgiven him, his dilemma over making a false confession so he can stay with her for the year she’s been granted to bear her child, her reluctance to persuade him either way—all these and other emotional burdens made a hesitancy to embrace perfectly acceptable to me.  As it happened, that was how Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw’s artistic director, explained director Bradecki’s reasoning, more or less, when someone raised that question at the Round House cocktail party later that evening.  I had no trouble buying it.  I also think the tension from what seemed like John’s and Elizabeth’s need to connect but fear of doing so made the scene more painful, which is right, too.

I know lots of people dismiss The Crucible as no longer relevant, somewhat precious, or politically suspect/naive, but I’ve always liked it.  I think Miller’s point is powerful and valid—perhaps even more today than it has been at any time since the 1950s—and the parallels he found or devised between the witch trials and the McCarthy probes are remarkable, especially considering how much they are based on actual 17th-century records.  (The fact that there are records of those trials is remarkable in itself—but that’s not a theater issue.)  Sitting and watching this then-53-year-old play made me realize very palpably how far backwards we’ve gone in recent years—and how very dangerous and frightening that is.  As powerful an indictment of McCarthyist society Crucible was in 1953, it is just as clear a warning for our era of Patriot Acts, Guantanamo prison camps, and warrantless wiretaps. 

I did wonder how the Canadians respond to this play since it isn’t about their society and Miller isn’t speaking to them directly.  Canada is the target of terrorism, too, of course, and there have been Canadian troops fighting—and dying—in Afghanistan—but, so far at least, Canadians haven’t been subjected to Bushfascism yet (any more than they had a Tail-Gunner Joe or a HUAC).  Maybe they see it as a warning not to follow too closely in our path.  Or maybe they see it as an indictment of the big bully to the south.  I can say, though, that in performance they didn’t soft-pedal the message or mute the play’s voice.  Director Bradecki (a 51-year-old Pole, which may have made his take on this drama more perceptive) staged a full-voiced production, especially the actor who played John Proctor, Benedict Campbell, who was excellent.  He gave full, unapologetic rein to Proctor’s stiff-backed pride, his anguish, his guilt, and his horror at what he sees happening to him and his neighbors even as he tries to stop it.  His final resignation—to die rather than swear to a lie to save his life, to put his precious name on a false confession—in the presence of his pregnant wife (who would live for at least another year without him if he doesn’t confess) was easily one of the most dramatic moments in the festival. 

[Some have pointed out that the putative parallel between the actual witch hunts of the 17th century and the red hunts of the 1950s is invalid because, as Molly (Day Thatcher) Kazan, Elia Kazan’s wife, told Miller, there never really were any witches, but there were communists (including in the entertainment business: Miller himself had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s).  Though this is undeniably true—witches are imaginary; communists are real—parallels still pertained.  The fear and paranoia engendered by both was equally real and both were demonized by the established authorities of their respective societies.  The communal hysteria generated by rumors of witches in Salem was almost exactly duplicated by the rabid anti-communists of the McCarthy era and though execution was not an end result in the commie witch hunt as it had been for the actual witch trials of the 1690s, many careers and lives were utterly destroyed as a result of the hearings, trials, and denunciations by such publications as Red Channels.  Furthermore, the potential dangers attributed to both witches and communists in the entertainment industry (I’m not referring to actual spies like the Rosenbergs), were equally specious.  Miller himself pointed out that while we know today that there are no such things as witches (I’m not talking about modern-day Wiccans), to deny their existence in Salem 325 years ago was ill-advised and doing so could put a settler’s life in jeopardy since it was the colony authorities (the colonial equivalent to the state or, in the case of HUAC, our federal government) which determined what’s real and what’s a myth.  In the 17th century, witches and witchcraft were as real as communists and communism was in the 20th; in 17th-century England, there was even a man, Matthew Hopkins, who assumed the self-appointed position of Witchfinder General.]

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