24 September 2006: Miller The Crucible

Shaw Festival. Festival Theatre. Directed by Tadeusz Brodecki

An engrossing, almost terrifying, and moving production of Miller’s play, a work that in some ways far transcends its own time and in other ways seems to cry out for an interpretation that draws pointed analogies to our own time and place. (One feels the urge to send a copy of the play to the personal attention of George W. Bush with instructions to study carefully the part of Mr. Danforth.)

A drop curtain covering the entire width and height of the large Festival Theatre proscenium depicts an endless forest of snow-covered pines, straight and upright, speaking of continuing strength and survival in the bleakest of winters. Lights come up behind it to some small extent, and through the semi-transpar­ency of the scrim we can see the outline figures of the pilgrim community, their arms raised in ostensible prayer, as a chorus of mixed voices is heard in a hymn. The lights dim again, the drop is flown, the small community of pilgrims goes off, the lights come up again, and we are in an upstairs bedroom in the house of the Reverend Samuel Parris.

Here, the background is a very large rectangular structure comprised of the double row of panels the size of large doors. In this first scene the structure is tilted forward at least thirty degrees, to simulate the idea of a bedroom under the eaves of the house; in subsequent scenes it will be set vertically to mark the wall of John Proctor’s house, the vestry of the Salem Meeting House, and a cell in Salem jail, with doors fixed in various locations in the panels. In accomplishing these changes the entire apparatus spins at a fast rate, and we are conscious of a sort of wheelhouse of ropes and gears at the side, almost as if the structure was a gigantic rack on which puny human beings might be tortured.

Thus, the atmosphere of oppressive gloom that hangs over the entire pro­ceed­­ings from beginning to end. It is a masterfully well-constructed play, with a clear rising conflict in each scene that builds in intensity and momentum, as the life and soul of that ordinary, representative man John Proctor are gradually and with mounting speed enmeshed in and consumed by the combination of hysteria and mendacity that tears this community apart.

The action of the play takes on a strong sense of the inevitable, in perhaps more than one way. In hanging so many people, Danforth has committed himself to a course of action from which there is no turning away; mercy has no place in these proceedings. Correlating with this inevitability is what turns out to be John Proctor’s own personal inevitable movement toward a crisis that he alone must face, head-on, with himself: what does it mean to be John Proctor, to be the man that he is? What does that name stand for, what does it mean? And when he signs his name to a statement of guilt, is the mere writing of it a private act or unavoidably a public one? These are consuming questions. In tearing up the false confession he has signed, in a vain attempt to save his life, he rescues his integ­rity. Desperately importuned by the Reverend Hale to persuade her husband to change his mind, Proctor’s wife Elizabeth refuses. “He has his goodness now,” she explains; “God forbid I take it from him.”

In that moment we see, and feel, and understand the whole force of the drama as Miller has shaped it. What we are left with is the ultimate primacy of one man’s unequivocal repossession of himself, a value that looms larger than any value or values the rest of the community may espouse: a singularity and an uncompromised wholeness that stands as definitive of what it means to be human. This is the true center of the play, the true outcome of the dramatic conflict; and this is why the play will, I believe, go on being performed in times to come, when even Death of a Salesman will have come to seem dated. Somehow, the very specificity of the historical setting and its strong link to an ignominious chapter of American history will serve this advance to classic status — long after the analogical connection with McCarthy and the workings of the House Un-Amer­ican Activities Committee and the self-aggrandizing turncoat behavior of Elia Kazan, seemingly so high-profile to us still, takes up a mere paragraph or two in one-volume histories of the United States.

The acting in this production, particularly in key roles, was just splendid. Benedict Campbell brought a rough-human gruffness to the part of John Proctor, who captures with hard-edged elegance the playwright’s idea of a fallible, truly unexceptional man whose only wish is to be left alone to work the land and raise a family, and whose cravings for love, companionship, and human warmth get him into difficulties he cannot easily cope with. Campbell’s haggard appearance and hoarse voice in the last act, at a point when he has been in jail for three months, were full of conviction and affect. Jim Mezon, as his adversary, brought a ramrod-tall presence and authoritativeness to the role of Governor Danforth (Mezon is also a stage director, responsible this season for Too True to Be Good, a play in an entirely different vein). Kelli Fox transformed herself completely from the high-spirited, flamboyant Nurse in Too True to the muted, repressed, hurt and yet guilty Elizabeth Proctor — a difficult role to play because its apparent passiv­ity must be invigorated from within by a strong felt need for the love and sup­port she cannot bring herself to ask for.

The last of the four crucial roles, the Reverend John Hale, is crucial in a struc­tural and thematic way: Hale arrives in Salem carrying with him a reputation as a learned, godly man and an effective preacher whose books — a pile of which are carried on stage in his first-act entrance — are, it turns out, a precarious corner­stone on which the edifice of his faith is built. He lacks adverse experience, some­thing he gets too much of in the course of the action. As a result, because he is someone, unlike many others in the play, who is capable of learning from exper­ience, he realizes how deeply and bitterly inhuman Danforth’s proceedings really are. And he returns to Salem to persuade Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor and others rotting in the Salem jail that common sense is the way to rescue their lives, even if they have to be foresworn to do it. He brings a newly acquired sympathy for humanity to his task, but underlying it is a cynicism that rates the mere pres­er­vation of life above integrity — a value that Proctor’s final action raises above life itself.

This was a memorable production of Miller’s play, very different from the Royal Shakespeare production I saw in London last March: each of them, in their own way, superb.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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