I hate to start with the obvious, but: In a world where the president of the United States can declare himself the victim of "the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history," mounting a production of The Crucible seems like it might just be a little OTN.
Arthur Miller's 1953 tragedy about the Salem witch trials of 1692 (which was not-so-secretly really about the House Un-American Activities Committee's anti-communist campaign) is heavy, humorless, and unrelenting. It depicts the terrifying swiftness with which power-hungry demagogues can employ ideological delusion to breed paranoia that reduces even the most thriving community to a hornet's nest of lies, hysteria, and persecution.
The above scenario might sound familiar to anyone who is in any way alive currently.
The drama is intimate: The Proctor family struggles to maintain its essential dignity and liberty as their small world closes around them. Accusations of witchcraft—spread by young girls drunk on a sudden sense of influence, and adjudicated by inflexibly pious elders—soon find their way to Elizabeth Proctor. To save her from disgrace and death, her husband, John, is forced to reveal his own sins to clear her name, thrusting the instability of their private lives into the public square.
The themes are monumental: the fragility of social order, the human tendency toward mob rule, and the power that issues from the pernicious grammar of suspicion, insinuation, and sanctimony that transfers the burden of proof to the accused and makes "all accusers holy." Most trenchantly, Miller depicts the ease with which the justice system, and the community standards that bolster it, slide from being concerned with what a person did to what they said to what they believe.
To borrow a rhetorical construction Miller himself used many times, saying The Crucible is about McCarthyism is like saying Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People is about the need for water pollution reform. Like all durable tragedies, or even melodramas, the play is propelled through time by a sufficient load of pity and fear to make it suitable for audiences of any generation. But if it were just a story about the challenges of puritan marriage, it wouldn't have become Miller's most-produced play, nor one of the most-produced plays of the past century.
The crux of The Crucible is its dramatization of a very simple, not-unfamiliar truth: The noble principles expressed in the foundation of movements, religions, and nations are easily nullified by the basic human tendency toward brutality. This message, despite and because of its lack of nuance, makes the play suitable for audiences of all ages, and an ideal vehicle for teachers introducing young students to the concept of allegory.
More importantly, it also makes it especially applicable to any moment when what Philip Roth called "the indigenous American berserk" approaches critical mass.
Like 2017, for instance.
In 1692, the witch hunters blamed the devil. In 1953, it was communists. Since then, it has been terrorists, Muslims, Jews, gay people, atheists, liberals, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, homeless people, drug users, anti-Vietnam protesters, SNCC, SDS, Black Panthers, abortion providers, abortion recipients, "card carrying members of the ACLU," pornographers, pornography consumers, Dungeons & Dragons players, heavy-metal fans, and punks. These days, it's immigrants, trans people, climate-change activists, Black Lives Matter activists, the antifa, et al.
In a way, it's sort of surprising that it will have taken nearly 25 percent of Donald Trump's first term for Crucible-mania to grip Seattle's performance community, eager as everyone is to find a way for art to say something useful, or even just meaningful, about the current mode of American civic and social meltdown.
This fall brings not one but two versions of The Crucible to Seattle stages. The first has a cast that will "reflect the world that we live in today," according to John Langs, artistic director of ACT Theatre, where he's directing a full production of Miller's play (it runs October 13 to November 12). "I want the audience to leave their expectations at the door. It won't be the traditional 1692 world of The Crucible."
Langs added: "The current political climate is pushing us closer and closer to the neighbor-versus-neighbor mentality that Arthur Miller so brilliantly captured. The pervasive and profound desire to highlight our differences has consequences that are being felt all over this country and throughout the political spectrum... This is the perfect time to revisit this classic about the power of paranoia and fear."
The second Crucible-related production is Kaitlin McCarthy's abstract dance piece Eight Abigails, which "investigates and reimagines [The Crucible's] teenage villain, Abigail Williams, a young woman teetering on the edge of sanity, survival, and insurgency." It will run November 10 to 12 at Velocity.
Though this show is less revival and more deconstruction, it nonetheless relies on the play's seemingly eternal relationship to the present.
In an e-mail, McCarthy wrote that Abigail Williams "seems like a manipulative femme fatale, but on closer inspection she's an orphan who is seduced by her employer, a man twice her age who then dumps, fires, and threatens her with beatings. Then she is slut shamed so she's no longer employable. It's fucked up. This is not a person coming from a position of power. It doesn't excuse what she does, but her power only manifests because it's advantageous to those who have something to gain. That feels pretty analogous to current politics with dark money and fake news pulling the strings."
Even a cursory rereading of the play (or, if you're feeling masochistic, a viewing of the 1996 Nicholas Hytner film) makes the character of Abigail, whose spurned lust and treachery catalyze the whole story, seem ripe for a feminist reframing.
But The Crucible has been used as a vessel for social commentary from its very first production, as though Miller put it in the world as a parable to trick unsuspecting theatergoers of the 1950s into understanding that McCarthyism was wrong. (As New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson famously wrote in his review of opening night in 1953, "Neither Mr. Miller nor his audiences are unaware of certain similarities between the perversions of justice then and today.")
The play's righteous reputation has been compounded by decades of enshrinement by theater and academia. With the noteworthy exceptions of productions in repressive countries like China or Soviet Georgia, you can be reasonably certain that anyone who goes to see The Crucible today has a pretty firm idea of where they stand on the subject of theocracy, group hysteria, and persecution of the individual by the state.
Still, all righteous reputations merit scrutiny.
Moral absolutism, which bedevils the legacy of many fine artists of Arthur Miller's social and historical vintage, is a great asset for a polemic, but less rich for a work of art. Like all theater that yearns to be spelled with an "-re," The Crucible abounds with performed piety and certitude. Which, in the context of a story about the perils of performed piety and certitude, is ironic.
And any revival of the play as a programming option for liberal humanists runs the risk of merely flattering the existing biases of an affronted minority, and thereby giving them/us permission to remain arrogantly indifferent to more complex questions. So it will be interesting to see what these artists do with it.
Being told how right you are may offer catharsis, and it may even feel good, but that doesn't make it good art. Not unless it also shows us something we don't already know.
More to the point, there's something almost perverse about the thought of spending $30 to watch actors acting out scenes of religious delusion, ignorance, torture, and hysteria when you can get it for free 24 hours a day on Twitter.
Late in the play, John Proctor says, "It is rare for people to be asked the question which puts them squarely in front of themselves." He's talking about the false confession he signs and then heroically recants on pain of death. He's also talking about the theater, of course, and he's right about that, too.