The Crucible

The Crucible’s Message is Missed  

Arthur Miller’s works may be having a little revival here in southwestern Ontario.  In 2016, Stratford Festival offered a brilliant production of All My Sons in the old Tom Patterson Theatre, a gut-wrenching lesson in greed.  In 2017, Drayton Entertainment produced an equally powerful Death of a Salesman at St. Jacobs Country Playhouse.  Unfortunately, Miller’s The Crucible now on stage at Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre doesn’t measure up to these two.

There is much that can be learned from The Crucible, which is a great play about the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s.  Unfortunately this production does not have a clear message. 

When Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953, he was comparing the actual witch trials to the witch hunt taking place in the U.S.  Politicians such as Senator Joseph McCarthy were paranoid about communism, certain that Hollywood actors and writers were subversively trying to brainwash Americans into becoming communists. The House Un-American Activities Committee was established to blacklist suspected communists, and a kind of hysteria followed, much like the frenzy around the suspected witches in the 1600s.

In The Crucible, a group of girls, acting in strange ways, accuse women in the community of being witches.  The very religious Puritan settlers believe that the witches are doing the devil’s work and have the girls under their spell.  Many are hanged for witchcraft.  Since we don’t see witchcraft today, we look back and assume innocent women were put to death. The young girls’ actions and motives are questionable.

Or is it just peer pressure?  One strong-minded girl named Abigail has a grudge against her former boss and calls her a witch.  The rest of the girls go along with it, seemingly possessed.  Or is it all planned by Abigail, and she convinces the others to feign being under a witch’s spell?

That’s what makes the play The Crucible good – there are many ways it can be interpreted, similar to McCarthyism and the witch hunt of the 1950s.  Were they seriously afraid of communism or was it all faked due to political rivalries?

Is it nothing more than needing to be included in a group?  Or is this a study in mass hysteria and an interesting look at how young girls behave when they scheme together?  Perhaps it shows how a popular leader (young Abigail) can manipulate her friends – the Mean Girls scenario.

In that case, these youngsters’ accusations are meaningless and should just be ignored.  But in light of today’s #MeToo movement, perhaps it is time to listen to the girls.  John Proctor’s relationship with his servant girl Abigail was entirely inappropriate and he should be punished for it.  Maybe Abigail should be believed.  Was she an innocent child or a Jezebel?  Instead, his wife pays for his sin, if you believe he was in the wrong.

At Stratford’s The Crucible, all these various possibilities seem to be mashed together, with no real theme emerging.  It becomes tiresome quite quickly.

The characters yell and shout loudly at each other almost all the time.  It’s annoying and it doesn’t seem believable that this is the way Puritans would speak.

The speech is also an unusual mix. One expects to hear a formal, stilted cadence to their speech, the way Puritans might have spoken.  Instead some of the actors are using a Shakespearean rhythm, making it sound like the iambic pentameter we are used to hearing at Stratford.  But others use a speech pattern more like modern English.  Neither seems fitting, and the mix is grating, especially when all the characters live in the same small community.

When the girls are possessed, their behaviour is extreme as they go into paroxysms.  It all seems too over the top.

The Crucible shows what happens when government and the courts fall under the influence of religious zealots.  This production is a missed opportunity and doesn’t do Miller’s work justice.  It could have offered a challenging theme and provided the audience with an examination of what happens when religion controls the authorities in both the government and the courts.

The Crucible continues in repertory until October 25 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford.  Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca

Photo: Members of the company in The Crucible. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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