When testifying in front of the House of Un-American Activities in 1956, Miller said: ‘Anybody in this room might have thoughts of various kinds that could be prosecuted if they were carried into action, but that is an entirely different story.’
The Crucible (1953) is Arthur Miller’s version of the Salem witch trials in 1692, which ended with 19 women being executed for witch craft. The ICAT (Independent Centre for Actor Training) Manchester group performed the play in The Lowry at only £6 a ticket.
Miller’s vision is an allegory for the Red Scare that gripped America in the 1950’s. Fueled by senator Joseph McCarthy, who was so ardent an anti-communist that the growing feeling of dislike towards the Soviets was labelled ‘McCarthyism,’ the Red Scare originated in the belief that American spies gave Soviet’s the information they needed to produce successful nuclear tests in 1949.
ICAT uses a bare stage which emphasises the stark landscape of late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. Throughout the whole play there are maybe five settings, each adorned with wooden boxes that function as walls, tables, and as the trial begins, seats for judge, jury, and executioner.
Every character is touched by religion in some way. Talk of the devil hangs heavy in the air. In each conversation his fearful name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. In Salem, the belief in mortal sin shapes the social fabric of the town, and influences the hysteria that pulses throughout the community.
The play begins with Reverend Parris’ (Max Anderson’s) daughter Betty lying unconscious across the wooden boxes. One night ago the Reverend saw the village girls dancing in the woods and, upon jumping out of the bushes he had been hiding in, shocked his daughter so much that she passed out.
Conspiracy theories abound.
Parris is convinced that his niece Abigail Williams (Phoebe Fischer) has something to do with his daughter’s illness. Under the Reverend’s suspicious gaze, something as innocent as dancing turns into summoning the devil, much to Abigail’s denial. Anderson plays the pious clergyman perfectly: his stern expression and unwavering stature form the basis for the man who survives the play, firmly on the side of the uncompromising courts. Sanity appears in the form of farmer John Proctor (Vince Gray) and Reverend Hale (James Ainsworth), but this is short lived.
Hale warns Parris that he should not prescribe any supernatural reasoning to Betty’s unconscious state. Giles Corey (Guy Thompson) enters the scene, and the sanity ends there.
Satire runs throughout the play.
Corey is quick to claim he saw one of the girls flying over a barn the night they were dancing. As talk of witch craft abounds, Corey mentions that his wife reads books, something he will later regret as she is put on trial for witch craft.
The play centers around the one time affair between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. Gray plays a haunted man who wants to right his wrongs, and a man now wholly dedicated to his wife Elizabeth (Julie Hannan). In one tender scene he tells her: ‘I mean to please you, Elizabeth’. He spurns Abigail’s desire to continue their relationship, and in a fit of jealous rage Abigail accuses Elizabeth of doing the Devil’s work. The strands of plot weave together to form the image of a broken community, so fearful and intent on purifying their town that they accuse their neighbours without reason.
Mary Warren (Carly O’Hare) embodies the stress caused by this toxic society, and the desperate search for the truth. Caught between her master John Proctor who urges her to tell the truth and the lying, spiteful Abigail, Mary crumbles under the intense gaze of her suspicious peers. O’Hare fits the bill for a woman in distress: as Mary is pulled this way and that by John and Abigail, her agonised expression shows her torment.
Mary brings to mind the Rosenbergs. Miller published his play in the year that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed. Thought to have passed atomic secrets to Russia, Julius was arrested on July 17th, 1950. Ethel followed soon after. Shockingly, Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law (David and Ruth Greenglass) testified against the Rosenbergs to lessen their own sentence for the same crime.
Hours before their execution, Julius and Ethel penned a letter to their two young children. One section reads: ‘good cannot really flourish in the midst of evil; (that) freedom and all the things that go to make up a truly satisfying and worthwhile life, must sometimes be purchased very dearly.’
Nothing is won in Miller’s play. The struggling embers of truth die out along with John and Elizabeth. Friends are lost, lovers turn, and the corrupting force of isolated religious superstition ruins all in its path.