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'The Crucible'--Witch-Hunts Then and Now

By Caldwell Titcomb

STRATFORD, Conn.--There is considerable logic in the American Shakespeare Theatre's decision this summer to fevive Artnur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials, The Crucible. This is, after all, a year in which special attention is being given to our country's history. The choice might well have fallen on Shaw's The Devil's Disciple, which dramatizes incidents in the American Revolution; but the AST gave us that play six years ago. Furthermore, would it not be better to offer a work not only about America but by an American?

On the nation's 200th birthday, it behooves us to do more than blow a trumpet and beat a drum. We should use the occasion to take stock of what is wrong with this country as well as what is right. Miller's play can help us do this. As the AST's director, Michael Kahn, said in an interview a few weeks ago, "I wanted to do The Crucible for our Bicentennial year. I think it's a terrific play, both hopeful for and critical of America."

The Crucible, which opened in New York at the very beginning of 1953, was the first historical drama by Miller to face the public (he had written Montezuma, a play about the conquest of Mexico, immediately following his graduation from the University of Michigan in 1938; but it has, I believe, never been performed, or even published).

A special point about The Crucible however, is that Miller was using historical topicality as a means of making a statement about contemporary society. He was drawing a parallel between the religious witch-hunts of 1692 and the political witch-hunts of the decade following World War II. Both were disgraceful episodes in our history.

It is hard for those who did not actually live through those post-war years to appreciate the awfulness of that era. The main organs of villainy were the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. And among their agents were Representatives J. Parnell Thomas and Richard M. Nixon, Senators Pat McCarran and James O. Eastland. Citizens by the carload were hauled before the committees; and, as a result, dozens of writers, performers and other professionals were blacklisted and for years could not secure work in films, theatre, radio, television and other fields.

The archfiend among these politicians was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who used his committee chairmanship to conduct a campaign of terror and slander, before which even President Eisenhower buckled. Early in 1950 McCarthy waved in his hand a piece of paper that he claimed bore the names of 205 Communists knowingly employed by the State Department (the Communists were as real as the Salem witches). And it was only after the 1954 elections that he was at last brought low and formally censured by the Senate. Thus it is that McCarthyism (a word coined by cartoonist Herblock) has become the dictionary term for ruthless and reckless mudslinging and demagogic suppression of criticism; and he will live on in our lexical language with such other extremists as the Marquis de Sade, William Lynch, Thomas Bowdler, Vidkun Quisling, and Anthony Comstock.

With McCarthyism at its peak in 1952 and 1953, it took a good deal of courage to write and stage The Crucible. The play was picketed not only by a number of right-wing groups, but also by the American Bar Association on the grounds that its portrayal of the 17th-century Puritan judges was unsympathetic. Ironically, in 1954 Miller himself was denied a passport to attend the Brussels premiere of this very play because the State Department felt he was supporting the Communist movement.

Having written this drama about a man whose conscience obliged him to stand almost alone against widespread folly and hysteria, Miller found himself in the same position in 1956 when, five days after receiving an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, he was summoned before the HUAC and asked for the names of other writers he had met at leftist meetings a decade earlier. As a result of his refusal to inform on others he was found guilty of contempt of Congress. His conviction was later overturned on appeal, but the experience nonetheless took its psychic toll.

Again this year the public's consciousness has been redirected to all this shameless business with the appearance of Lillian Hellman's memoir Scoundrel Time (on the best-seller list for eight weeks now), which tells the story of her own grilling by HUAC in 1952. As Miller would later do, Miss Hellman said she would answer questions about herself but would refuse to discuss anybody else. In what has become a classic statement, she declared in part: "To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." The experience of Miss Hellman--herself one of the small handful of American playwrights in Miller's class--may well have spurred Miller to finish The Crucible. (One famous playwright who did cave in and supply HUAC with a list of names was Clifford Odets.)

Miller was not the first person to see the parallel between the late 17th century and the middle of the 20th, for Marion Starkey had in 1949 published a widely read book on the Salem episode, The Devil in Massachusetts. Nor was he the only one to dramatize the 1692 witch-hunt. A couple of months before The Crucible opened, both Florence Stevenson's Child's Play and Louis O. Coxe's The Witch-finders were staged in the Midwest. Still earlier, in May of 1952, the Poets' Theatre produced at Harvard the first version of The Gospel Witch, a verse treatment by young Lyon Phelps '51, which shares eight characters with Miller's play. Witches were clearly in the air--in one sense.

Harvard alumni, it should be added, loomed large in the historical events at Salem. And as in most controversial issues right up to today, they could be found on all sides. The chief justice and prosecutor of the witch trials was William Stoughton (A.B. 1650), whose bloodthirstiness led him, when Governor Phips eventually ordered a halt, to try to hurry three more people up the hangman's steps. Allied with him was Judge Samuel Sewall (A.B. 1671), who five years later publicly confessed his error. Among the witch-hunting clergymen the most active was John Hale (A.B. 1657).

One of the 20 victims executed was the minister George Burrough (A.B. 1671), condemned mainly on the basis of his feats of excessive strength. Burrough's hanging was urged by Cotton Mather (A.B. 1678), who three years earlier had published a book about several witchcraft cases. Mather failed to speak out even when he realized things were going awry, but later tried to atone by treating and curing two girls who decided to start a witch-hunt in Boston.

On the side of sanity was Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall (A.B. 1659), who left the bench rather than be a party to taking innocent blood. And the minister Joshua Moodey (A.B. 1653) helped several of the accused to escape, thereby incurring public wrath. Thomas Brattle (A.B. 1676) attacked the judges' methods in a lengthy and influential letter, which was circulated in copies.

The man most responsible for ending the prosecutions, however, was Harvard president Increase Mather (A.B. 1656). He and some other Cambridge ministers, meeting in Old Harvard Hall, agreed that no court should condemn anyone to death on the basis of "spectral evidence" alone. Mather followed up at once by composing a tract, Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, which was instrumental in persuading the Governor to end the sorry business; and, visiting in prison a number of persons who had under pressure confessed to witchcraft, Mather got eight of them to recant.

Still, scars remained. And Michael Wigglesworth (A.B. 1651) was the minister who started the movement to pay reparations to the families of the victims, while the young clergyman who restored calm to the village of Salem was Joseph Green (A.B. 1695).

In fashioning his play, Miller did extensive research, even traveling to Salem to read the trial records. In a justified exercise of artistic license, Miller acknowledges that he occasionally condensed several people into one character and also raised the age of Abigail, the ringleader of the girls who began the madness. But the play is essentially faithful to the historical facts available.

There are those who consider The Crucible Miller's best work. That honor, in my view, clearly belongs to Death of a Salesman, although The Crucible represents an attempt at a more exalted kind of Aristotelean tragedy. In the Salem play, rounded and shaded characters are mostly absent; Miller's moral position was so strong that he seemed able to deal only in blacks and whites. There is here an inescapable preachiness and an occasional failure of the diction to satisfy the demands of subject and context.

I am not objecting, as some do, to the archaic language that Miller has used to suggest the historical period and create a Brechtian distance between audience and player. The chief agents are the use of "Mister" to address the men and of "Goody" (colloquialism for "Goodwife") to refer to the women, along with a lot of unusual third-person verb forms ("He have his goodness now"). But one has only to compare The Crucible with Shaw's Saint Joan--another play that climaxes with confession, recantation and martyrdom--to see how much greater a master of language the Briton was.

Nevertheless, once one gets past a certain diffuseness in Miller's first act, The Crucible shows itself to be skilfully and carefully constructed. And there is no denying that it offers us a series of highly effective and exciting confrontations--sometimes external, sometimes internal. So theatrical is the work, indeed, that it rarely fails to make a strong impact even in a middling production--which is one reason that it is so popular with amateur drama groups. In fact, the play's original Broadway production enjoyed a substantial six-month run despite the fact that it was not very well performed. The far superior off-Broadway revival five years later ran for more than 500 performances (at this time a French film version, Les Sorcieres de Salem, was also in release, with a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre; and Robert Ward's fine Pulitzer-Prize-winning opera based on the play would follow in 1961).

The current production that Michael Kahn has directed for the American Shakespeare Theatre is respectable enough, I suppose, but not so distinguished as one would like. It will satisfy those who have never experienced the play, but will disappoint those who have seen such an incandescent version as the 1958 revival.

The trouble starts with the role of John Proctor, the farmer who embodies Miller's moral viewpoint and becomes the tragic hero of the play. The part is here entrusted to Don Murray, who does make an earnest attempt. He starts off all right; but as soon as the role begins to make heavier demands, his shortcomings are evident. In his second-act colloquy with the Reverend Hale, Proctor has an exceedingly important remark: "Is the accuser always holy now?" Murray hurries over this so that the idea is all but lost.

In the third act Murray pushes his voice to the point of ugly hoarseness, and in the last act he makes us suffer through his yelling, yelling, yelling. This is not the same thing as digging deep into a part. For that we need someone who can approach the profound grandeur that Michael Higgins captured in the 1958 production.

Maria Tucci is much better as Proctor's wife Elizabeth, who at a crucial moment tries to help her adulterous husband by telling her first lie, when he is counting on her to be truthful as usual. And she makes the play's final moments moving as her cheeks course with tears in a combination of sadness, joy, and pride. Tovah Feldshuh is properly sexy as the teenage girl Abigail, who accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft in hopes of getting Proctor for herself.

The one superlative performance in the show is that of Jack Gwillim as Deputy-Governor Danforth, the symbol of political authority and religious certitude. He does not appear until the third act, but from then on he really takes command of the stage whenever he is present, as befits his station in life. Although Danforth thinks himself a surrogate for God, Miller describes him as a person "of some humor." Gwillim manages to convey touches of humor without ever undermining Danforth's sense of infallibility--an exemplary piece of work.

William Larsen is acceptable as the paranoid and pompous Reverend Samuel Parris, who won't give an inch about anything: "I am not some preaching farmer with a book under my arm; I am a graduate of Harvard College." Actually, Miller's scholarship slipped here, for Parris did not hold a Harvard degree. The late historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who wrote book after book on Harvard's first 300 years, stated that Parris may perhaps have attended the College for a time around 1672-74, but was not a graduate. Harvard was at times lax in its early attendance-keeping, but it was always meticulous in recording all its degree recipients.

The important character in the play who did graduate from Harvard is the Rev. John Hale, who in fact received both a bachelor's and master's degree. An expert on demonology, Hale starts off siding with Danforth, but in the course of the play undergoes moral growth. He comes to harbor doubts about the trials, and winds up denouncing them. George Hearn handles this vital role commendably. But Wyman Pendleton turns Judge John Hathorne into too much of a caricature of Hercule Poirot.

Will Hussung, who had a less prominent role in the original 1953 production, is good as the octogenarian Giles Corey, one of the noblest figures in the Salem saga. Rather than plead guilty or innocent, Corey steadfastly remained mute, the only way under the law that he could insure his property would go to his sons. To force a plea out of him, heavy stones were piled on his chest. Saying only, "More weight," he died. (Corey and his brave death figure more prominently in Lyon Phelps' aforementioned dramatization.)

Anne Ives, as the 72-year-old victim Rebecca Nurse, is much too weak of voice; and she behaves more like a queen-dowager than a Salem villager. But Sarallen makes believable the somewhat comic Barbadian Negro slave, Tituba, who confesses to "conjuring" to save her neck.

As suits the Puritan environment, David Jenkins has designed spare wooden sets with a minimum of props. John McLain's lighting could stand improvement, notably in the fourth act, which takes place in the Salem jail. The cell is supposed to be dark, with only a few moonbeams getting through; but the stage is bathed in bright light. Somebody was asleep at the switch.

[Ed. Note-The drive to the picturesque American Shakespeare Theatre's grounds on the Housatonic River takes about two and a half hours via the Massachusetts Turnpike, Interstate 86 and 91, and the Connecticut Turnpike to Exit 32 or 31. Performances tend to begin rather promptly at 2 p.m. or 8 p.m., and a group of singers offers madrigals on the lawn beforehand. There are free facilities for picnickers on the premises.]

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