"It’s hard to hold a pen with a clenched fist," said Ralph Ellison, and works of art inspired by contemporary political grievance do not do well in the survivability sweepstakes. Only scholars remember plays such as Maxwell Anderson’s Gods of the Lightning on the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Elmer Rice’sJudgement Day based on the Reichstag fire trials, or James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie on the murder of Emmet Till. And yet there is one major exception to this truism: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, born as an intense response to the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950′s, has somehow managed to escape the fate of yesterday’s newspaper. Indeed, after a lukewarm initial reception, the play has grown in respect and popularity through the years so that now it is more frequently revived than Death of A Salesman. Why is this so?
It is not because the parallels between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the HUAC and McCarthy investigations of the 1940′s and ’50s are particularly subtle; indeed, they are underlined. For those of us who remember that scoundrel time, to listen to the words of the play is to again hear the televised confrontations between accusers and accused: "A person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there is no road between." "This is a hearing; you cannot clap me for contempt of a hearing." "There is fear in the country because there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country." "But it does not follow that everyone accused is part of it." "Is the accuser always holy now?"
But the strongest parallel that Miller draws lies in the "good faith" demand by both Salem judges and McCarthyite/HUAC investigators that the accused not only admit personal guilt but name co-conspirators. When Proctor initially admits a false guilt to save his life, he is given the further test to say whom he saw with the Devil. With the incorruptible Rebecca Nurse present, he cannot do so: "I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another." Similarly, "friendly" witnesses to Congressional investigations had to identify known Communists or "dupes," names the committee clearly already knew. Victor Navasky’s book on the subject is called Naming Names, an act ritually demanded to test the sincerity of recantation.
The similarity of ritual demands in Salem and Washington leads Miller to his major theme: the price of retaining one’s sense of self-worth when social coercion works to destroy it; ultimately, one’s name, one’s integrity, is all one has. As Proctor finally affirms: "How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" Prophetically, when Miller was himself called before the House committee in 1956, three years after the opening of The Crucible, life imitated art as he testified: "Mr. Chairman, I take the responsibility for everything I have ever done, but I cannot take responsibility for another human being."
It is this characteristic of Miller’s best work– the scrutiny of the necessary interaction of public and private realms of morality– which accounts for the sustained relevance of The Crucible and the increasing growth of his artistic reputation. After the fifties, together with his great contemporary Tennessee Williams, Miller’s artistic stock fell. Judged insufficiently radical and experimental in the sixties and seventies, Miller’s stature in the English-speaking theater was renewed in Britain, where an ironic, non-rationalist postmodern sensibility had not taken hold. A rational view of the symbiosis between the individual and society was not there deemed "old-fashioned." Nor was it so considered in Europe, Latin America, or even China where several of Miller’s plays, including The Crucible, were enthusiastically produced. Wherever political crisis arose–an imminent coup, a dictatorial regime overthrown, a repressive censorship instituted–the play seemed imperative to stage. To grasp the play’s essential moral dimension it was and is not necessary to master its specific American allusions.
Of course, none of this would matter if the play were not verbally dynamic and artfully constructed. Miller’s seemingly archaic language is fully comprehensible to our contemporary ears, and although it flirts with poetic excess, it never succumbs to it. Structurally, the play is a marvel. I have seen four major productions, including the original, and appeared in two minor ones, and can testify that each one worked (in varying degrees given the level of professionalism) splendidly as a powerful work of theater. The play builds inexorably through an accelerating dramatic rhythm of assertion and denial that informs characters and events. Mary Warren is at first an accuser, then a confessor, and then a hysterical retractor. Reverend Hale turns from diligent prosecutor to troubled skeptic to fierce denouncer of the proceedings. Giles Corey first accuses his wife and then desperately tries to defend her. John Proctor himself at first accepts moral guilt for his adultery, then angrily challenges the court at his wife’s arrest, insincerely confesses to save himself, and finally tears up his confession to retain his "goodness." Miller invests the play with the theatrical energy of the reversals of melodrama without succumbing to the form’s simplistic morality. This is a classic play which does not demand ingenious directorial intervention to command contemporary interest.
The current Broadway production directed by ex-Royal National Theatre head, Richard Eyre–apart from a final (and unnecessary) directorial/scenic flourish–hews close to Miller’s stated intentions. It wants to recount its narrative starkly, cleanly and, for the most part, is successful in doing so. It has one immense advantage: an actor in the lead role who trumps the best interpretations of John Proctor I’ve seen. The original Proctor, Arthur Kennedy (also the original Biff Loman), brought his customary intelligence and energy to the role but never seemed a farmer; Daniel Day-Lewis, in the under-appreciated 1996 film version by another British director, Nicholas Hytner (currently represented on Broadway by The Sweet Smell of Success), more successfully conveyed Proctor’s common roots. But neither had the sheer physical presence nor the Celtic passion of the current Proctor, Liam Neeson, a common man who one could well believe put the roof on the church. His ardent performance is the engine that drives a revival which achieves tragic dimension as the strongest oak falls. Neeson’s co-star, the excellent Laura Linney, offers an Elizabeth Proctor whose repressed emotions and demeanor contrast most effectively with Neeson’s explosiveness. But her character’s range is more circumscribed, and I cannot say that she finds aspects of character undiscovered by Beatrice Straight in the original production or Joan Allen in the film.
And now, briefly, the non-fatal liabilities. The other major performances are all, in varying degrees, flawed. Versatile Brian Murray as Judge Danforth, the main investigator, gives an intelligent reading but seems altogether too physically soft; if ever a character seems to demand a lean and hungry look it is this quintessence of ascetic Puritanism (Paul Scofield in the film was the best of the Danforths). As the malevolent Abigail Williams, Angela Bettis in no way stands out from the other afflicted children. She finds no way to subtly project, as her character must, her lust for Proctor. John Benjamin Hickey is bland in the crucial role of the open-minded Reverend Hale (originated by the great E. G. Marshall) who finally turns against the court, and Christopher Evan Welch is downright bad– a stereotypic villain– as the weak Reverend Parris. In short, Eyre, working under typical commercial theatre limitations, has not succeeded in assembling a uniformly first-rate company. What is really needed for The Crucible is a true theatrical ensemble such as the Royal National Theatre, which presented in 1990 a revival I unfortunately did not see (led by current Oscar-nominee Tom Wilkinson as Proctor) which, by all accounts, was cohesive from top to bottom. Still, Eyre, thanks largely to Neeson’s formidable contribution, offers us an imperfect but vital production which conveys the essence and energy of a play that refuses to lose its relevance.