While in Dublin, I had the good fortune of enjoying a preview of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Abbey Theatre on Monday, May 28, 2007.
The audience consisted of a great many Irish high school pupils who were attending the preview in anticipation of national examinations: Miller’s The Crucible is on the exam and is considered required reading for Irish secondary students.
The atmosphere in the Abbey that evening, populated as it was by so many young people, lent an air of excitement to the performance; the students while energetic and enthusiastic, were well-behaved and attentive.
I also first read The Crucible as a secondary student while attending a private boarding school as a day student in Hightstown, New Jersey between 1979 and 1983. At the forefront of the so-called conservative revolution, it was an appropriate read, although the play itself is a classic evoking themes concerning free speech, censorship, and social hysteria.
I also substitute taught a drama class at a high school in Ocean County, New Jersey in the early 1990s that was rehearsing the play for dramatic performance.
In today’s climate of global terrorism and general public distrust of government and other traditional institutions (e.g. church hierarchies and trans-national corporations), the play seemed again all too relevant.
This evening, however, I entered the Abbey interested in the aspects of group psychology that the play’s witchcraft craze centers upon, and which Miller used as a metaphor for that ugly episode in American history better known as McCarthyism, the Red Scare, or Hollywood blacklisting.
My interest in this angle of the play was further heightened by a visit to Our Lady of Knock Shrine and the Chapel of the Apparitions in Knock, County Mayo, Ireland on May 25, 2007. According to legend, about fifteen people witnessed visions, for nearly two hours, of the odd combination of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, St. John the Baptist as well as lambs and angels on August 21, 1879. The apparitions appeared on the gable wall of the church. Pope John Paul II visited the site on his world tour in 1979.
The topic of conversation among my fellow travelers: how could fifteen persons all witnessing the same vision for almost two hours have been mistaken?
It was with that question in mind that I entered the Abbey Theater to see Patrick Mason’s excellent production of The Crucible.
The stage was painted black with gray streaks. The backdrop was a simple louvered set painted to match the stark stage and, at on point in the performance, a flash of what appeared from the audience as fire appeared between the louvers. The blackness of the stage - highlighted at different points by various lights to deepen the blackness or to allude to grayness depending upon what actors and scene was onstage – was well-done and underscored the rigidity or open-mindedness of the characters portrayed.
For example, the scenes in the courtroom tended towards black-and-white while the scene in John and Elizabeth Proctor’s house was cast in a grayer aura. A nicely done set and lighting effects by Lighting Designer Lucy Carter and Company Stage Manager Anne Layde.
The performance too was excellent. Christopher Saul (Deputy-Governor Danforth), Peter Gowen (Rev. John Hale), Ruth Negga (Abigail Williams), Laurietta Essien (Tituba), Deirdre Donnelly (Rebecca Nurse), Derry Power (Francis Nurse), and Tom Hickey (Giles Corey) all delivered strong performances.
I thought that two of the main characters, John Proctor portrayed by Declan Conlon and his wife Elizabeth Proctor (Cathy Belton), also rendered strong performances. However, one of my companions in attendance felt Conlon’s portrayal was weak. This same companion though also had trouble hearing the play at points, especially early on, which was not the case at my position in Row M Seat 28 right of stage. Also, Proctor is supposed to be a troubled character, plagued by guilt for an adulterous affair with one of the young accusers, Abigail Willliams, and whose conscience weighed heavily with the ongoing witch hunt, its accompanying hysteria, and the ease with which Salem allowed its members to be executed on mere accusations.
Overall, the play was, in my view, excellent and timely. The religious fury, wild accusations, and stoning to death of citizens rang true in today’s environment of terrorism, patriotism, and torture. A biting reminder of the frailty of freedom and the tenuous undercurrents that can undercut democracy.
Another aspect of the play that I had not fully appreciated in my earlier encounters was how especially economic insecurities, and also existential crises, impacted the psychology of those quick to accuse: Thomas Putnam stood to benefit financially from Proctor’s misfortunes and the deaths of Mrs. Putnam’s children-unremarkable in those times-were all too easily explained by supernatural causes. Rev. Parris, aptly portrayed by Peter Hanly as a despicable creature, was more concerned with his financial and social status than with the spiritual nourishment and well-being of his flock.