Belgian director Ivo Van Hove is known for avant garde theatre, but although this production (which we saw toward the end of previews) aims to upset our received notions of the play, I would not call it experimental. Still, readers of the play know that Arthur Miller attempted a greater degree of control than most playwrights have, by including extensive stage directions, backstories and appearance of the characters, set descriptions, and even commentary on the play’s meaning. This “metaplay” material is extremely valuable in understanding Miller’s vision, yet a truly great play must work independently; it must lend itself to re-interpretation, just as Shakespeare and Sophocles do. The Crucible passes this test.
Director Van Hove and set designer Jan Versweyveld have set aside much of the metaplay, while adding subtle layers of seventeenth-century Calvinist culture in New England. The results are sometimes startling, but always fascinating. The Long-Suffering Husband and I had the advantage of having recently attended a more traditional staging of the play in Cleveland (which we greatly admired). Thus we were able to compare the two versions, and the audience reactions to them. The most obvious shift from Miller’s original intention for the play is the modern costumes and set. Usually the costumes for The Crucible are at least vaguely “old time” and rural, given that John Proctor and his neighbors are farmers, and the women wear head coverings and long skirts in drab colors to convey the Puritanism of late seventeenth-century Salem. This production garbs the teenaged accusers in what look to North American eyes like drab Catholic schoolgirl uniforms (grey pleated skirt, knee socks, buttoned shirt, cardigan sweater). The men wear suits or trousers and shirts in rough fabrics of earth tones and black. Their wives wear skirts or culotte-like trousers, with a sweater or shirt and jacket. There are no head coverings for the women, and their hair is loose.
The music by Philip Glass is varied. It starts out with the sound of a chorus of girls singing a hymn (a psalm?), then moves to a mournful cello, a male chorus, a solo female voice. The main motif is the cello with a drumbeat which grows at times to resemble a heartbeat, or the steady thud of the march to the scaffold. At the very end, Ben Whishaw sings Psalm LXIX as he moves offstage to be hanged: “Into deep waters I am come…” The first time I watched the play, I sometimes found the music distracting, for it continues as the characters are speaking. The second time, I found that it increased the suspense and dramatic power, especially toward the end.
The Crucible is often presented in the round, which I find very effective, so I wondered what it would look like on a traditional proscenium stage. The large number of characters is a challenge. Van Hove has cut back the number onstage at any one point, and he blocks it so that the characters either arrange themselves symmetrically, spread out across the stage, or form tight clusters within the large, expansive space of the set. Only at points of stress does the blocking feel chaotic or even naturalistic; more often it is stylized and formal.
Versweyveld’s set is stripped down, but not quite as much as in A View From the Bridge. It is recognizable as a schoolroom, or perhaps a large multipurpose room in a school—not unlike those in any large institution built in the 1960s or 70s. Along the back wall is a small porcelain sink, and large air vents; on the left is a bank of windows, and on the right a single door through which all the characters make their entrances and exits. In case there is any doubt about the school environment, the curtain first rises on a group of girls sitting at desks, facing away from the audience, singing softly. They gaze at a large chalkboard hung on the back wall, on which is written:
The Dutiful Child’s Promises
I Will fear GOD, and honour the KING.
I will honour my Father & Mother.
I will Obey my Superiours.
I will Submit to my Elders,
I will Love my Friends.
I will hate no Man.
This is a quotation from The New England Primer, the most-read book in Puritan Massachusetts after the Bible. (The original includes additional lines.) In spite of the modernized dress and environment, we are not so very far from the Puritans in spirit; the Dutiful Child’s Promises are a sort of junior version of the Ten Commandments, which have such an important role in the text of the play (just as the Psalms are mentioned in the text, and realized in the music). After this initial, brief look at the set, which is slightly obscured by a light screen of the type used in windows, the curtain descends again. When it finally rises for the first scene, the desks have been stacked at the side of the room. A few chairs are scattered about, and candles are lit. We see Reverend Parris (a suitably craven Jason Butler Harner) holding his limp daughter in his arms, before placing her on a table as Tituba enters to speak the first words of the play: “My Betty be hearty soon?”
Throughout the play, the same set is used; only a few props are introduced in order to suggest other venues. This works very well for the judicial proceedings, since it is easy to imagine the schoolroom being used as a makeshift court. It is less successful as Reverend Parris’ house (indicated by the candles and Betty’s table/bed) and as the home of John and Elizabeth Proctor (indicated by a large stockpot cooking over a portable propane burner on a cart.) On the other hand, the spare set is successful in conveying a “Puritan” atmosphere barren of luxuries. The chalkboard is the most creative and dynamic prop: initially an orderly list, it graduallly fills with a chaotic babel of words and drawings as the play progresses: Proctor writes the Ten Commandments (minus a critical one); Mary Warren writes “I cannot, I cannot, I cannot,” and strange graffiti fill the empty spaces. Characters lean against the board and come away, their clothing tainted with chalk. By the play’s end, the neat schoolroom has become a shambolic mess, like the community it was built to serve.
The Cleveland production we saw last year added one complicating element, the casting of African-American actors as John and Elizabeth Proctor. Although the rest of the cast was racially mixed (at least one of the accusing girls was black), the judges were all white males. Therefore the sight of John Proctor thrown into chains and tortured was a provocative one for the American audience. In this Broadway production, however, the cast is racially mixed, but with a different subtext in the distribution of roles. The diversity increases the universality of the allegory, with actors of varying physical types, and two interracial couples (the Proctors and the Nurses). Still, the text itself is anything but racially neutral. Tituba (Jenny Jules), who is according to Miller’s text a “Negro slave” of the Reverend Parris, expresses deep hostility toward her master, and it is suggested that he regularly beats her. Abigail’s contemptuous line “They want slaves, not such as I. Let them send to Barbados for that. I will not black my face for any of them!” is also retained in this production.
The most radical piece of casting is Ben Whishaw as John Proctor. According to Miller, Proctor is “powerful of body” and he is typically cast as a large, muscular man—to great effect. Usually one can feel him straining to hold himself back when he is tempted to use force against his enemies (as when they come to arrest his wife). Instead, the slight Whishaw looks almost emaciated. There is no attempt to hide this; instead, at the end of Act Two, after Elizabeth has been arrested, he removes his jacket and shirt and stands facing the windows: “We are only what we always were, but naked now. Aye, naked! And the wind, God’s icy wind, will blow!” This prophecy is fulfilled quite literally, through a piece of stagecraft, so that a stormwind full of debris blasts through the windows and hits his slender body. Proctor’s physical vulnerability poignantly mirrors his emotional state—he’s like a young King Lear. Up to this point, thanks to Whishaw’s commanding voice and stage presence, he has seemed confident, and as Miller calls him, “one who has a biting way with hypocrites.” From now on, he is caught in a deadly struggle with little to rely on but his wits and his force of will—masculine physical intimidation is not an option. Interestingly, however, Whishaw’s slightness allows the director to have him physically confront several of the other actors without seeming like a brute. He twice manhandles Abigail rather provocatively (the second time, she climbs on top of him and starts delivering punches), tackles Mary Warren, and even charges Deputy Governor Danforth during the confession scene, knocking him to the ground.
Sophie Okonedo has the difficult task of actually going against the text (and Miller’s very explicit stage directions) to make Elizabeth Proctor unexpectedly warm and welcoming toward John. In turn, this makes him a less sympathetic character. When he blames her for being cold and withdrawn toward him (“Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer!”), you can tell he is projecting his own anger at himself onto her.
Saoirse Ronan as Abigail, however, is quite traditional—vicious toward her enemies, and very seductive toward Proctor. In spite of what we have read in some of the interviews about Abigail as a child who has been hurt and victimized, I didn’t see much of a vulnerable side to her. It is important to remember that Abigail has been brutalized by the murder of her family before her eyes, and Miller’s stage directions suggest that she is deluding herself, that she actually believes her own accusations. But her experiences have made her undeniably cruel, and Ronan’s Abigail seems hard as nails, especially when turning those laser-blue eyes on anyone likely to get in her way. Van Hove takes advantage of this by having her sit in a chair facing Mary Warren during their interrogation by Danforth. Abigail stares across, her eyes blazing. Mary (an excellent Tavi Gevinson) looks terrified, and I don’t blame her. One aspect of the staging which I thought worked well was to have Abigail stand in the background, beside the chalkboard, during long stretches when the grownups are arguing. You can almost see the scheme taking shape in her head, as she listens to their petty charges and countercharges.
This production stays serious and the actors do not often exploit the laughs in the text–except for Giles Corey (the wonderful Jim Norton), who is inherently a comic character, but also quite believable in his litigiousness and stubborn refusal to give in to his tormentors. “More weight,” reported by Elizabeth as his last words when being pressed with stones, has got to be the best line an actor never spoke. I noticed that certain religion jokes which drew hearty laughs in the Cleveland production (“The Devil can never overcome a minister” or “We are not Quakers here yet, Mr. Proctor”) were barely recognized by the New York audience. Although Brenda Wehle is sympathetic and dignified as Rebecca Nurse, she doesn’t manage enough tartness to convince us that she has twenty-six grandchildren. When Ann Putnam dramatically announces “My Ruth is bewildered; she cannot eat,” Rebecca’s wry “Perhaps she is not hungered yet” ought to be a slam dunk, but it falls flat.
Between Act One and Act Two, the curtain rises unexpectedly on a singular vision, of Betty Parris floating silently in midair. Although this is not the only indication of supernatural activity in the staging of the play, it is the most dramatic one (other eerie effects are achieved by projection of lights onto the chalkboard at strategic moments, and by the supernatural “icy wind” that sweeps through John Proctor’s house). The “flying” girl leaves virtually no doubt that in this play, witchery is real. What, then, of Miller’s famous debunking of mass hysteria? As a matter of fact, I think this is a case where Van Hove is cleaving quite closely to Miller’s ideas. When the play first appeared, the analogy between witch hunts and Red baiting was criticized because Communists actually existed (and presumably posed a threat to the status quo) while witches did not. But Miller wrote, “I have no doubt that people were communing with, and even worshiping the Devil in Salem.” The fact that in this production the witch hunters are ferreting out a real threat to their culture forces us to the realization that their dilemma is indeed our own: how far are we willing to go (for example) in pursuit of terrorists? Are we willing to accept accusations as proof? In order to protect ourselves from hidden enemies, are we willing to practice torture and call it righteous? To sacrifice the innocent, that we may punish the guilty?
One line which does draw a laugh is Elizabeth’s comment to John, “You have a faulty understanding of young girls.” Ben Whishaw ably conveys the tragic flaw that brings Proctor down: his inability to deny Abigail her “promise,” or to call her out as a liar until it is too late. This error arises partly from John’s continuing desire for Abigail, partly from his wounded pride at having to keep abasing himself for a wife he (wrongly) perceives as unforgiving, and partly from his misunderstanding of female psychology. The scene of Elizabeth’s arrest changes all that. John Proctor is still contemptuous of the witch hunt, but now he fully grasps the danger. The Proctor of the text, at least as I read him, is most agonized by the idea that his virtuous wife will suffer for his sin; once again he will be the blameworthy instrument of harm to her, and his pride can scarcely sustain this knowledge. In this production, Proctor’s pain is at least as focused on fear for his wife, whom he has belatedly realized how much he loves. They part after a close embrace (not indicated in the text, which instead states that Proctor “cannot bear to look at her” as she decides she must go). The trauma restores to them a physical intimacy which had been almost irrevocably lost.
After the intermission, as Act Three is starting, Van Hove adds a visual element which is absent from the text. A wolflike dog emerges from the back of the set and snuffles its way back and forth. It works its way downstage and stares out into the audience—an eerie effect. Suddenly Giles Corey’s shout is heard offstage and the animal rushes off to the right. The “wolf” heralds the advent of Deputy Governor Danforth, the judge who will dominate the second half of the play. My theory is that the wolf is a symbolic evocation of the trial and testing which is about to take place. In the language of alchemy, the purification of gold (“the King”) in the crucible is achieved with the help of antimony (“the Wolf”). When heated with gold, antimony eats into the metal and brings its impurities to the surface where they can be skimmed off. When the mixture is heated further, the antimony itself evaporates, leaving pure gold. This process was referred to as “The Grey Wolf Devours the King” and was illustrated most famously in Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, published in 1617. Not coincidentally, the seventeenth century was the great age of alchemy, an occult art embraced by the Puritans and practiced extensively at Harvard College, alma mater of the Reverend Parris in the play. Furthermore, William Stoughton, the most prominent judge in the historical Salem witch trials, and the single most important model for the composite character of Deputy Governor Danforth, is known to have practiced alchemy.*
Act Three introduces Danforth, the man who will subject John Proctor to the crucible and reveal whether he is made of true gold or base metal. Danforth (Ciarán Hinds) is described by Miller as “a grave man in his sixties, of some humor and sophistication that do not, however, interfere with an exact loyalty to his position and his cause.” Miller has also been quoted as saying that Danforth (not Abigail) is the true villain of the piece: “His ‘evil’ is more than personal, it is nearly mythical. He does more evil than he knows how to do…” Ciarán Hinds, however, says that he doesn’t see Danforth as a villain, but one who stands on the law, a man who has “a super belief in God and righteousness, but not a particularly bad human being.”**
Danforth is no hysterical zealot, and certainly considers himself a fair-minded and impartial jurist. His failure is that he cannot separate himself from “the court”; a threat to one is a threat to the other. Hinds plays him as a commanding type, accustomed to deference, respect and obedience, yet instantly alert to anything that might undermine his (or the court’s) position. We understand this from the moment he asks Francis Nurse “Do you know who I am?” (a question he repeats in the final confrontation with Mary Warren). Old Giles Corey doesn’t threaten him, but Proctor and Mary Warren certainly do. Right from the start, before he even knows the nature of Proctor’s evidence, he tries to suppress it. For any actor, the challenge of playing Danforth is to reconcile the way he manipulates the law to serve his own ends with his clear conviction that he is upright and fair. Can anyone truly be that blind to his own partiality? Danforth is sometimes played as a slightly dim buffoon, but Hinds portrays him as an intelligent and decent man with good intentions, who simply cannot see past the weighty barriers of self-regard which he has erected. Toward the end, when Abigail absconds and Danforth’s case has become riddled with holes, a few signs of cognitive dissonance are visible in his eyes, but by that point there is too much at stake —too many have died at his hands— for him to permit himself any doubt.
One of the most uncomfortably funny moments in the play is when Cheever, Hathorne, Parris and Proctor debate whether Goody Proctor may have secreted “poppets” in her house, all unseen. Danforth paces up and downstage, listening gravely as the men cluster anxiously about him, advancing their weighty legal arguments about dolls:
Cheever: She said she did keep poppets when she were a girl.
Proctor: She has not been a girl these fifteen years, Your Honor.
Hathorne: But a poppet will keep fifteen years, will it not?
Proctor: It will keep if it is kept, but Mary Warren swears she never saw no poppets in my house, nor anyone else.
Parris: Why could there not have been poppets hid where no one ever saw them?
Proctor (furious): There might also be a dragon with five legs in my house, but no one has ever seen it!
Between them, Proctor and Mary Warren succeed in shaking Danforth’s confidence. Precisely in order to uphold his sense of self, to salvage his belief in the justice of the court, he must question Abigail, warning her with unconscious irony that “to God every life is precious, and his vengeance is terrible on them that take life without cause.” Abigail boldly turns on Danforth, and now we finally sense that her viciousness results from the horrors and injustices of her own life:
I have been hurt, Mr. Danforth, I have seen my blood runnin’ out! I have been near to murdered every day because I done my duty pointing out the Devil’s people— and this is my reward?
Abigail falls back on the supernatural, pretending (?) to feel an “icy wind,” and Proctor is forced to play his last card. Suddenly he cries “Whore!” on Abigail and admits his guilty knowledge of her; the two grapple and roll on the floor. With this seismic revelation, all Hell literally breaks loose so that the very beams of the schoolroom seem to be falling. A shocked Danforth must reckon anew with evidence of Abigail’s duplicity, but he devises a test which he knows is rigged in his favor: he gives Elizabeth the choice whether to damn her husband, without knowing whether he has incriminated himself. When Elizabeth lies to protect John, Danforth seizes on this fragile evidence as solid proof. Abigail and her minions quickly move to discredit Mary, driving her to a frenzy by mimicking everything she says. Yet it is not they, but Danforth who breaks her in the end:
You will confess yourself or you will hang! Do you know who I am? I say you will hang if you do not open with me!
Mary’s decision to repudiate John Proctor is clearly motivated by self-preservation: “I’ll not hang with you! I love God! I love God!” But her re-absorption into Abigail’s orbit is marked by a supernatural light effect, a hundred tiny photons exploding from her as she is propelled against the chalkboard by an unseen force. Mary has no more strength to resist, and the Devil rejoices.
At this point I should recognize Bill Camp’s outstanding performance as Reverend Hale, the witchcraft expert who (unlike Danforth) comes to acknowledge both the hollowness of the trials and his own responsibility in sending innocent people to their deaths. The Crucible may be John Proctor’s story, but Hale experiences his own tragic arc, ultimately disowning the proceedings and praying with the convicted, urging them to confess and save their own lives. It is this seductive offer which John Proctor, a man with a powerful will to live, finds so tempting.
Among several cuts in this streamlined production of the play is the beginning of Act Four, when Tituba and Sarah Good are shown being moved from their cell by a drunken Herrick. Instead, the act begins when Danforth learns of Hale’s activities among the condemned, and of what ought to be the final confirmation of Abigail’s fraud: she and Mercy Lewis have stolen Parris’ money and run away. Instead of ending the madness or acknowledging doubt, Danforth grows even more implacable:
Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. While I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering… I should hang ten thousand that dared to rise against the law, and an ocean of salt tears could not melt the resolution of the statutes.
Danforth puts his faith in principles rather than people, with the result that he is rendered blind to suffering. (The character strongly reminds me of “Saint” Thomas More, another man who never doubted that he was acting righteously when he tortured and killed “heretics.”) The rich poetry in his lines wars with the realism of Hinds’ performance, yet this marriage of the mythic and the particular is characteristic of Miller’s work.
The problem for the judges, as the craven but practical Reverend Parris points out, is that several respected citizens will be going to their deaths unconfessed, which casts doubt on the proceedings as surely as a reprieve or pardon could. Therefore it is essential that at least one of the prisoners confess and (preferably) implicate the others, and so the final conflict of The Crucible is played out. Danforth has the pregnant Elizabeth Proctor brought in to “soften” her husband’s resolution, and the two are left alone for a few precious moments. When we see that the prisoners are filthy and dishevelled, and that John has been flogged till his back is in bloody shreds, the “modern” dress and setting suddenly dissolve into the seventeenth century… or do they?
Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo are very moving in this scene, which is played first standing, then sitting on chairs, and finally on the floor, with the two actors in close physical contact. Whishaw is tender and tearful, kissing his wife’s face all over, then passionate and agonized. Danforth and the other men loom eagerly over him as he sits on the floor with hesitating pen in hand; the composition is like some Old Master painting. Ultimately, his choice to die feels raw and real, and the audience is left breathless and mourning as Elizabeth affirms, “He have his goodness now.”
Text copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
*For the New England Puritans and alchemy, see Woodward, Walter W. Woodward (2010). Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
**Theatermania interview with Ciarán Hinds and Jim Norton.