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April 24, 2006

Kenneth Minogue considers Witchhunts, Un-American Activities and Gulags: The Crucible - Arthur Miller

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Arthur Miller's The Crucible
directed by Dominic Cooke
Royal Shakespeare Company production
at The Gielgud Theatre, London
29th March - 17th June 2006

The Crucible is a play about the House Un-American Activities Committee, based on the image of a witchhunt. It is an extremely powerful piece and it would be hard to see it better done than in the Royal Shakespeare Company production transferred to the Gielgud Theatre. Its genesis, we learn from the programme lay in Elia Kazan's decision, when called before the Committee in 1952, to name people who had attended Communist Party meetings a decades before. Kazan told Arthur Miller what he was going to do, and we are told that Miller went straight off to Salem to consult the archives. But Miller had clearly recognised a universal theme and that is why the play has transcended its time.

Political dissidents of any kind are likely to find themselves in the same spot as John Proctor, the protagonist of The Crucible. Some of them may indeed be the kind of decent honest men that Proctor was, but it is just as likely that they may be highly eccentric figures with views of their own that might not appeal to us the way that Proctor's views do. The Soviets had a lot of trouble with Baptists, and the Chinese today are being very rough on the Falun Gong.

For this reason, we have to recognise how much Miller has smoothed and shaped the basic moral dilemma that lies at the heart of the play.

In a somewhat eccentric programme note, the Professor of American Studies at East Anglia notes the classic objection to Miller's play: namely, witches don't exist, but Communists in the United States certainly did. Miller's response to this was to remark, we are told, that denial of witches in Salem put one's life at risk:

while to name someone a communist in the 1950s America was to identify someone who supped with the Devil and invite their persecution.
There is something pat about that "invite" in this passage. But soon it becomes even more interesting:
The connection lay in the power of the state to define reality, in the demand, in both periods, that the individual hand his conscience over to others. It lay, too, in the ease with which betrayal is urged as a civic virtue and denial of truth embraced as a pragmatic necessity.
Since the consequence of Proctor's honesty was to be hanged, while the outcome of being named to McCarthy was blacklisting, the artistic image has been given a good deal of emotional super-charging in its translation to the stage from what one might crudely call "reality". Life is one thing to sacrifice, career another. It does need to be made brutally clear that in the twentieth century, the American "witch hunt" ought to be recognised in every respect as being a mouse compared with the tigers going on throughout the Communist world, the same world these Congressional victims had been flirting with.

In any case, it is hard to say that the state was trying to define reality in those troubled times. It was certainly trying to define loyalty, and while the whole Committee was a nasty farce, it was a political sideline. The real force of "blacklisting" was not the power of the state, but the power of society. The blacklisted victims were assumed to be disloyal to the United States in what many people thought was a major crisis in its affairs. To name names is, indeed, a moral question and raises issues of conscience; it does indeed involve demanding betrayal. To be a Communist was to repudiate loyalty to America. There was, then, in the modern case a dilemma we assume not to have been present in Salem. In less sensitive times, a Communist allegiance would have been taken as a form of treason, as it was for the Rosenbergs. Those for whom the Soviet Union was indeed the hope of the future had in many cases the option of leaving America and going there. None of them, so far as I know, took this logical step. Soviet dissidents had no corresponding option, many being either dead or in the Gulag. But many who could, did.

It might well seem that these old battles no longer affect our judgement of the play but a glance at the programme shows that this would be wrong. A photomontage tells us that Salem is alive and well in the US today. Guantanamo of course and two pictures of Christian evangelism on one side are juxtaposed with 9/11 and the Islamic threat on the other, the point being, I presume, to explain a crisis that might even now be impelling Americans towards a Salem replay. Where, I wonder, do theatre companies get these critical thrusting political commentators who astonish us with their originality?

This is dim stuff, as programmes tend to be these days. And, like many programmes, it betrays the play. What makes The Crucible so powerful is that it gives a superb account of often innocent individuals caught up in some overpowering current hysteria. Child abuse has generated a number of such incidents in both Britain and America and they have left peace of mind and sometimes entire lives in tatters. And the key point is that there is no way of proving a defence. How can we actually demonstrate that witches aren't at work in the troubles that beset us?

The Crucible is in many respects a rip-roaring melodrama. Dramatising the hysteria that animates the witch cult is superbly done, and yields us the pleasure always available to the cool detached theatre goer contemplating irrationality. The judge is a devious and dogmatic brute.

I don't deal in lies,
he says, but of course he deals in little else. The sane grandmother who at the crucial point draws reserves of courage and defiance from Proctor is little more than an argumentative device.

On the other hand, the play contains many touches of brilliance, including the "wintry" character of Elizabeth Proctor, and the confusions of the town marshal, fatally reporting everything he thinks he must report while trying to do his best for Proctor. The point isn't really conscience so much as character: Proctor can't quite get himself to tell the lies that might save him. It is these qualities, rather than the somewhat tendentious origins of the piece that has given it such lasting power. To which must be added a classical and restrained production, and actors who live their parts, notably Iain Glen as Proctor, John Stahl as Judge Hathorne and Helen Schlesinger as Elizabeth Proctor.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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