The Crucible: A Flawed Play, Well-Performed

Eastern University’s theater program recently performed Arthur Miller’s award-winning play “The Crucible.” As with any play, “The Crucible” only succeeds where its cast is strong, and Eastern’s cast was more than sufficient for the task. Of particular note, were stellar performances by Niki Brown as the chillingly devious Abigail Williams, and Parker Vowels as the desperately sincere John Proctor. Watching the play, I was struck by how understated it is: a sparse assortment of props, an ominous drum, and some scene-setting lighting are all the support given to the actors. Miller’s script is not particularly striking as pertains to dialogue, and the story, while interesting, is not that interesting. Eastern’s production of Crucible was compelling, and compelling only because the cast made us care about the characters and infused every scene with abundant emotional energy, whether in dramatic outbursts of anger or subtle gestures of eye or hand.

The brochure for the play featured a short piece of dramaturgy, introducing the play in its context. In 1950s America, the only thing scarier than a witch was a commie. This was the McCarthy era and the “red scare” was raging through America: communism was the Devil’s work, and communists were believed to have signed their name in his little evil book. Every American was a potential suspect, but especially artists, because artists are always and everywhere suspected by authoritarians and demagogues. It was in this context that Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1953. Miller’s play, a fictional account of the Salem witch trials, was thinly disguised commentary on the McCarthy hearings: so thinly disguised, in fact, that Miller himself was brought before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, and convicted in 1956 of “contempt of Congress” for not identifying other supposed communists. The play was certainly relevant in its day, but is it still relevant to today? The Eastern theater program certainly thinks so. On Eastern’s website, the program says: “The Crucible stands as a rallying cry against all kinds of hysteria in public life, disinformation and the spreading of false ‘facts’.” Yes, this play is relevant inasmuch as witch-hunting seems to be an unfortunately perennial feature of human society.

The questions and concerns at the heart of “The Crucible” speak to contemporary concerns, but is the play itself a good companion for us today? I am not so sure. There are a number of concerns that I have with the play itself. What does it mean – at a time when so many brave women are daring to speak out against the men who have wronged them – to stage a play in which women are, by turns, infantile and hysterical victims, vindictive “bitches” crying wolf, seductive “whores” leading good men into sin, or frigid wives whose emotional coldness propels their good husbands into adultery? What does it mean to stage a play where the central focus, in the climax of the play, is not on the accused and innocent women who die, in keeping with historical record, but rather on the fictionalized narrative of that one man John Proctor, his character arc, his struggle to vindicate himself, and his desire to be a good man and to die a good death? These are open questions without obvious answers, of course, but questions probably worth our asking. Important art is often polarizing, controversial, and flawed, whether it is contained in an auditorium or splayed out on the sidewalks in chalk: I see no reason why Eastern should shy away from such art. The Crucible is an important play and should be performed, and Eastern’s theater program did an excellent job in bringing the play to life. In gifting us with this production, Eastern has given us a good conversation starter: let’s keep that conversation going.

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