Magazine article The New Yorker

Night for Day

Magazine article The New Yorker

Night for Day

Article excerpt

A great play allows itself to be seen through many lenses. Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary next January and which is being given a masterly revival by Richard Eyre, at the Virginia Theatre, can be enjoyed as merely a terrific melodramatic yarn. His reimagining of the Salem witch hunt of 1692, in which nineteen people and two dogs were hanged for being in league with the Devil, cleverly combines love interest and courtroom drama. But in dramatizing the community's "rapture of murderous credulity"--Miller's term for the public paranoia--it also provides a cunning allegory for the blacklisting delirium of the House Un-American Activities Committee and for the breakdown of public discourse which engulfed Miller and thousands of other left-wing sympathizers, and changed forever both the republic's notion of and expression of dissent. "I don't think I can adequately communicate the sheer density of the atmosphere of the time," Miller writes in his collected essays, "Echoes Down the Corridor." "For the outrageous had so suddenly become the accepted norm."

The play, which is Miller's most produced work, remains one of the only theatrical remnants of those craven years. On this historical level alone, "The Crucible" is an act of extraordinary moral courage: it honors the most profound function of theatre, which is to disenchant the citizen from the spell of received opinion. But, in analyzing how hysteria plays out both in the individual and in society, "The Crucible" goes beyond polemic to something more universal and profound, and it speaks eerily even to our own terrorized moment. In Abigail Williams (the edgy, excellent Angela Bettis), an orphaned seventeen-year-old Puritan who has been seen dancing in the woods trying to cast a spell over the wife of her thirty-five-year-old lover and former employer, John Proctor, Miller demonstrates the hysteric turning herself into an event in order to preserve a sense of goodness--"My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled!" she says--and to project her dark, violent, repressed feelings onto others. (In actuality, Proctor was sixty and Abigail eleven.) She becomes the psychological paradigm of the community. Sanctioned by the Old Testament ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live") and by the Salem court's admission of "spectral evidence," in which suspected citizens could be condemned as witches on the hearsay of "cleansed" citizens--the first, demented version of Neighborhood Watch--Abigail splits off her vindictive turmoil into an eye-rolling, fainting, mad spectacle of her own hauntedness with which she proceeds to haunt others. These sensational theatrics, which both excite and paralyze her, are also intended to paralyze the world around her--a kind of violent return to some omnipotent childish innocence. A similar malignant tyranny is played out in the group, where no doubt and no questions can be tolerated. "Leaping to conclusions is a wonderful pleasure," Miller writes, "and for a while there was a highly charged joy in Salem, for now that they could see through everything to the frightful plot being daily laid bare in court sessions, their days, formerly so eventless and long, were swallowed up in hourly revelations, news, surprises." What "The Crucible" brilliantly dramatizes is the public acting out of the unconscious--"the fog of the unspoken," Miller calls it--which psychologists refer to as "negative hallucination," where the individual cannot see what is literally right in front of him.

Murkiness--the crepuscular gloom of Paul Gallo's lighting--is this production's dominating atmosphere. Shards of light slant through the rough-hewn slabs of wood in Tim Hatley's brooding behemoth set, which contracts to convey the shadowy claustrophobia of Puritan habitation and expands to suggest the monumentality of the stockade. The set's size is itself a correlative of the enormous terror perceived to lurk just outside Salem--a virgin wilderness that to the Puritan imagination, as Miller says in the play's introduction, was "the Devil's last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand," and where marauding Indians threatened the settlers with constant terror and made unity crucial to survival. …

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