Be patient. It takes a while to tell this story.*
I have directed Arthur Miller’s The Crucible twice, and I’ve recently been eager to direct it again. You don’t always get what you want, but a guy can dream. Still I count myself fortunate to be among the probably tens of thousands of teachers and directors around the world who have taken on this play.
In the late 1960’s, I was a young English teacher in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, new to “the drama club” when I put my first production together. It wasn’t great, but it was memorable for two reasons: In the middle of the play, the rear wall of the courtroom completely collapsed, prompting Judge Hathorne to bang his gavel and declare “The court will adjourn while we take a brief recess for courtroom repairs.” The curtain was quickly shut, and the play resumed in less than three minutes. Fast thinking. You gotta love it.
Later, after the curtain call, and all but one of the cast had gone downstairs to dress, I found the young man who had played the conscience-torn Rev. John Hale kneeling alone on the stage. Not the sensitive, crying type at all, he asked me “What have we done?” as the tears rolled down his face. The question was existential, coming deeply from within his own heart, only in part generated by the injustice of the Salem hangings, and that of the McCarthy communist witch hunt that inspired Mr. Miller. I sat with him for a while, alone on the floor at center stage, talking of the ongoing enigma of human morality and intolerance.
We were interrupted by a girl yelling “Come out here: Gary fainted as he was getting into his car.” Gary was Deputy Governor Danforth, as close as the play gets to a villain. Sure enough, there he was, collapsed on the ground, hyperventilating and dehydrated. After a few minutes of breathing into a paper bag and some water, he said he was fine. Still, I wanted him to get checked out in the emergency room. At his insistence, his girl friend drove him there, and I followed. They kept him isolated in the hospital overnight for observation.
When they finally let me in to visit the next morning, he was just fine, as evidenced by his enthusiasm for the bath he was about to receive from a beautiful young nurse before his discharge. Apart from that, all he wanted to talk about was how his character could have been so blind to obvious truth: “I just don’t get it. He thought he was doing the right thing! They all did!”
By that night, both boys had recovered fully and were back on stage, but students don’t often have reactions to high school theatre experience quite so intense. They sure scared the #@(% out of me. More importantly, they convinced me that drama experience as a tool in secondary education can far exceed sitting at a desk.
I settled in for a long career as a theater educator.
A few years later, some other teachers, good friends and myself opened up The Peacham School, an alternative school enrolling some 50 students in grades 7-12, in which drama was a key component of our curriculum. Naturally, The Crucible was an early choice to fit into an interdisciplinary history/literature/ethics project, about half of whom would be in the play. This time I designed a touring set which would not fall down. Among the cast was a 16-year-old “juvenile thief” who’d been deemed a hopeless case. The local police had delivered him to us, with the proviso that if we agreed to take him, he could either enroll, or go to a detention facility. So under the threat of incarceration, the lad eventually embraced the role of the Rev. John Hale.
And now, jumping to the present, we come to the crux of this whole discussion. You’ve gathered by now that I am no doubt a lifelong Miller fan, and I’ve seen most of his plays more than once. I was particularly eager to see last season’s View from the Bridge, directed by the hot new director, Ivo van Hove, fondly labeled the “Belgian invasion” on the American stage. Sadly, I was unable to get to New York when it was playing. But there was no way I was going to miss van Hove’s The Crucible.
Since the day it was written, The Crucible’s themes of self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and our smug human willingness to grab onto convenient beliefs have never failed to be “of our own times.” (…although perhaps the current American electoral process is an especially good time to be reminded of what we are.) But van Hove did not yield to the temptation of “updating” his material, creating instead a study of universal human behavior. His people all believe themselves in the right. Even the usual “villainess” Abigail Williams (Saoirse Ronan, Academy Award winner for the wonderful film, Brooklyn) appears to have reason for her aberrations: suggested sexual abuse and the resulting tinge of madness. We “get” her, as we do everyone else in the play.
The costumes are a kind of timeless nondescript mixture of modern and medieval. It’s a big wide-open relatively empty stage, on which anything can happen and does, sometimes realistic, sometimes spiritual, sometimes shocking.
SPOILER ALERTS: At least two of those occasions will take your breath away. The first pulls us entirely away from conventional narrative story-telling. Suddenly, we seem to be injected into Abigail’s head, as she is elevated from the stage by a giant illuminated cross.
… And then there is “the dog” — a gorgeous, very large, wolf-like German shepherd. Emerging alone from the wings onto a completely empty stage, he looks like he might have escaped his trainer and was crossing to the other side. But half-way there, he stops, sensing the audience. He comes slowly down center and stops, and sits. For what seemed like a full two minutes, (but probably wasn’t), he quite literally “scanned” the audience, his eyes sweeping from left to right over and over, in condemnation, as if to ask, “Who are you people? Do you truly believe you are not beastly, that you are not a part of my world, that you were put here to hold dominion over us? You fool! You are merely one of us, and not very good at it at that.” Then he stands, and walks off, looking over his shoulder again at the last minute, as if to … pity us? … One of the simplest, most electric moments I have ever experienced in an audience. That dog has a mighty impressive trainer! Did I imagine his thoughts? Of course… Maybe. But he convinced me!
No doubt about it. This was/is an ingenious production with bold choices! Not all of van Hove’s choices are to everyone’s liking. Fellow directors are particularly notorious for claiming better approaches. But that’s not the point, is it? And this? This is theatrical manna from heaven.
But here is the clincher: Remember that lad I spoke of who played Hale at the Peacham School — the “hopeless” case juvenile delinquent? Well just for fun I shot him an e-mail to tell him I was going to see The Crucible in New York. I promised to let him know how the professional Hale (Ben Whishaw) fared compared to his own performance some 40 years earlier. Now 57, a seasoned trial lawyer in Oklahoma City, the man got on an airplane and came to New York to see the play with me. After the matinee, we spent the evening reminiscing about the old days and challenges. He elicited tweets from other former Peacham students and cast members, and he vowed to come back to New York with his wife and daughter to expose them to the play that had changed his life. The next day, he flew back to Oklahoma in time for a heavy trial.
How magical can The Crucible get?