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  • Published in Arts Review
Poster of The Crucible at the National Theatre London.

Poster of The Crucible at the National Theatre London. Source: National Theatre London

A new production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible draws out well the resonances between witch-hunts and contemporary politics, finds Lindsey German

Review of The Crucible by Arthur Miller
National Theatre London
Director Lyndsey Turner

The story of the Salem witch-hunt of the 1690s is best known through this play, set in a Massachusetts village and written in the middle of the twentieth century. Arthur Miller was one of the most famous artistic figures of his generation in the US, his plays a masterclass in depicting the underside of the American Dream. Here he goes back to the very beginnings of the New England colonies to highlight the gross injustices of his time.

Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953 with one aim: to use it as an allegory about the anti-Communist witch-hunt that was McCarthyism, which did much to destroy the US left after the Second World War. Those dragged before the House of Unamerican Activities Committee were accused of ‘subversion’ of all kinds. Many lost their jobs, were sent to prison, or were forced into exile. Some of the best-known artists, including Miller himself, were forced to give evidence and confess to supporting Communism. The comic actor Charlie Chaplin was one, Paul Robeson the great black singer another, the crime writer Dashiell Hammett a third. More and more people found themselves under suspicion and guilty by association. A number of Hollywood scriptwriters and directors had to work under assumed names for years to come.

The witch-hunt wasn’t aimed mainly at Hollywood however; it was an attack on the working-class movement as a whole, and many militants found themselves persecuted and out of a job. In this atmosphere of denunciation and accusation, even the most remote and distant connections with left-wing causes could mean loss of livelihood, and the men behind the witch hunt, led by senator Joe McCarthy himself, were relentless in their fanatical pursuit of ‘reds’.

Miller saw in this situation parallels with the Salem witch trials, and out of it produced one of the finest modern plays. This production does not disappoint either visually or in its message. It tells the story of persecutors and persecuted. The action starts with a young girl ailing in bed, feared to be possessed by the devil. She and other girls have been dancing in the forest: not an innocent pleasure in seventeenth-century New England, with its very strong religious moral code, but a sign of possible witchcraft. The key figure among the girls is Abigail Williams, a former servant of farmer John Proctor, who is turned out of the house when her adultery with him is discovered by his wife Elizabeth.  

The girls now start to claim witchcraft against people in the village, including Elizabeth, and fear stalks the area as more and more are thrown into jail and executed if they refuse to confess. As the tumult grows, it is clear that a whole number of wider issues – land ownership, personal grudges, non-adherence to strict religious principles – are at play in the various accusations. Individual truth and morality are a central question here. Proctor, when asked to name the Ten Commandments, recites them all except the one prohibiting adultery, as his wife quietly reminds him. Proctor tells the authorities to question his wife about his adultery because she cannot fail to tell the truth, and this would help to expose Abigail. But she does lie in order to protect her husband, which leads instead to his downfall. The Reverend Hale, brought in from a nearby town to search for the truth, becomes increasingly concerned at the scale of the witch-hunt and tries to halt it, but it has an inexorable logic.

The production highlights the power of the state and property, with a clear and developing hierarchy of wealth in the supposedly egalitarian settlement, while the judges are determined to continue with the jailings and executions rather than risk admitting their own errors. Proctor does confess, but then retracts when he realises it will be used very publicly to justify the legitimacy of the trials, and so dies.

I have seen many productions of The Crucible and this is one of the more effective. The girls accusing others of witchcraft are a range of ages, dressed in pastels, and very effective. The set is dominated by a ‘curtain’ of falling water, which adds to the menace. There are backlit scenes where you see activity while other actors speak in the foreground. The acting is overall good if a little uneven. And in these times where witch-hunts often break out in politics, the play still speaks to us of contemporary concerns.

You also always learn something from Miller. It’s worth remembering that these were the recent descendants of those who fled religious persecution in England, but found that their religious faith could not overcome the contradictions of the society to which they moved. Abigail’s parents died in conflict with Native Americans, the black servant Tituba, who was dancing with the girls, is from the slave state of Barbados. And while they achieved religious freedom, the social and economic divisions which later characterised US capitalism were already in their infancy.

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Lindsey German

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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