Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Crucible (Arthur Miller)

--The blurb--
"Arthur Miller's classic parable of mass hysteria draws a chilling parallel between the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 - 'one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history' - and the McCarthyism which gripped America in the 1950s. The story of how the small community of Salem is stirred into madness by superstition, paranoia and malice, culminating in a violent climax, is a savage attack on the evils of mindless persecution and the terrifying power of false accusations."

--The review--
Nestling comfortably alongside the more conventional religions are several arguably more 'niche' and less conventional ones, such as Jedi, Hare Krishna, and Wicca. Given the increasing acceptance of the majority of religious beliefs in modern culture, it is perhaps difficult to reconcile today's tolerance with the notion that those sharing Wiccan beliefs, or something similar to them, could have been killed for it a couple of centuries ago, even if the people concerned were falsely accused.

This, however, is the gruelling reality of Arthur Miller's (arguably most famous) play, The Crucible. Founded on a complex web of lies, spin and hysteria, Miller effectively depicts the struggles and attitudes of 17th-century residents of Salem, Massachusetts, at the heart of the notorious witch trials. Creeping under the reader's skin similarly to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, it combines emotion and humanity with darkness, coldness and distance.

Miller's stage directions, however, are highly Stanislavskian, proving dense in detail and providing information on the characters' background that would normally be more suitable for a novel, and that only readers and directors of the play will ever get to know (there are no instructions for this information to be communicated to the audience during the play, Brecht-style). There is something of the omniscient narrator about it, à la the narrator of Fantasia, meaning that Miller is strongly there with us throughout our reading of the play. It is easy for a reader or director to visualise the characters, and Miller's manipulation of dialect is extremely skilful. Moreover, the narrative arc is as realistic and touching as it is chilling, and Miller's depth of research is not to be sneezed at: as well as depicting events with presumably the greatest possible accuracy, his work goes right down to using the same people who were at the centre of the scenario in 1692, including the use of their real names.

However, the historical context is extremely intricate, and in itself can potentially require deep study, which means that this text easily merits multiple readings (or viewings, if actually seeing the play is more your thing). It's easy to see how the play has known such success since its publication; Miller's writing is very vivid, with characters and scenarios just leaping off the page. Perhaps even more poignant and significant than an intrinsic reading of the play (=just considering the events of the play in themselves) is the fact that Miller wrote this play at the height of the red scare, in 1953, which brings into focus a series of political parallels that are still relevant today.

The play's complexity is perhaps the only offputting element, but this is something which should be relished by those who enjoy a challenge, and the play has clearly not lost appeal with the general public because of it. Truly intellectual crowd-pleasers are often difficult to come by, and it is perhaps this that proves Miller's most powerful legacy.

Other works by Arthur Miller (selection)
No Villain (1936)
They Too Arise (1937)
Honors at Dawn (1938)
The Man Who Had All The Luck (1940)
Focus (1945; a novel)
All My Sons (1947)
Death of a Salesman (1949)
A View from the Bridge (1955)
After The Fall (1964)
The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972)
The American Clock (1980)
Broken Glass (1994)
Resurrection Blues (2002)
Finishing the Picture (2004)

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