Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Performing 'The Crucible' in Our Everyday World

by Brian Bamford
WHO is to be included to membership and whom is to be excluded as  a member of a given community or association?  Group membership entitlement is a sociological problem, but the published program for the current performance of Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible' now showing at Manchester's Royal Exchange observes: 
'At certain times in history, though, these weapons have been turned round to point at some of those already inside the community.  Perceived offenders against group identity have been stripped of the citizenship to which they were legally entitled.' 

We now, in the U.K., live in a society in which suspicions have been aroused about panic over paedophilia.  But in the USA in 1953, when the play was first performed, it was a moment when anyone could be brought under suspicion for signing a petition: One consequence of the McCarthyism of the 'House of Un-American Activities Committee' (1938-1969) may have been that the original Broadway production of 'The Crucible' only ran for 137 performances compared with 742 performances for Miller's previous play 'Death of a Salesman' (1949). 

By focusing on the historic mass hysteria present in the village of Salem in 1692, Miller is able to create from his indirect approach what he calls:  'The Salem tragedy developed from a paradox... a paradox in whose grip we still live.' 

As I write these words I glance at an article entitled 'An unjust inquisition' in last Saturday's Financial Times (F.T.) by Janan Ganesh, who writes: 
'In recent years Britain – sane, rigorous, legalistic Britain – has succumbed to a sexual McCarthyism, with paedophilia substituting for Soviet affiliation.' 

Thus, this performance of 'The Crucible' comes at a time when there have been unpunished cases of child abuse; some cases of which were revealed in our printed publication Northern Voices 14 in 2013, and on this NV Blog on the 13th, November 2012, hours before the Rochdale M.P. Simon Danczuk made his speech in the House of Commons about Cyril Smith and child abuse.   Mr. Danczuk was born in an area of Burnley, a town just south of the region associated with the trials of the Pendle witches in 1612, which were among the most famous witch trials in English history.  
Janan Ganesh in his F.T. feature commenting on what he calls 'the parliamentary wing of this slapdash crusade' writes: 
'The generous interpretation is that institutions which failed to act against real and heinous sexual abuses in the past are now trying too hard to atone.' 

This Royal Exchange production of 'The Crucible' seeks to use 'Brechtian-style “distancing” - inviting you to be aware of your own position as a community of spectators, witnessing the gradual destruction of the community of Salem.'  The play builds up from the first act which fixes the background and basic facts of the witch-hunt, then most of the rest of the play in Miller's play is invention.   

Jonjo O'Neill, as John Proctor in his first appearance at the Royal Exchange, wrestles with the difficulties of deciding between commitment to his wife, and the moral dilemma of betraying others in the community.  His is a brilliant performance in a play in which the individual in the end embraces the group dynamics:  it is John Proctor's effort to see himself as a good person that is the most moving part of the play.  Of the rest of the cast there is a Rachel Redford as Abigail Williams, who is revealed in the play as tempting Proctor  and then going on in Miller's version, to use the witch-hunt to present a 'marvellous cool plot to murder' Elizabeth, Proctor's wife played by Matti Houghton, and thus to have Proctor for herself by bearing false witness:  'It is a whore's vengeance, and you must see it.'   

Stephen Bottoms in his commentary in the Royal Exchange programme for the play writes:

'Nowadays, we might have some difficulty conceiving of a teenager as the less forgivable party in an affair with a married man in his 30s.' 

Strange how the times have changed since 1953.

No comments: