Anti-McCarthyite Message of this Landmark American Theatre Piece Remains Impactful
Puritan Massachusetts, 1692. A group of young, disenfranchised women. Accusations of witchcraft. On the surface, this scenario seems as though it could not be further from our reality today. But the artful Hart House production of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible serves both as a potent reminder of the perils of mob mentality and as a call to action to stand up for truth in a world dominated by “fake news.”
All the characters in the play are based on real-life figures documented in records from the Salem Witch Trials. The play begins with a family in crisis: the local Reverend Parris is placed in an awkward situation after he finds his daughter, his niece, and several servant girls outdoors in the middle of the night, engaged in “Bloody Mary”-esque teenage girl experimentation. This uneasiness quickly turns dangerous, however, when the girls decide to accuse others of witchcraft in an effort to protect themselves from the same accusation, which has been sweeping through nearby towns. The ringleader, Abigail Williams, sees an additional opportunity and seeks to label her neighbour Elizabeth Proctor, whose husband is her former lover, as a witch in order to take him for herself. However, this tactic backfires when John himself is accused of being a witch in an attempt to save his wife. After the girls steal Reverend Parris’s money and run away to England after the social tide seems to turn against them, it becomes obvious that the entire situation was a hoax. Yet the magistrate refuses to cancel the executions of the alleged witches in order to save face, and darkness wins the day.
What is so fascinating about the text of this play is that the plot is driven by power dynamics. The girls who make the accusations are powerless until they profess to have information that the public wants, and then, all of a sudden, they are indispensable. This is despite the fact that, as female teenagers in Puritan Massachusetts, they otherwise have very little social influence. Even the black Barbadian slave Tituba is given a voice when she speaks of witchcraft, and her identity, unlike so many other slaves, is known to us today because of her role in the trials. Surely it came at a high cost, but the girls’ actions have given them a voice through the centuries. The magistrate’s abhorrent decision to go ahead with the executions even in the face of the accused’s innocence was also driven by power—after all, to deny a public execution would be, according to him, to show weakness. The overarching question is, therefore: Is it better to do what is powerful or what is right?
From a position of privilege, it seems as though the answer is simple. However, what would any of us have done if we had been at risk of going to the gallows ourselves based on a ludicrous charge?
Miller was driven to write this play after being confronted with McCarthyism—neighbour turning against neighbour, friend against friend, in the name of eradicating Communism from “American” institutions. Fifty years later, the “danger” of communism seems far removed from us, yet the parallels between the play and the 1950s-era reality are striking. However, we now live in a world where identity politics reign supreme, and the label you are ascribed—left wing, right wing, feminist, Zionist, capitalist—can be permanent in the eyes of the public. Social group turns against social group, and a person can be forever vilified for a thoughtless comment, a social media post, an identity marker.
Is this just a latter-day McCarthyism in disguise? All I know is that the mass hysteria in the play felt oddly, and awfully, familiar.
The production itself was deftly executed under the directorship of the young and energetic Michael Rubinstein. He seeked to create a “fairy-tale-like” experience, highlighting the parables within the story. Before I had read this in the program note, I had thought perhaps the stark sets, with their bare trees and fog machine, and the matching palate of outfits worn by the cast were somewhat tacky. However, seen through the lens of the director’s intentions, these choices made more sense.
The production improved throughout the two-and-a-half hours. The first fifteen minutes or so were somewhat chaotic, with the Parris household members, as well as various other characters, yelling over each other. This had the effect of a monotone, only louder. However, after these initial scenes, and especially with the entrance of John Proctor (as masterly portrayed by Jon Berrie), the play settled into a fast-paced, engaging performance.
Rubinstein declined to add Miller’s narration at the beginning of the play that explains some of the historical context and some of the real-life characters, which may have added to my confusion at the beginning as someone who had never read or seen the play before. He did, however, begin the production with an engaging rendition of the girls’ outdoor ritual—which sparked the plot—set to a soundtrack of prayers from various world religions in order to indicate the universal message of the production.
All in all, the play was excellently acted, costumed, and directed. I can highly recommended it for an affordable—and thought-provoking—night out.
The Crucible will run until February 3 at Hart House Theatre.
Tickets: Students $15, or $12 every Wednesday evening / Adults $28 / Seniors $17.