The Crucible November 30, 2016
Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible during one of the darkest times in American history. Premiering on Broadway in the winter of 1953, its release coincided with the height of the Second Red Scare, in which fear of the potential dominance of Communism was spreading throughout the country. Worries of “enemies” being among the population following the dog days of WWII, whether they be your neighbor or your favorite movie star, were widespread, feverish, and mostly the fault of both the overzealous Joseph McCarthy and the House of Representatives’s delusional Un-American Activities Committee. As the majority of instances of mass hysteria, the ruining of the lives of others proved to be an ugly result of unfounded delirium.
When he wrote The Crucible, Miller was experiencing major betrayal. After watching helplessly as some of his closest industry friends were blacklisted from working and thus faced effectively shattered professional lives, one of his closest friends, revered director Elia Kazan (East of Eden, Wild River), testified before HUAC and revealed a handful of names of those who had been members of the Communist party years earlier. Disgusted by Kazan’s willingness to put the lives of his colleagues on the line just to save the prosperity of his career, Miller immediately went to Salem, MA to research the infamous witch trails of 1692, which he, ingeniously, felt fittingly paralleled the Communist fearing goings-on of the present.
The resulting The Crucible was perhaps too ahead of its time for audiences of 1953 to fully grasp (despite winning the Tony Award for Best Play that year, reviews were combative and audience reactions were divided), but in the years since its initial run has it proven to be a seminal Broadway piece and an untouchable Miller work. Miller himself would be briefly thrown into jail following his “misleading” HUAC in 1956 — he refused to rat out his friends a la Kazan — and would be affected by his battles with the committee for the rest of his life. Lasting, though, is The Crucible’s condemnatory social commentary; its attack on the bandwagon jumping habits of our culture is uniformly elastic, always managing to reflect a new facet of senseless fear existing within American life.
The 1996 film adaptation, directed by Nicholas Hytner and written by Miller some forty years after its original conception, is a handsome production that mostly hits all the right notes, the acting by its ensemble profoundly stirring and the writing as visceral and fresh as it was in its 1950s heyday. Aside from an introduction that unwisely throws away the ambiguity able to make the material all the more impactful — the witchery so unfoundedly feared by the majority of the film’s characters is, surprisingly, bluntly portrayed — it’s a movie easy to lose yourself in. Its passions and its tragedies are too convincing for us to do anything besides turn into an active, reactionary viewer.
Iconically, The Crucible follows the dire predicament that befalls Salem local John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), a farmer who finds his life leaping down into the throes of ruin after his wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen), is accused of witchcraft by his former, vengeful lover, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder).
What follows, of course, is unthinkable catastrophe. Since Abigail is beautiful, scheming, and a little bit demented, young locals don’t dare question her claims — she’d as easily stab the back of a peer as she would the Proctors. And since the corrupt authority figures ruling over Massachusetts are the sort that are easily seduced by the control that comes along with their power, no one does anything to stop the frenzy that washes over Salem — in all are twenty executed. No one, however, will be easily able to predict the outcome that overtakes the Proctors.
The Crucible remains the timeless courtroom drama that it is because it serves as both a melodramatic sign of the times and an extended allegory for McCarthyism (and, as the decades have shown, other instances of hysterical witch hunts, from the peak of the AIDS scare in the 1980s to the racism and xenophobia to have plagued the post-9/11 world). It also happens to be a damned good drama, consuming even when it’s not additionally serving as a takedown of recurring cultural buffoonery.
Day-Lewis is predictably strong, a sensitive soul so desperate to save the woman he loves that he hardly realizes that his ardor will likely get him nowhere — even worse is the seeing of him affected by his realization that all the calamities might not have happened if his Proctor had avoided giving into temptation. Ryder is even better as a masochistic young woman reveling in her influence, and Paul Scofield, as the rigid judge, is terrifying in his inability to be compassionate. But it’s Allen, bare-faced and always appearing to be on the verge of tears, that renders the heart the most cogently.
Its error in opening judgment prevents much of The Crucible’s persuasiveness — ambiguity was key in the strengthening of its tragedy, and the film’s lacking of that supplemental component causes one to wonder how much sturdier of an adaptation it might have been had Miller retained necessary room for speculation. But its performances are too astonishing to see The Crucible as anything other than a masterwork in casting and in expressiveness. Its timeliness comes and goes. But its efficaciousness doesn’t. B+