(Host) Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” is set during the Salem witch trials in 1692. But its politics are rooted firmly in 1950’s America.
VPR’s Neal Charnoff goes “Backstage” with the University of Vermont Theater’s production of “The Crucible.”
(Charnoff) Playwright Arthur Miller called writing “The Crucible” an act of desperation. In 1956, Miller refused to testify against friends and colleagues before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was further frustrated by the entertainment industry’s weak reaction to McCarthyism. Miller began to see parallels between America’s Red Scare, and the Salem witch trials of 1692, which resulted in the execution of 20 innocent people. In writing The Crucible, Miller could explore the themes of fear, mass hysteria and retribution.
The play takes place in the small village of Salem. Jeff Moderager’s set incorporates a troop of moveable log columns, evoking authority and mystery. In contrast, Martin Thaler’s costumes are literal, carefully recreating the dress of 17th century New England.
Unable to diagnose a young girl’s illness, the villagers begin to suspect witchcraft. Tituba is a slave from Barbados. An informant tells church leaders that Tituba had been seen dancing in the woods with a group that included the child who became ill. Her interrogation by church leaders begins the spiral of suspicion and blame.
(Scene from “The Crucible” – Thomas Putnum and Reverend John Hale with Tituba.)
“Now in God’s holy name- “
(Tituba) “Bless him! bless him!
“Enter his glory!”
(Tituba) “Eternal glory! Bless him, bless God!”
“Open yourself Tituba, open yourself and let God’s holy light shine on you!”
(Tituba) “Oh bless the Lord!”
“When the devil comes to you, does he ever come with another person? Perhaps another person in the village, someone you know? Who came with him? Sarah Goode? Did you see Sarah Goode with him, or Osborne? Was it man or woman who came with him?”
(Tituba) “Was, was woman.”
“What woman? A woman you said?”
(Tituba) “Well it was black dark, and I .”
“You could see him, why could you not see her?”
(Tituba) “Well, they was always talking, you know they was always running around and carrying on.”
“You mean out of Salem? Salem witches?”
(Tituba) “I believe so, yes sir.”
“Tituba, you must have no fear to tell us who they are, do you understand? We will protect you, the devil can never overcome a minister. You know that, do you not?”
(Tituba) “Aye, sir, oh I do.”
“You have confessed yourself to witchcraft, and that speaks a wish to come to heaven’s side, and we will bless you, Tituba.”
(Tituba) “Oh God bless you, Mister Hale.”
(Charnoff) Simone Zamore plays Tituba in UVM’s production. In researching the role, Zamore recognized the phenomenon of mass hysteria as being common throughout history.
(Zamore) “The Salem witchcraft trials are kind of an earlier example of mass hysteria, but also Jewish genocide in Nazi Germany, and the more recent millenialism and terrorism that we’re dealing with right now. It’s just a matter of the fact that people as a group do things that are very different from what they do naturally, from what the intellectual mind would intimate as right and natural and good.”
(Charnoff) There are characters in The Crucible who truly believe they are doing the right thing by exposing what they perceive as witchcraft. But according to Cameron Bradley, an actor in UVM’s production, Miller shows how easy it is to take advantage of the true believers for personal gain.
(Bradley) “They live in a world where they believed truly that these things happen, that people were the victim of curses. This is an everyday occurrence, so leaping to this witchcraft is not a huge leap for them, it’s not a wide gap. It’s something that just happens, so I wouldn’t say they’re bad people. There are opportunists within the group that start trying to direct things, to try to get certain people caught in witchcraft.”
(Charnoff) Simone Zamore says it’s the group dynamic that sets off hysteria, whether in Salem in 1692, or the U.S. in the 1950’s.
(Zamore) “And it’s very interesting how a lot of these characters really do feel that they are right in everything they are doing. Where the audience will sit and say this is completely wrong, they see it from the outside looking in. But from the inside, as a mass group, there is that fear and that hysteria that drives you to do something that you probably wouldn’t do on your own. And that’s really a strong motivation for this play.”
(Charnoff) Director Sarah Carleton says it’s not difficult to recognize the universality of Arthur Miller’s themes.
(Carleton) “I would love for the audience to have a glimpse at a time, 1692. I hope they can relate to the issues in terms of what’s going on today, with 9/11, with what’s going on with the Catholic religion today, with so many things, anytime you have authority dominating and repressing people. It’s also to me about being an individual, and losing oneself, and the influence a society has on an individual, and certainly in this time period, in 1692, the way the society was run. You were not encouraged to be an individual.”
(Crowd scene from “The Crucible”)
“O, heavenly father, take away this shadow!” “Whore! How do you dare call her? It is a whore!”
“Mr. Danforth, he’s lying!”
“Mark her! Now shall suck a scream to stab me with! You will prove this?”
“This will not pass. I have known her sir. I have known her.”
(Charnoff) The Crucible will be presented at UVM’s Royal Tyler Theater through November 24.
For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.