The play is set in Salem, Massachusetts during its infamous witch hunt and trials of 1692/3. The Crucible received its first performance in 1953 and is a partly fictionalised account of the mass hysteria that ran amok and took control of the Puritan communities in the Massachusetts Bay Colonies when fear and superstition overtook common sense and villagers accused their neighbours, sometimes through sheer malice perhaps, of witchcraft. Miller uses the play as an allegory for the spectre of McCarthyism and its dreaded blacklisting of suspected communists. Miller himself would later be called upon to testify before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, where he was convicted of ‘contempt of Congress’ for refusing to identify others who had been at meetings he’d attended.
This production of The Crucible, directed by Yaël Farber, aired at The Old Vic over the summer and we were fortunate enough to view it in a Digital Theatre broadcast at our local Odeon Cinema. This really was a marvellous production, absolutely riveting, despite a first half lasting for two hours (it was only my bladder had attention span problems, honest!). Reviewers have used adjectives like visceral and scorching to describe Ms Farber’s production and it’s not difficult to appreciate why these descriptions are quite apt. From the very opening scene we witness a community consumed by fear of the supernatural, ready to abandon good judgement and common sense. It is a powerhouse production that repeatedly drives home a heavy punch; its blistering effect upon the senses of this observer and his companions, sent us staggering homeward emotionally wrung-out and quite stunned. We felt affected by the force of the drama for some days afterwards. I understand it is nominated for a number of awards, which I can only anticipate it has a great chance of winning. I tend not to list names (very appropriately considering the play!), but if you’re fortunate enough to catch a recording of this great production I’m certain you’ll agree with me that the acting all round is excellent. And without wishing to diminish in any way the performances of the male cast, my wife and I both felt that the quality of acting from the female cast was really quite exceptional.
It strikes me as a very good time indeed to revive this play, to reacquaint ourselves with its warnings; especially seeing as we have recently entered a new era where liberally-minded democratic governments like our own have seen fit, in light of the perceived threat from our enemies, to withdraw some of our legal rights. I recently heard a balanced commentator on BBC Radio point out that newly-assumed surveillance and arrest measures, ostensibly taken to defend us from the extremists who would wish to harm us, might equally, if we should ever be unfortunate enough to discover ourselves under the control of a less than benign authority, make ordinary life in our country very uncomfortable. Miller’s play calls us to seek truth and justice, to require an impartial legal system and to demand nothing less than the due processes of the law; after all, in the end it’s all that stands between us as free individuals and the rule of despots.
Definitely see this production if at all possible.