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Play’s tale of morality and mass hysteria still relevant today


In the half century since Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” it has become his most produced play. The current Broadway revival, at the Virginia Theatre through June 8, is as relevant as ever, says Liam Neeson, who gives a riveting performance as John Proctor.

“People are really reacting to it,” he said during an interview in his sitting room at the theater before an evening performance. “Maybe not on an intellectual level, but on a gut level.”

“The Crucible,” which won the Tony Award in 1953 for the year’s best play, illustrates the danger of morality and religion when they are hooked up with politics. Miller is constantly looking at the question of what it means to live in society and how its values can destroy the individual. When society as a whole buys an idea or becomes possessed by an ideology -- the American dream in the case of “Death of a Salesman” or witch hunts in “The Crucible” -- it can be disastrous to the individual who buys it or denies it.

Proctor falls into the latter category. As Miller writes in the play’s commentary: “In Proctor’s presence a fool felt his foolishness instantly -- and a Proctor is always marked for calumny therefore.”

The play’s witch hunt begins when a group of local girls, found dancing in the woods, accuse everyone they mistrust or don’t like of witchcraft as a way of avoiding their own guilt. Proctor’s wife Elizabeth (Laura Linney) is named out of jealousy by the chief accuser, Abigail (Angela Bettis), with whom Proctor had an affair. Proctor’s guilt and his wife’s love and refusal to betray him do them in.

Neeson compares the danger of the fundamentalist fervor in the play to the sentiments that led to the Sept. 11 attacks. “The horror of Sept. 11 awaked people to the real world of people with incredible anger and hatred in their hearts,” he said. “We blinded our eyes for a long time, not just in this country but all over the Western world. The play deals with fundamentalism and everything spiraling out of control.”

Morality and intelligence vanish as the play progresses. Even apolitical people like the Proctors are sucked in. “Is the accuser always holy now?” Proctor asks.

The mass hysteria shows what happens in a community when people don’t trust each other and use people and events for their own political purposes. Proctor knows why the town’s leaders are quick to believe the children. “I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem. Vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were, but now the crazy little children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”

Neeson says this production has been a hit with school groups. “The young people totally get into it. The kids are running the society and pulling the wool over the eyes of the adults. Maybe that has something to do with their interests, the need to push the boundaries.”

Miller wrote the play in 1952 as the House Un-American Activities Committee was growing in power, spreading fear through America’s intellectual elite in its search for communists and communist sympathizers. In a commentary on the play, Miller wrote: “When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday. It is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.”

In the play, the Salem authorities call in a specialist in witchcraft, the Rev. John Hale (John Benjamin Hickey). He arrives struggling with a half dozen heavy books, “weighed with authority. Here is all the invisible world, caught, defined and calculated.” His absolute views resonate in light of what is unfolding now in the numerous cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic priesthood. While trying to get Tituba, the black servant, to confess, he assures her: “We will protect you. The Devil can never overcome a minister.” This comment drew more than a few laughs.

Miller also has commented on the ever-present tendency to divide the world between good and evil, God and the Devil. “The concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing and always joined to the same phenomenon -- such a concept is still reserved to the physical sciences and to the few who have grasped the history of ideas.

Until the Christian era, Miller points out, “the underworld was never regarded as a hostile area, all gods were seen as useful and essentially friendly to man despite occasional lapses. When we see the steady and methodical inculcation into humanity of the idea of man’s worthlessness until redeemed, the necessity of the Devil may become evident as a weapon, designed to be used time and again in every age, to whip men into surrender to a particular church or church-state. … The Catholic church, through its Inquisition, is famous for cultivating Lucifer as the archfiend, but the church’s enemies relied no less upon the Old Boy to keep the human mind enthralled.”

Miller’s ability to capture this struggle so dramatically may provide healing through this timely production. Neeson says: “Maybe within this play is the answer to what we’re all going through today.”

Related Web site
“The Crucible” at the Virginia Theatre

Retta Blaney’s latest book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, will be published next year by Sheed & Ward. Liam Neeson is among the actors featured.

National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002