Shaking up a classic

Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ on Broadway

4 minute read
Saoirse Ronan as Abigail: Beware the storm— and the wolf.
Saoirse Ronan as Abigail: Beware the storm— and the wolf.

“I have given you my soul – leave me my name!”

John Proctor’s anguished cry in The Crucible rings sharply in our collective ears. In an era when a name (like Donald Trump’s, for example) means a “brand” that may possess financial but not moral worth, Proctor’s name will forever stand for truth and integrity in the face of injustice. He is a man for all seasons.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953, a time when the value of a name had become currency for survival at the cost of betrayal. From 1947 to 1954 — the so-called McCarthy era — the House Committee on Un-American Activities questioned many Hollywood writers and actors about their Communist sympathies, with the result that many lost their livelihoods and their reputations. Some, like the famous “Hollywood Ten,” were imprisoned. Miller himself was called before the Committee in 1956, but refused to identify others.

The Crucible is Miller’s protest against this shameful chapter in American history. Using Brecht’s device of historical “distancing” — setting a play in the past to illuminate a crisis in the present — Miller set The Crucible in Massachusetts in the late 17th century at the time of the infamous Salem witch trials. John Proctor, a hard-working farmer, and his wife Elizabeth get caught in the crossfires of fate when their willful young housemaid Abigail accuses Elizabeth (along with dozens of other innocent townsfolk) of witchcraft as a way of seeking revenge on John, who was briefly her lover. John readily confesses the adultery to save Elizabeth, but it’s too late: An inquisition has been initiated, dozens are put on trial, and the wheels of injustice turn too swiftly to be stopped.

At the 11th hour, John is given the opportunity to save his and his wife’s lives by confessing that he consorted with the devil. It is at this penultimate moment in the play that he utters the above-quoted line that he will not defile his name with a lie: “How may I live without my name?”

Splashing the audience

For me, these lines are among the most powerful ever uttered in the American theater. So I find it ironic that the name we’ll remember from the current all-star Broadway production of The Crucible is not that of John Proctor or Ben Whishaw (the wonderful British actor who plays Proctor), or even Arthur Miller, for that matter. No, the name we’ll remember is Ivo van Hove, the daring Dutchman who directed this overpowering, high-concept production.

Van Hove is an internationally acclaimed director, known for his radical deconstruction of classical texts. He swept through five seasons recently at the New York Theatre Workshop with controversial, avant-garde interpretations of Molière, Williams, O’Neill, Ibsen, and Hellman, as well as a complete overhaul of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. Van Hove’s trilogy of Shakespearean plays (Roman Tragedies) stormed the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012. Each production was marked by groundbreaking, game-changing staging and flamboyant theatricality.

This season, he’s the only director with four high-profile productions on New York stages — including two plays by Arthur Miller, whose centennial is this year. Van Hove’s version of A View From the Bridge (which opened last fall) featured barefooted actors ankle-deep in water on a stage surrounded by audience seating (in the end, everyone ducked, as the scenery overhead collapsed on the actors).

So New Yorkers have held their breath for van Hove’s much-anticipated Crucible, and this unconventional director doesn‘t disappoint. He and his designer Jan Versweyveld present a cavernous empty stage (stripped naked down to the brick walls and protruding heating pipes), representing a classroom with a huge blackboard as its backdrop. It’s the school where the young girls of Salem are first possessed by the devil (channeled by the otherworldly Saoirse Ronan as Abigail). It also doubles as the troubled Proctor home and the witch-trial courtroom.

Special effects

In this vast, foreboding space, van Hove stages a veritable tsunami of events. As Philip Glass’s relentless score crescendos to a roar, we watch a gaggle of young girls writhing under the devil’s influence (one actually flies), and a terrifying trial scene, including a storm that devastates everyone, including the audience. To top off the horror, a huge wolf (yes, a live one) introduces the second act, prowling the stage and scaring everyone to death.

The Crucible’s core of humanity — an honest, decent couple fighting for their lives, played with aching dignity by Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo — is overpowered by the maelstrom of special theatrical effects. The uniformly superb ensemble features a formidable Ciarán Hinds as the imperious hanging judge and Bill Camp as a compassionate clergyman. But in the end, it’s van Hove’s show.

Perhaps that’s as it should be, in a time when audiences tire easily of what Peter Brook calls “deadly theater” (i.e., rote renderings of the classics) and yearn for something new and remarkable. Van Hove is shaking up the classics. That’s his “brand” of theater, and that’s what’s attracting audiences today.

But let’s not forget Arthur Miller and the integrity that his name — and words — stand for.

What, When, Where

The Crucible. By Arthur Miller; Ivo van Hove directed. Through July 17, 2016 at Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th St., New York).

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