Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was only a notable title to me until two weeks ago, when I saw the Melbourne Theatre Company production. It was on my very long list of things I should read or see one day, and Saturday, 6 July was the day I could finally cross it off my list.
I like to see films and theatrical productions with little knowledge of the plot, so I can feel the full impact of each beat in the dramatic arc. The Crucible was not a topic in the various writing and drama courses I have studied. Nor had I sought it out for my own education. I was much more interested in contemporary Australian texts and theatrical productions. In truth, the main reason I went along to see this particular MTC production of The Crucible is that my two fellow theatre goers wanted to see it.
While I knew that Miller had written the play in the aftermath of McCarthyism, I also knew it was set in seventeenth century Salem, during the witch trials. My imagination had conjured up a historical drama, full of parochial concerns and religious fervour which would have little impact on my world view. I expected to enjoy it, but I didn’t expect to emerge from the theatre with my head swimming in current affairs. It turns out the central theme in The Crucible is not the witch trials per se, but the foibles of human nature which convened to create the initial injustice and the series of accusations and condemnations which follow it.
The point, of course, is that human nature has not changed. Whether we’re talking about hanging witches, exposing communists, or finding terrorists, some people will not forsake their integrity for self-gain and others will. Often, those who are not strong will incriminate innocent people to avoid suffering. Those who are strong will suffer rather than incriminate other innocents. Those administering the punishment cannot recant an incorrect judgement because it shows how dramatically wrong their previous judgements have been. Recriminations, whether it be in the form of torture, black-listing, or hanging, does not bring us closer to the truth in any of these situations.
Meanwhile, the population at large shrink back in fear. Hoping they are not embroiled in the mess. Trying to get on with their lives. Avoiding actions that may create ripples.
The mindset ‘you are either with us or against us’ is made clear to the Salem community in The Crucible, in very similar words to those used by George W Bush. They stuck in my brain. I found it was impossible to walk out of the theatre without thinking of the ‘War on Terror’, waterboarding, the ineffectiveness of torture, and the willingness of ordinary people to be swept up in the hysteria of a given situation, rather than standing back to have a cool headed look at the facts.
In these terms, The Crucible is very much a contemporary drama, and it now sits alongside other analyses of contemporary issues in my mind.