By Annette Hinkle
In his play “The Crucible” playwright Arthur Miller revisited the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s. In the real life case, 19 citizens were put to death in the Massachusetts village as a result of the hysteria whipped up by a group of adolescent girls who accused their neighbors of witchcraft.
It all started after the girls took part in a night of forbidden rituals deep in the woods led by a slave from Barbados named Tituba. While the story itself is full of the kind of intrigue and gossip that holds audiences spellbound even to this day, Miller’s reason for writing the play, which premiered on Broadway in 1952, was to reflect another witch hunt going on at the time — McCarthyism.
Miller was no stranger to black listing. Many Hollywood actors, writers and directors were accused of having Communist ties and pressured to confess them under the glare of the House Committee on Un-American Activities — including Miller himself who was questioned in 1956, but refused to “name names.”
In the Salem witch trials, in which the young girls accused those they disliked or held a grudge against, Miller found an apt allegory for what was going on in the United States nearly 300 years later.
Beginning November 6, “The Crucible” will be presented at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor as part of the theater’s “Literature Live!” program which brings classic books to life on stage. The play runs November 6 to 24 and while it’s specifically targeted to high school students, evening performances for general audiences will also be offered. The play is directed by Murphy Davis, Bay Street’s artistic director, who finds it still resonates even in this day and age.
“In the actual history, Abigail Williams was 12 year olds,” says Davis of one of the accusers. “Miller obviously used many of the facts, but fictionalized some of them. By making Abigail 19, it feeds into the story of John Proctor.”
In Miller’s version of events, John Proctor and Abigail Williams have carried on a secret affair, despite the fact Proctor is deeply in love with his pregnant wife. It comes as no surprise, of course, when Proctor’s wife is then accused by Abigail of being a witch. Unless he confesses, it’s almost certain that his wife will be put to death shortly after the birth of their child.
Davis notes that among the first to be accused were those who lived at the margins of acceptable Puritanical society — a woman who lived with a man out of wedlock, for example, and another who didn’t attend church on a regular basis. Any behavior out of the accepted norm was a reason to accuse.
“Although there were 18 hung and one pressed to death — Giles Cory who wouldn’t confess — there were also over 200 arrests and the jails were filled,” says Davis of the real life witch trials. “It started to go awry when people like Rebecca Nurse, a pious salt of the earth woman, and John Proctor were accused. These were pillars of the community and that’s when it lost its veracity and people started to question it.”
Just like McCarthyism.
Davis notes that Miller was caught up in the Communist fervor alongside film director Elia Kazan — a real-life collaborator and friend of Miller’s. And while Miller refused to offer up names of “fellow communists” during his time in front of the House Un-American Committee, Kazan did.
“I think for Miller and Kazan, it caused a huge rift and they were never the same,” says Davis. “Though they did come back and establish a relationship again.”
“What I find interesting is Miller exhibits an understanding of what it was to name names or not, as he did,” says Davis. “He very much focuses on personal responsibility and staying true to yourself, but it’s a lot about how one defines their own integrity.”
“I think it’s a very powerful message for all — but certainly for students who are in the process of questioning their own value systems, what they’ve gotten from their parents and society to this point,” says Davis.
Most students read “The Crucible” in their junior year in high school, and Davis finds the story particularly pertinent in that it’s a time when teens are defining their own value systems and determining how far they’re willing to go to right a wrong.
“I find, as I always do in reading good literature, there’s a relationship to today,” says Davis. “It took place in 1692, was written the 1950s and is still relevant in 2012.”
“If you depict something true on stage, they’ll see it,” he adds. “The play deals with peer pressure and bullying. And it’s a pretty riveting story — the ideas of loyalty, of selling yourself out, of being the victim of persecution. These are things most of us have experienced at one time or another.”
Bay Street Theatre’s “Literature Live!” presentation of “The Crucible,” runs November 6 to 24, 2012. Weekday performances are for schools, groups and the general public. Additional public performances are offered Fridays and Saturdays on November 9, 10, 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 7 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on November 11 and 24. Tickets are $10 for students and teachers, $20 for adults. Bay Street Theatre is on Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Call 725-9500 to reserve. School groups can book at 725-0818. The play is recommended for ages 13 and up.