If you’ve been cooling your heels here in the new Canaan waiting for a cinema screening of the Old Vic production of The Crucible to show up at the local art house, you can now jump the queue via Digital Theatre. Yay, those guys! Last year, director Yael Farber took a minimal in-the-round set and a tight ensemble cast and put together an intense, sinuous three hours, which the folks at Digital Theatre then made into something of a master class in how to film live performance.
There was a time – it may still be going on, I’m not in a position to know anymore – when American high school students were routinely frog-marched through the Arthur Miller canon. I remember some handout involved on the Aristotelian theory of tragedy, which was supposed to be the alpha to Miller’s omega thesis (Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge) that The Common Man ™ was just as capable of generating tragedy as the King of Thebes or the Prince of Denmark or any other imaginary 1 percenter of the days of yore. But I think very few of us quite bought (or cared about) that argument at the time, and anyway we weren’t all that interested in plays that resembled things that had gone on in our grandparents' living rooms.
Which may be why The Crucible is the one that sticks with us – it was enough not about us to make it interesting, and enough about us to make it interesting. It was unsubtle in its politics, and we could talk about it, as we did then talk about it, in the post-Nixon era, in the long shadow cast by HUAC. Plus it had that sexy Witches vs Puritans vibe which is fun in a cartoon kinda way. In fact, if we ever get past the Halloween version so familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a Salem tchotchke shop in tourist season, The Crucible is pretty much our stand-in for knowing anything about what happened there…or not quite there but near there, as the case may be. It nicely caps a telescoped historical episode where the Pilgrims arrive fresh from England, starve a bit, invent Thanksgiving, then get all enthusiastic about paranoia and witch persecution. (In S1E2 they get shirty about taxes and dump tea in Boston Harbor.)
All of which is prelude to saying it’s really interesting what the reviews have made of this production, or rather of the “relevance” of the play. The unifying theme seems to be that yes, Miller wrote it about McCarthyism, but in this day and age it’s really about religious extremism.
Because religiosity in the play is never much more than a veneer. Scratch the surface, not very hard, and you see religion is a pretty thin coat of paint over a dense interior core of money. Or rather of property, whether it’s cows or acres or people. The play was in some measure designed as a way to call out the kind of weedy opportunism that could flourish in a political environment made of equal parts paranoia and propaganda. As a critique, in other words, of how power engenders and manipulates paranoia for its own profit. Religion is just a very useful tool in the toolbox, as any faith-based reality would be, whether the ostensible Enemy is Satan or Communism or some other religion which is entirely incidentally camped out on top of vast oil reserves.
There was a time when the headline should have read “I saw Goody Proctor buying yellow-cake uranium!”, and then we all might have known the just and righteous thing to do. Or at any rate the just and righteous thing not to do.