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The Crucible - the backstory

The audience will be so close to the action of Unity Theatre's production of The Crucible, they will become caught up in it, says director Norman Maclean. As with Unity's production of Romeo and Juliet last year, the intimate setting of Unity's Ormond Road theatre means the audience is almost inside the action.

“It almost gives a sense of participating in the climactic trial scene, for example.”

Arthur Miller's 1953 drama takes as its theme the witchcraft mania that swept Massachusetts in 1692.

“Although the madness extended as far as Boston, Salem village is the focus here since that was where the delusion began and where 19 innocent people were executed for supposedly trafficking with demons,” says Maclean.

“Malice, superstition, petty rivalries and hysteria accounted for both accusations and condemnations in a society that was haunted by both sin and satanic influences.”

In a 1996 New Yorker article, Miller reflects on how he wrote the work nearly 50 years earlier, “in an America almost nobody I know seems to remember clearly”.

Miller had since lost the “dead weight of fear” prevalent under Senator Joseph McCarthy who exploited widespread fear about the spread of Communism. The practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence meant the Red hunt targeted certain State Department employees, homosexuals, and the “Hollywood Ten”, filmmakers called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

The Red hunt

“This unleashed a veritable holy terror among actors, directors, and others, from Party members to those who had had the merest brush with a front organisation,” says Miller in The New Yorker.

The Red hunt was becoming the dominant fixation of the American psyche.

“In those years, our thought processes were becoming so magical, so paranoid, that to imagine writing a play about this environment was like trying to pick one's teeth with a ball of wool,” says Miller.

He visited Salem in 1952 and in the gloomy courthouse read transcripts from the 1692 witchcraft trials. In a report by Reverend Samuel Parris (played by Simon Marino in the Unity production), a chief instigator of the witch-hunt, Miller saw the seeds of his play. He sensed in the report a troubled triangle between farmer John Proctor (Lawrence Mulligan), young Abigail (Bo Jarratt) and Proctor's wife, Elizabeth (Belinda Campbell).

“The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding images of common experiences in the fifties: the old friend of a blacklisted person crossing the street to avoid being seen talking to him; the overnight conversions of former leftists into born-again patriots; and so on,” says Miller.

Writing the play also presented Miller with an opportunity to create an echo of 17th century New England English he describes as “plain, craggy...liberating in a strangely sensuous way”.

The Crucible's debut

Some of Miller's previous plays had been subjected to political nastiness and by the time The Crucible was to make its debut, Miller knew of two actors who had killed themselves because of upcoming Red hunt investigations while many more people in the entertainment industry exiled themselves to Europe.

On the of opening night in New York in 1953 Miller's expectation of a hostile reaction was underlined by a newspaper headline that announced “ALL THIRTEEN REDS GUILTY”.

Opening night was reviewed unkindly but when younger, less accomplished actors performed the work about a year later The Crucible became a hit.

“It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, especially in Latin America, The Crucible starts getting produced wherever a political coup appears imminent, or a dictatorial regime has just been overthrown,” says Miller.

“I am not sure what The Crucible is telling people now, but I know that its paranoid centre is still pumping out the same darkly attractive warning that it did in the fifties.

The play has strong relevance for contemporary audiences, says Maclean.

“The power of fundamentalist religious belief frequently warps the ability to reason and to exercise compassion and ludicrous concepts create conspiracy theories supported by minimal evidence - a feature of this year's elections.”

The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Norman Maclean, Unity Theatre, October 2-10. Tickets $25+bf from i-SITE or eventfinda.


HYSTERIA: When Abigail pretends during a trial that Salem villager Mary Warren has taken the form of a yellow bird perched on the rafters and preparing to claw out their eyes, confusion and hysteria begins to overtake the room in the play, The Crucible. Picture by Elenor Gill