As a former theatre major and a lifetime student of literature, I am ashamed to confess that I didn’t read Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible until I was 34 years old, long after I completed my theatre studies BA. I read Arthur Miller’s classic drama about group hysteria, betrayal, and martyrdom on the recommendation of my fiancée who read it years ago when she was in high school.
She was eager to discuss with me what she remembered of it. After all, one of the best things about recommending a book, or in this case a play, to someone is getting the opportunity to re-experience it through another person’s reading. In addition to reminding you what the heck that book was about in the first place, a new set of eyes will probably pick up on a few elements you hadn’t originally considered. Great times.
But one problem with reading classics is that values, both political and moral, change over time. An artist’s body of work that was progressive when it originally exploded onto the scene often retains its incendiary political value only when considered within the context of the time it was written and, in the case of theatre, originally produced, but that same body of work loses force and credible evidence of progressive values when considered within the context of the current zeitgeist. I’m talking about Mark Twain. I’m talking about Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’m talking about Louisa May Alcott. But, am I also talking about Arthur Miller?
I don’t mean to malign the above authors. Twain’s folksy cantankerousness mixed with his boyish exuberance, whether in his travel writing or that of the characters in his novels, is disarming, equivalent to literary comfort food for me. This is especially true of the controversial The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Here’s the problem, though: when has-been progressives—pick any of the above—get caught using outdated and regressive methods to make a progressive point, they take on the stink of regression. Progressive ideas get lost in translation, and art previously considered progressive ends up seeming regressive because it contains politically incorrect language or caricature-like depictions of historically oppressed groups.
A Mark Twain fan like me will argue that these kinds of characterizations, though simple and probably indicative of the author’s ignorance, represent a positive step forward. Jim might be superstitious, thick, and talk in an embarrassingly written dialect, but he’s also Tom and Huck’s guru, acting as the boys’ educator in the ways of the world. Literacy is looked down upon. Jim’s knowledge is the real deal.
So, revolutionary message about racial equality or oversimplification by a privileged white southerner about two white kids abusing an African American slave’s good will? Probably a little bit of both. But even though the positive element, Twain’s criticism of slavery, doesn’t outweigh the negative element, the caricature-like depiction of Jim and other African Americans in the novels, I’m not convinced that the negative element outweighs the positive. I’m inclined to say it doesn’t, but I respect the fact that people disagree with me.
This brings me to The Crucible, finally. In light of the Me Too movement, especially concerning the public’s emerging awareness about the general inadequacy of the courts to successfully convict in sexual assault cases, does the timeless message of The Crucible change?
Is Miller’s witch trial, which stunned and embarrassed McCarthyites when it was originally produced, destined to act as a negative analogy for that chimera of sexual assault, that elusive evil of evil, the all but totally fictional false victim? If productions aren’t already being planned, they should be.
Think of the satirical potential of casting Abigail and her coven of false cronies as the meta-heroines in a production that describes them as villains, and features Proctor as the sleazy sex-fiend who denies all allegations only to confess, then take it back, then go to the gallows so that he can protect his sleazy sex-fiend pals.
This kind of adaptation would be thought-provoking and timely, but if people directed The Crucible this way, would they inadvertently expose a patriarchal and chauvinistic underpinning of Miller’s work?
Miller draws attention to the broken court system, but he draws attention to it in a way that implies that the courts are full of false accusers. Because of the House Un-American Activities Committee, this political message was in vogue in a big way when the play was written and originally produced, i.e. The Crucible was written in order to analogize the evils of McCarthyism.
But now that it seems like the court system is broken in a different way—it seems to allow bad guys to go unpunished—the public perception of what a production of The Crucible would mean changes. Its message, if used progressively, becomes one of cynical and satirical recrimination of the victim.
The gaze of the audience would be manipulated toward siding with the sleazy defendant in an effort to underscore the ludicrousness of the myth of the false victim. Audiences would be forced to come to terms with their own prejudices, or at least talk about them at the bar after the show, which is really all that any theatre-maker can hope for.
But the fact that directors could, and maybe already are, mounting productions of the play I just described doesn’t necessarily mean that The Crucible’s central themes are outdated or that they support patriarchal views about the burden of proof and where it should be placed. It means the play is a timeless classic that artists can call upon in different capacities to bring attention to social ills.
Considering the increasing public awareness of the general failure of the courts to successfully convict those who sexually assault others, Miller’s depiction of Abigail as a dishonest female plaintiff/victim who will stop at nothing to ruin a relatively honest man’s reputation because she’s secretly in love with him could easily be accused of coming down on the wrong side of history.
In everything, context is more than important. From any time period, context is the keystone of art. Sitting through art that features blatant bigotry, which may or may not have been acceptable in its heyday, is horrible, but doing so provides an important reminder of what bigotry looks like and why it’s wrong.
A piece of art’s intended social message, as defined by the author, and its often inadvertent potential to be used to promote a dialogue about any given issue trump the fact that the same piece of art may trade in ill-considered and ignorant archetypes and images. But again, I respect the opinions of those who disagree with me.
So I say, don’t throw out your copy of The Crucible. Like any piece of art, outdated or otherwise, in the right hands it can be used as a source of positive, if perhaps cynical, social progress.