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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Crucible (starring Richard Armitage) stage review (The Old Vic)

The Crucible yellow light

A very earthy and spookily atmospheric production suffers from some dated attitudes: not those of the 1690s but the 1950s.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Richard Armitage

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

On Saturday night I attended a performance of a new production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at London’s legendary Old Vic theatre (where Kevin Spacey is currently the artistic director). I’d never seen the play before, nor had I read it — I knew about it only generally, as Miller’s allegorical take on McCarthyism, written during its height, via a semifictionalized account of the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century. Frankly, I was interested mostly because Richard Armitage is starring, and I wanted to see if he is as mesmerizing onstage as he is onscreen.

I was surprised to find that, actually, he isn’t. Sure, he’s a very fine actor, and he brings a muscular presence to what is overall a very earthy and spookily atmospheric production. But his especial power as a performer would seem to require the intimacy of the screen. A lot of shouting and stalking onstage cannot compensate for the inability of the audience to get close enough to see fine gradations of emotion flickering across his face. Not even as performed in the round, as this production is: the audience is closer than with a traditional proscenium stage, not still nowhere near as close as TV or film bring us.

I don’t mean to damn with faint praise: Armitage is very good here, just not in any way that particularly distinguishes him from the rest of the very good cast, a combination of newcomers and veterans.

Mostly, though, I’m overwhelmed by how pissed off I am with the play itself. I know that Miller was not exactly known as a feminist, but I’m astonished by how the play doesn’t seem to have any appreciation for the fact that historical accusations of witchcraft against women have always been misogynist in nature, such as, for instance, punishments for transgressing against the chastity that has always been expected of women but less so of men (and punished less, if at all, in men). We do see in the play that the accusation of witchcraft against Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley, in an impressive professional debut) appears to be the result of an injustice she has suffered: she had sex with farmer John Proctor (Armitage: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Captain America: The First Avenger) — it was hot and steamy, we can guess from the way she talks to him about it, and she liked it! — and then his wife, Elizabeth (Anna Madeley: In Bruges, The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton), fired her and threw her out when she discovered this. Miller doesn’t seem to appreciate that the mini mass hysteria among Abigail’s female agemates — the sort of apparently possessed behavior that looks demonic, supposedly — is clearly a sympathetic reaction to Abigail’s abuse, and a generalized reaction to sexual repression.

Maybe that subtext was not as obvious in the play as written; perhaps it’s something that director Yaël Farber brought out. But nothing short of rewriting the play can change the fact that, even though it was mostly women who were executed as witches in Salem, Miller chose to focus his story on a man — Proctor — and decided that it should be all about his attempts to retain his soul (in both the religious and nonreligious sense) and honor in the face of an accusation of witchcraft leveled against him. Miller’s points about coerced confessions and ludicrous trials are well made, and it’s no ignoble thing to decide not to “confess” to something one hasn’t done and chose execution instead, the “choice” the accused have here. But all those points could have been made if this were Abigail’s story (as the beginning of the play seems to suggest it will be). Instead, it’s all about Proctor saving himself as he sees fit to save himself while tossing around words like “whore” about Abigail and getting no pushback for it. In the eyes of even this production, which should know better, Abigail is a whore.

This dates the play badly: not to the 1690s but the 1950s. And it dates this production. We might not expect any sympathy for Abigail and her peers from Proctor or Miller, but we should damn well expect some from a 21st-century mounting of this play. But pretty much the only woman treated kindly here is Elizabeth Proctor, the faithful, forgiving wife. Not cool.

The Crucible is now available to stream at Digital Theatre.

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.] [iTunes Canada] [iTunes U.K.]

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  • Servetus

    Yeah, the play is a lousy representation of the 1690s.

  • That’s not quite what I said. :->

  • Danielm80

    You obviously need to write a Doctor Who story set in the 1690s. Possibly starring a female Doctor.

  • perry322

    How can you say that Miller fails to appreciate the reason for the girls’ hysteria as you described it – a sympathetic reaction to Abigail’s abuse and sexual repression – when he himself created the Proctor/Abigail relationship – we know the historical Abigail was 9 years old, Proctor in his 60’s and there is no evidence of an affair. Further, the girls’ hysteria, as it developed throughout the play was not a sympathetic reaction to Abigail’s situation, it was, as the play was written, an attempt to get some attention and status, and was also fueled by their justified fear of Abigail. All in all, basically it seems to me you’re saying, you wanted a different play.

  • Servetus

    Actually, you did. You pointed out (briefly) the fact of the representation of the “witch” as a man (Proctor) despite the overwhelming likelihood in Salem, New England, and most of Europe (Brittany, Iceland, Russia are some exceptions) that an accused witch would have been a woman. That is what I was responding to. I’ve got more to say about this but I said it weeks ago on my blog and I won’t clog your comments. I don’t disagree about the misogynism, as I also said on my blog, and in comments on other reviews of this play. I don’t really like this play much.

  • Well, no. Proctor was a real person and he was accused of witchcraft. Most of the people executed as witches in Salem were women, but a few were men.

  • I can say it because that’s what I saw (or didn’t see).

    Did you see the same production I did? I saw no fear of Abigail. I did see the girls responding to incitement from Abigail. Perhaps the emphasis was different in a different production.

    I am NOT saying I wanted a different play. I’m explaining why the play that I saw pissed me off. And I’m highlighting what seems to me to be yet another example of how men think stories aren’t worth telling unless they’re about men, even when the stories are actually about women!

  • If the BBC wants to pay me to write one, great. I’m done with writing for free.

  • LaSargenta

    I know. I was hoping that at some point you’d get sufficiently inspired to finish the DocWhoFic story and hit us all up for money to download it.

  • Servetus

    You would only assume that The Crucible as a text was a story about women if you thought it was a story about the 1690s, though. It’s really not, despite all of the firlefanz Miller put on at the time about having researched it (historical research was eons ahead of him even at the time, as contemporary reviewers pointed out). Miller had been in analysis for years at the point when he wrote this play, and so while I think it’s interesting to represent the hysteria about Communism as some sort of allegedly teenage sexual hysteria (when, as you point out, one of the most plausible readings of the actual events of the 1690s has to do with the disenfranchisement and real expropriation of women), but that again is not about), it’s also fundamentally a 1950s insight.

  • If one could legally sell fan fiction, I’d be doing that.

  • Wait. You’re suggesting that the witch trials could NOT work as an allegory for McCarthyism because the 1690 trials were about women?

    I am NOT saying that hysteria about Communism = sexual hysteria. I am saying that there are clear parallels between the coerced “confessions” and other quasi-legal ploys in both cases.

    You may be falling into the trap (and maybe Miller did too) of assuming that stories about men are universal and stories about women are only about women.

  • Servetus

    Wow, that is a hugely bizarre reading of what I’ve said.

    If you want to know all the reasons that the witch trials don’t work as a historical parallel (let’s leave the distastefulness of allegory out of it for a while), you can read the blog. I wrote, oh, ten thousand words about that. Two weeks ago. So I won’t repeat myself. There aren’t really clear parallels between the coerced confessions, unless, of course, you’re not all that familiar with the 1690s. Miller certainly wasn’t. He could have tried harder, but he didn’t.

    I’m not exactly sure why you felt the need to question my feminist credentials, but since that’s ad hominem, I am done. I apologize for having essentially agreed with you and bothered to state it here.

  • Syn

    I wish somewone would rewrite the story/play from Abigails point of view. Now that would be interesting. Maybe it´s already done?

  • I appreciate you not “clogging” my comments, but you don’t have a Disqus profile, so I have no idea who you are, what your credentials are, what your blog is, or what else you’ve written. I have only your few comments on this post to go by.

  • It occurred to me while watching the play that the witch trials need a new feminist retelling.

  • Lorca

    I cannot disagree more! Actually I also happened to have seen the play on Saturday and have to wonder if you saw the same play. First of all I have seen most of Richard Armitage work for the screen and think he is much better on stage. His acting is more nuanced and he seems way more comfortable.
    Also regarding your simpathy for Abigail. I honestly find it ridiculous. We are talking about a young woman who stalks a married man that clearly tells her is over and that through the accusation of his wife tries to get her to be executed. Also in the time it is set a woman aged 17 would have been pretty much an adult (Although the real Abigail was 11 at the age of the trials),so were do you see the abuse?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, there was a ’96 film version with Daniel Day-Lewis as Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail. You could always check that out to see if the difference is in the writing or the production. Y’know, in your spare time. >.>

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    The only such version I can find was something called “Abigail: The Rock Opera”. It was produced in 2010 in San Francisco.

  • maddie

    I cannot abide the condescending…Ms Johanson saw the same play as you..She happens to have a different opinion of what she saw/felt about Armitage’s acting.He did not stand out as much as she was expecting him to…I am tired of people being criticized for not finding his acting extraordinary all the time.He is human right ? Therefore he is faillible. It so happens I do not like everything he has done in the past.
    I appreciate your comments Ms Johanson..Thank you.
    Signed: Someone who (as well as others) dissents offline because she lacks the courage to express herself in public when it comes to Armitage’s work.

  • Danielm80

    That version was hilarious. People who were supposed to be dead kept twitching and moving around. It was like watching an Ed Woods film.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    That being said, I for one have always thought it was a ridiculous work, with all the subtlety of a train wreck. I first encountered it in junior high school English class, and even then I thought the allegory was a tad heavy handed. And that Miller, as talented a writer as he is, likes his ladies quiet and pretty.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    You say Ed Wood like it’s a bad thing. :D

  • cinderkeys

    “Miller doesn’t seem to appreciate that the mini mass hysteria among
    Abigail’s female agemates — the sort of apparently possessed behavior
    that looks demonic, supposedly — is clearly a sympathetic reaction to
    Abigail’s abuse, and a generalized reaction to sexual repression.”

    My favorite theory is one that hadn’t yet been floated at the time Miller wrote The Crucible:ergot poisoning caused a whole lot of people to hallucinate and genuinely look as though they might be possessed by demons, if one’s worldview happened to include demons.

    Men and women may become depressed or anxious as a result of oppression, but as a general rule they don’t act like they’re on LSD because of it.

    Not that any of this excuses the play from branding Abagail as a dirty nasty whore while declaring the party who was actually committing adultery to be a decent guy at heart.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Aren’t half the novels about Sherlock Holmes that have been published since Arthur Conan Doyle’s death legally sold fan fiction? Heavens know that writers like Esther Friesner and Arthur Byron Cover have not been shy about writing stories about thinly disguised version of other people’s characters. And writers like Lin Carter have based whole careers on the commercial equivalent of Robert E. Howard fan fiction. When, of course, they weren’t writing the commercial equivalent of H. P. Lovecraft fan fiction…

  • Tonio Kruger

    “You have to pick up every stitch….” :)

  • Tonio Kruger

    I read the play in high school and while it is hardly my all-time favorite play — I felt much more emotionally connected to :The Seagull and The Wild Duck — I do remember liking it better than the movie.

    As for the movie…. It says something about its impact that I do not even remember hearing about it until after Paul Scofeld died.

  • Holmes is mostly no longer under copyright and in the public domain. Doctor Who is not.

  • A young unmarried woman has sex with a married man, and she’s the one at fault?

    It’s barely excusable for Miller to think this. I can’t believe there are people in the 2010s who think it.

    The abuse is not sexual, but cultural: being thrown out of her job and home (at a time when it was not so easy for an unmarried woman to fend for herself), being called a whore, and being accused of witchcraft when she expresses her anger at her treatment.

  • Danielm80

    I haven’t read a Miller play in a long time, but my recollection is that his dialogue is very earnest and transparent. That style of writing can be really powerful, but it requires actors who are very intense and very in touch with their most painful emotions. Not everyone can pull that off, and the cast of the movie–with a few exceptions–really, really didn’t.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Star Trek is not in the public domain either and yet writers have gotten away with fictional riffs on that series. Perhaps you could write the Galaxy Quest equivalent of Doctor Who or else create your own time traveling protagonist from scratch. And then send out cover letters to various publishers and publications to see if anyone is interested.

    Yes, I know all this is more easily said than done but if the story is worth telling, then it should be told. If you leave it to someone else, it may never get told. And that would be a shame.

  • Tonio Kruger

    As long as we are mentioning movies, it only seems fair to mention the 1937 Claudette Colbert flick Maid of Salem, which actually deals with the Salem witch trials from the pov of a female protagonist (played by Ms. Colbert, natch). It obviously doesn’t try to tell the same story as The Crucible and like all too many films of its era, its portrayal of a black character is not exactly progressive, but if you happen to have some spare time, it might be interesting to check out.

  • The Trek novels are published under license from Paramount. Ditto the Doctor Who novels.

    Maybe I’ll finish that DW story I’m in the middle of someday. But it’s gonna have to wait until I am not hurting for money and have the luxury of setting aside time to work on it without needing to get paid.

  • bookylady

    I think you have missed the point here. The story is set in a time when religion was paramount, in a place where the community was formed of people whose ancestors had travelled to a new world to escape religious persecution and live a religious life they believed in. And that religious life was very much based on Biblical teaching where women were subserviant to men. All the director has done is reflect the time period and prevailing attitudes of the era in which the play was set. Women would have found it very difficult to be heard, once the catastrophe that hit them was put in motion. Abigail may have been wronged by John, but wasn’t she every bit as bad? After all, she set the forces of the law ( a very male domain at the time) on her female friends and neighbours and she was seeking to murder (albeit judicially) John’s wife!
    Feminist principles and a 21st century take on women’s rights just won’t wash here I’m afraid and I write as a woman brought up in the ultra feminist 1970s.

  • A feminist take on a misogynist reality is *precisely* what is needed here.

  • LaSargenta

    If this was a play written by someone actually trying to portray the 17th c. in Salem, I’d completely agree with your comment. The problem is that Arthur Miller was explicitly writing a story using the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in its looking-for-Communists-everywhere phase and Senator Joe McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in its looking-for-Communists-everywhere phase.

  • Lorca

    You misunderstood my comment. I meant that I believe his acting is better on stage than on the screen. While I like his work on screen he is no Daniel Day Lewis. So yes he is definetely human, I just happened to find his acting better on stage than on the screen.
    So I am definetely not a die hard fan of Richard Armitage and definetely very critic over his work, especially being an actress myself.

  • Lorca

    I have never said, that Proctor wasn’t at fault. Of course he was married and shouldn’t have slept with her. At no point does any of the characters indicate he was not at fault either.

    But I find it interesting that you find it excusable that she named the wife, well knowing that this would lead to the wife’s death. Sorry but this is basically an attempted murder in that context and before you ask: I am a woman too!

    What I find sad is that women often seek to always make the woman the victim, when she isn’t automatically. It is that attitude that has made feminism a negative term.Two examples from film for that: Fatal Attraction and Disclosure. Do you think the female characters there were also victims?

    Yes over the years a lot of men have mistreated and surpressed women but there were also more than enough women acting in a sexist way! Take just the acusation of raping to get back to a man as an example.

  • maddie

    I apologize if I misunderstood you…I just did not like the “I wonder if you saw the same play comment” Thank you for your explanation…I think Ms Johanson is more than capable of “defending ” herself without my help…I just cannot tolerate fans who abuse (or seem to abuse) others who have a different opinion…And yes Lorca, I agree with you,Armitage is not DDL.I appreciate your response and I wish you an excellent day !! No hard feelings.

  • It is that attitude that has made feminism a negative term.

    Wow. No.

    Two examples from film for that: Fatal Attraction and Disclosure. Do you think the female characters there were also victims?

    I will not let this thread get derailed. So I am not getting into this.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Yeah, nobody who knows anything about “The Crucible” thinks it’s a story about the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s. Even Arthur Miller himself, despite his specious claims of historical accuracy, was pretty explicit that he was using the Trials as a framing device to tell a story about McCarthyism.

  • And it doesn’t even matter how accurate or inaccurate the play is about the trials and the 1690s. My point is that Miller could have made the same points he wanted to make if he’d focused his story — inaccuracies and all — on the women who were the primary targets of the witch trials. But he didn’t, because, most likely, he simply didn’t think women matter as much as men. I mean, you can’t get a much better example of how women’s stories are ignored and men’s are favored than this play.

  • I agree! And also that nearly every story written in the last 100 years could use a new feminist retelling. It’d make our media significantly more interesting in my opinion.

  • Fascinating! Where is your blog I wish to know more.

  • MaryAnn I’d be very interested to hear your take on the Daniel Day Lewis / Winona Ryder version that came out about 10 or so years ago. From what I remember it was pretty good.

  • You’re barking up the wrong tree, Lorca. This is a place where Feminist isn’t a bad word, and we don’t respond well to people who bring that particular axe to grind. Cheers.

  • You know, I haven’t seen this since it came out; my memory of it was that it was not too bad. But it was a long time ago. I still have strong memories of a few well-acted scenes.

    Then again, that’s sorta the Day-Lewis effect, isn’t it?

  • Feminist principles and a 21st century take on women’s rights just won’t wash here I’m afraid and I write as a woman brought up in the ultra feminist 1970s.

    I disagree — re-telling a story, or at least re-examining one, from a feminist perspective does not require the characters themselves to be feminists, or to behave differently.

  • Danielm80

    Roger Ebert’s review captures the movie pretty well, from what I remember, although he doesn’t point out how hilariously incompetent the filmmaking technique is in some sections of the film:

    The characters I believed in most were Elizabeth Proctor, the Rev. Hale,
    and Judge Danforth. As written and acted, they seem like plausible
    people doing their best in an impossible situation. Too many of the
    others seem like fictional puppets. The village girls in general (and
    Abigail Williams in particular) don’t even seem to belong to the 17th
    century; as they scurry hysterically around the village, they act like
    they’ve seen too many movies. And as John Proctor, Daniel Day-Lewis has
    the task of making moral stands that are noble, yes, but somehow pro
    forma. “The Crucible” is a drama of ideas, but they seem laid on top of
    the material, not organically part of it.


    I’d still like to see MaryAnn review the film from a feminist point of view, but her time is so limited these days that I’d rather see her review a terrible movie that was just released than a terrible movie from the 1990s.

  • Danielm80
  • I have very vague recollections of seeing it, but not enough to comment on. Might have to watch it again…

  • Excellent.

  • Jurgan

    Still not as bad as the French version with Yves Montand…

  • Simonsays

    Interesting perspective on the play. I agree that Armitage was underwhelming in the acting stakes, but I thought that of all of the actors, which is another way if saying that it was badly directed.

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