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Lyn Gardner reflects on The Crucible

A warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past.

This article first appeared in the Edinburgh International Festival Programme by journalist and novelist Lyn Gardner.

On a drizzly day in early April 1952, playwright Arthur Miller drove to the Connecticut home of stage and film director Elia Kazan. Kazan had directed Miller’s Broadway hit, Death of a Salesman, and Miller viewed him not just as a friend but like a brother.

On a walk in the woods Kazan confessed to Miller that he had recently testified before the House of Un-American Activities which was intent on rooting out those in public life who might have or had communist sympathies. Kazan had named names, a betrayal that would haunt him for the rest of his life. When the two men parted they would not speak again for a decade.

When Miller got back into his car he drove to Salem, the small Massachusetts’ village which in 1692 saw neighbour turn on neighbour and friends and family members testify against each other as the community became gripped by a hysteria that the devil was living in their midst. Rumours of bewitchment had spread through the community after two girls suffered fits.

Fuelled by superstition, fear and a desire by some to save their own skins by pointing the finger at others, an apparently stable community collapsed into chaos. By the time the witch-hunt subsided two years later 14 women, five men and two dogs had been executed for witchcraft.

In the Salem courthouse Miller read the transcripts of the Salem trials which he drew on to write The Crucible, the 1953 drama which went on to become his most performed play.

The Crucible might have been intended as an allegory that pointed the finger at ant-communist witch-hunts in mid-20th century America, but it was also a play for all time. As Miller himself remarked after seeing many productions around the world, it served ‘as either a warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past.’

Transposing Miller’s wordy drama into a ballet might seem like quite a challenge, but Scottish Ballet — which is celebrating its 50th anniversary — has never been short on bravery. It has already successfully transposed that other great classic of American drama — A Streetcar Named Desire — into dance.

This world premiere of The Crucible is the first time that the play has been reimagined as a full-length ballet. It serves as a reminder that what keeps great classics alive is not admiring them out of duty but reinventing them in many forms so that they speak as directly to us as they did when first produced.

Jamiel Laurence in Scottish Ballet's production of Helen Pickett's The Crucible. Credit Andy Ross

The composer Peter Salem, whose connection with The Crucible goes back to the National Theatre’s 1990 revival for which he wrote the music, admits that The Crucible is not an obvious choice for a ballet. But he believes that makes it all the more interesting.

‘I kept the play close by when I was writing the music, I was always referring to it, but we are not “doing” the play but rather are finding the emotional undercurrents of every moment and scene and making clear what is going on at every single moment. It’s about finding the way through the two opposing narratives, one full of violence and brutality, and the other represented by the relationship between John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth, which is full of love.’

Full of guilt too. When the married Miller wrote The Crucible he had already met Marilyn Monroe, who eventually became his second wife. His guilt over his betrayal of his then-wife, Mary Miller (to whom he dedicated The Crucible) is apparent in the shame of John Proctor who has betrayed Elizabeth with their teenage servant, Abigail, whose dismissal from the household leads to tragedy.

‘It is a play of many, many words,’ agrees choreographer Helen Pickett, ‘but words often fail to tell us how we feel and movement can do that. It can make an audience lean in and feel the story. It is a play in which darkness and light sit side by side, so that although we see the horror, and the othering that goes on we also see the loyalty that people have towards each other and the courage they show. It’s not just about Salem in 1692 or 1953 America but it is also about now, about what might be lurking in the shadows waiting to be unleashed.’

Salem’s score plays on the timelessness of the story, drawing on 17th-century psalms, evocative sounds such as the courtroom gavel or a bell as well as providing rave music which heightens the repressed sexuality of the teenage girls whose antics in the woods are used as evidence of sorcery.

‘I have taken a sensory approach to the choreography, and there is an otherworldly element,’ says Pickett of a production which employs shadow puppetry and which plays up the ignorance of superstition and the fear of the unknown. Pickett is interested too in using the choreography to explore the psychology of movement, the way we unwittingly reveal ourselves through gesture, when we tuck hair behind our ears or cross our arms in opposition.

From L To R Nicholas Shoesmith and Araminta Wraith in Scottish Ballet's The Crucible By Arthur Miller. Choreographed By Helen Pickett. Credit Jane Hobson.

It’s something that dancer Nicholas Shoesmith, who plays John Proctor, finds fascinating and demanding.

‘The dancing is very intricate, and Helen (Pickett) has been rigorous about setting the rhythm of each solo and duet and making sure that every movement expresses character and emotion. But there is also a simplicity about it, and an understanding that in moving less you can show so much more. John is such a complex man. He is fuelled by guilt, almost breaking apart, but he is a man who wants to do the right thing.’

‘John Proctor is willing to die for honour and to save his wife,’ says Pickett. ‘I hope The Crucible puts audiences in a position where the audience watch and wonder “what would I do in that situation?” And wonder “what would I stand up for and defend?”’

Miller did stand up against tyranny. When the playwright was summoned before the House of Un-American Activities, like the hero of The Crucible and unlike his best friend Elia Kazan, he declined to turn informer.

© Lyn Gardner. Lyn is currently Associate Editor of The Stage. She has written about theatre and performance for The Guardian and The Independent, and she was a founder member of City Limits, the largest publishing co-op in Europe. She currently writes a strand of articles for the British Council on Culture After Brexit.

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