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Letter from the Artistic Director on The Crucible

by Martha Lavey

It was ensemble member Amy Morton who first suggested that Steppenwolf produce The Crucible in our 2007-2008 season. We had already determined that the focus of the season would be an attempt to address the question: "What does it mean to be an American?" Amy's suggestion, therefore, made great sense: Arthur Miller is a playwright whose artistic life has been, in the main, an inquiry into the American character and the socio-political culture that shapes us as Americans. His voice is eloquent, searing, and passionate. And The Crucible is, like Death of a Salesman, one of Millers' signature plays: a play that has come to define the playwright and has come to serve as a touchstone in the canon of contemporary American drama. Why we would hesitate? (Because we did hesitate.) The Crucible is a play so well-known that for a theater, like Steppenwolf, that produces a great deal of new work, that produces provocative work, and serves an audience with a wonderfully robust appetite for innovation, the well-known work becomes the quirky choice. We experienced the same confusion when considering The Diary of Anne Frank for last season. In both cases, we loved the plays but we paused for a moment around the question of our producing them. In the end of all, with The Diary of Anne Frank and with The Crucible, we were persuaded by the power of the plays. Re-reading The Crucible, I was utterly knocked out by the play's ferocity. O my goodness--Miller was on fire writing this play. If you have not read it lately, you must. The narrative that Miller provides in his asides in the text illuminates not only 17th century Salem but provides a wonderfully keen insight into human nature. Miller wrote the play in 1953 in response to the presiding political climate of that moment. Alive in that moment was the tension between the United States and Soviet Russia. The Cold War was on and a deep fear of the reach of Communism into the United States produced an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. Miller, hoping to produce a critical distance on the House Un-American Committee trials, presided over by Joseph McCarthy, invoked an earlier moment in American history--the Salem witch trials of 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. The parallel was persuasive: in both cases, citizens and colleagues were asked to testify again one another; in both cases, evidence was emotionally-driven, circumstantial, and in violation of the principles of American jurisprudence: one was guilty until proven innocent. And how to prove one's innocence under such conditions? Impossible. Innocence is wordless--it has no language of defense. The brilliance of Miller's play is that he registers this reality in several keys. Elizabeth Proctor, accused of witchcraft cannot "prove" her innocence to the court and her integrity commits her to silence. What Miller provides, in the relationship between Elizabeth Proctor and her husband, John Proctor, is an inscription of that public trial in the private life of this married couple. Where, in the witch trial, Elizabeth is the accused, in her marriage, Elizabeth is the accuser: her continuing suspicion of her husband's fidelity provides no room for John to prove his innocence. As John says to Elizabeth, "You forget nothing and forgive nothing...I cannot speak but I am doubted, every moment judged for lies, as though I come into a court when I come into this house!" In both cases--the witch trial in which Elizabeth is the indicted and in the "trial" that Elizabeth conducts of John's character--we witness the impossible predicament of the accused when the atmosphere of fear and suspicion overwhelms the force of reason and compassion. The enduring value of Miller's play is its deep wisdom about human nature. Miller is well aware of the recurrent tendency in human nature to assign the confusion and threat of any given moment--in our cultural life and in our personal life--to the force of the demonic. Our fear makes the unknown diabolical. As Miller states, in one of his many asides within the text of the play, "It is impossible for most men to conceive of a morality without sin as of an earth without 'sky' . . . the concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing, and always joined to the same phenomenon--such a concept is still reserved to the physical sciences and to the few who have grasped the history of ideas." It is this--the relative and ever-joined reality of good and evil--that Miller's play brings so vividly to life. The capacity to endure the multi-faceted quality of human nature and to bring compassion and reason to our deliberations--public and private--of ourselves, of our loved ones, of our community, is our challenge and the real trial of our character and our society. What does it mean to be an American? In Miller's play, to honor the principles of our nation is to allow reason and compassion to persuade us beyond our fear.