Arthur Miller’s Enduring Message: It Could Happen Again

Some 35 years ago, the critic Harold Clurman asked the question, “What has the American theater to say about the present state of American politics?” His own answer was “Very little”–which was a polite way of saying “Next to nothing.” In 1965, when he wrote that, the Vietnam War was escalating and the civil-rights struggles were stirring many people. And the theater? Clurman pointed out that racial and social prejudice led to, at best, a musical like West Side Story or a sentimental drama like A Raisin in the Sun . There were doubtless a few exceptions in the Age of Aquarius, but in the years since then, so little seems to have changed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même shows. The American theater–unlike the British and Irish–still avoids political drama, as if the great issues of the day were best left to politicians. In recent times, there has been just one major political play, Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul . Yet there are those commentators who’ve questioned Mr. Kushner’s patriotism for even writing compassionately about Afghanistan, and others who have argued that the whole thorny subject should be left to the media.

I’ve two questions of my own: Since when has the media spoken for our stages? Why doesn’t the American theater burn more with the vital political causes of our day?

When The Crucible , Arthur Miller’s time-honored political parable, premiered on Broadway in 1953, it wasn’t well received. The turbulent McCarthyite atmosphere of the time divided its audiences and clouded the drama’s real meaning. At issue was whether people could make the link between the drama about the Salem witch hunts of 1692 and the then-current Communist witch hunts and hysteria of the McCarthy era. One of the objections to the play–repeated again today following Richard Eyre’s revival of The Crucible on Broadway–is that Mr. Miller whitewashed the guilt of the Communists by comparing their fate to the martyred heroism of the innocent victims who were hanged in Salem. After all, the witches didn’t exist, whereas the Communists did.

The glib and even sinister double-think of that argument is what the play is about. A witch hunt makes no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. All are suspect when the law of the land has gone mad and the accuser is always holy. The troubled, terrified soul of The Crucible resides in its feverish public and private conscience. The entire play is conscience-driven. What would you do if you were ever asked to confess to nonexistent crimes in order to save your own skin? What would you and I do if by naming names–and naming the names of the innocent–we could walk free?

It happened, of course, and Mr. Miller has written a great deal over the years about The Crucible , as if still hammering home its essential truth and enduring question: “Could it happen again?”

It is eye-opening to return with the dramatist to Salem (from the Hebrew Shalom , meaning “peace”), where he’d gone in the early 50’s to research the play from the town records for 1692. He read them with the excitement of dramatic discovery. He found dialogue! Here’s the prosecutor saying to Rebecca, who’s accused of witchcraft, “It is awful to see your eye dry when so many are wet.” And Rebecca replies, “You do not know my heart. I never afflicted no child, never in my life. I am as clear as the child unborn.”

You do not know my heart . And they hanged her. Mr. Miller went on to record, “She was in her seventies. They had hesitated to go and arrest her because of her high reputation; but they took her from her sickbed, they took her from her lovely house that stands in the countryside yet, and they hanged her by the neck over the long Salem Bay.”

Looking round the courthouse, the then-young Arthur Miller sees people going about their business: a lawyer in his overcoat copying a deed, a clerk, a woman reading a will. “Did they know what happened here?” he wonders.

Every schoolchild surely knows of Salem today, and even The Crucible has become a bit of a pill–the dutiful class course or, worse, the annual school play. But while the McCarthy witch hunts are unknown, apparently, to many people who see The Crucible today, the play itself has become Mr. Miller’s most widely produced. It stands on its own legs, having been redeemed by time. And it’s become a political play by implication. The dramatist points out that it’s very often done in Latin America just before a dictatorship is about to take over, as a warning, and just after one has been overthrown, as a reminder. No, the play’s passionate themes about the abuse of power and the evil galvanizing terror of it, the conformist pieties of the herd and cherished free will, the righteous rule of law and the noose, are always with us.

Though The Crucible is Mr. Miller’s most-produced play, it isn’t his best. Richard Eyre believes “the epic scale of The Crucible , the yoking together of public and private worlds, the sense of a whole society set on the stage are, in a word, Shakespearean.” Yes, but for me the play hovers on the arc of a melodrama for too long–until the trial scene and the final act, when Mr. Eyre’s star actors, Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, bring the drama to its awesome, tragic heights.

Mr. Neeson’s fine John Proctor, a farmer who made one mistake and a man you would trust with your life, and Ms. Linney’s Elizabeth, in her pursed image of Puritan self-denial and steadfastness, remind us that their wronged characters are among Mr. Miller’s pantheon of “ordinary” heroes. “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!” goes Willy’s heartbreaking cry in Death of a Salesman . And Biff says at Willy’s grave: “Charley, the man didn’t know who he was.”

Proctor knew who he was. At the end of The Crucible , he cries out why he will go to the gallows rather than sign a false confession. “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang. How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave my name!”

The man who names names loses his own. The state that regulates your conscience destroys everything you have. I don’t know why our playwrights don’t burn with the kind of moral indignation of an Arthur Miller or feel compelled to write about the state of the world. Perhaps they see no need. Perhaps all is well.