Review of The Crucible from Flick Philosopher

This review addresses one of the questions I’ve had about this production — which is how all of the flickering movement of Richard Armitage’s face, seen in closeup, works on the stage.

It causes me to ask again, but leaves open, a question that I’ve been asked many times, which is whether one should familiarize oneself with the play before seeing it. I’ve been telling people not to read it, but this review tends to suggest the reviewer might have been better served if the assumption that the play had anything much to do with the 1690s had been cleared away before seeing it. I wrote about this a lot in the weeks before the play. It’s definitely a play of the misogynist 1950s, and one can’t escape the feeling, after reading his autobiography and most important biography, that Miller was not only a product of his period but a significant chauvinist all on his own.

[ETA: and as I said at length, I agree that Miller’s reading of events of the 1950s was facile — and have learned since that critics at the time made that assessment as well.]

[ETA: the blogger is apparently extremely defensive and condescending, so comment with care.]

~ by Servetus on July 15, 2014.

26 Responses to “Review of The Crucible from Flick Philosopher”

  1. Hmmm…. interesting write-up!

    This makes me wonder if had the play been a continuation of Abigail’s tale – and not a switched over to Proctor’s perspective – whether my British colleague would have stayed more interested in The Crucible.

    He cited the Abigail / Proctor scene in Act 1 as engrossing – then found Act 2 (Proctor’s home) uninteresting… and left at intermission as a result. 😦

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    • Armitage made a not-very-lucid remark about British viewers seeing the play differently yesterday in an interview. If you’re not at all interested in the “pointing fingers / naming names/” and for lack of a better word “witch hunt” themes of the piece, I can see why the play would be a hard sell.

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  2. I don’t agree with a lot of her comments about the play, but I do agree with her that RA is an extremely good member of a very fine cast, but not being able to see his micro expressions does make a difference. I saw it last night with huge expectations and while I really, really enjoyed it I wasn’t bowled over by RA in person as I had expected to be. And I was in the second row, so I couldn’t have been much closer. We have been so spoiled by all those close ups of his beautiful face…

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    • She said she didn’t know anything about the play before she went, and the truth of that statement was only underlined as the discussion continued. That said, it only makes sense that the microexpressions would not be visible in a theater setting and the question is what he does to make up for that.

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      • Well there’s no doubt it’s a masterly performance, and we all know what a physical actor he is and this production certainly makes full use of that. And of course he’s also wonderful even when still, and there were times when I just couldn’t tear my eyes from his profile as he observed the action. But nothing quite makes up for not being able to see the expression in his eyes as you can on the screen.

        Strangely enough the most touching moment for me was when he took his lone curtain call, gave us a very sweet smile at the roar of applause, and made the most balletic gesture with his hands to each side of the stage. Exquisite.

        I didn’t go to the stage door, which I regret, because I was with a friend (not an RA addict, though he agreed he’s awfully handsome!) who wanted to get straight home.

        I am starting to plot whether I can see it again though… But I’m slightly dismayed to see The Old Vic has put up the price of the tickets since I booked mine! I didn’t think theatres did that…

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        • Scrub the comment about the ticket prices… I was looking at a booking agency site by mistake.

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          • re prices: I’d heard this rumor yesterday (price hike over against current prices) but was unable to verify, so glad to get the confirmation. But they are more expensive than the preview prices were, that’s true.

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  3. Servetus, I have a question. Do you think some of RA not standing out is intentional. I wondered whether Farber likes an ensemble more than play with a star. I know they definitely highlighted RA as a star leading up to the start of the play but I wondered if that was because she needed to to get funding. I’m not expressing my question well but do you get the gist of what I’m asking?

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    • It’s impossible to say anything about the performance itself without having seen the play but I can say the following things as supplementary information:

      — from the beginning of Armitage’s press, we regularly heard statements from him about not liking showoffy acting, thinking the best acting was done in concert with other actors, not wanting to do a one man show, enjoying ensemble work. While he has now acknowledged the necessity of being “an anchor,” I don’t know that even that awareness would have affected his general preference for fitting into a scene as opposed to explicitly and aggressively controlling it. It would be odd to see him acting where he took over a scene to the detriment of other actors — out of character, so to speak.

      –Proctor is considered the lead of the work, BUT the ensemble is really decisively important. In fact, Proctor doesn’t even appear until the middle of the first scene. He has the entire second scene, but he appears about a third of the way into the third scene, and the same with the fourth scene. So a strong ensemble is necessary to make the play go; the audience can’t be holding their breath waiting for him to enter.

      –Farber’s concept (the notion of The Crucible reflecting how people are cruel to each other in society) also definitely requires a strong ensemble to stand up to the lead. For the power exchanges to work, the people who are being cruel to each other have to have equal power to speak and shine.

      –theater in the round also tends to spread the perception of an audience to the entire case (as opposed to the center of a proscenium stage, which the lead often occupies).

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      • Thanks. I always learn something from you. That was the feeling I had about Farber’s concept, that it required a strong ensemble. I hadn’t thought about the theater in the round being a factor but I can see where it would (now that you mentioned it.)

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  4. The thing with acting on a theatre stage is that you always have to play in a more pronounced way, so much that even the spectators in the 30th row, or those up on the galleries are being able to follow the proceedings and understand the words and emotions. This is all the more difficult for the actors, as in the round nonetheless a lot of the viewers are sitting really close. Therefore some acting may seem to be overdone. It is not an unknown problem for some actors, coming from a longstanding theatre career, and then being cast in a film for the first time, that you can often tell their theatre background right away (just being too dramatic 😉 ). OTOH as far as I can judge today (haven’t seen the play yet) it is also part of the concept of Yael Farber, and working with so many actors in this play, to create an expressively choreographed staging with the full commitment and replete use of physical strength of the whole cast. It obviously is a very strong ensemble play. Nobody is said to stick out, even RA is serving the whole. Over the years he’d often stated to be a team player, much more than a soloist.
    Therefore this stage is no place for Richards’ all too subtle microexpressions, although we do love and adore him for this wonderful skill.

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  5. To interpret the play in 3rd Wave Feminist 2014 terms, in such a restrictive manner might seem as misogynist as was the play’s author. (And he was that, indeed.)

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    • well, what she says wouldn’t be third wave, but second, and I agree with her 100% that the play is inherently misogynist. This is due in part to Miller’s inability to see exactly how disempowering Salem would have been for those girls. Even historians of the 50s were more on the qui vive than Miller was.

      All Abigail has to exchange is her virtue. (In history, Abigail’s parents had been killed by Indians during one of the ongoing wars between the colonists and the native populations. She lost not only her entire family, but also all chance at a dowry and hence of making the sort of marriage that she had been socially entitled to make. Now, in history, she was also twelve and not likely to be offering herself to Proctor.) You can bet that she (a) would have been sleeping with him because she knew that her only tool for advancement was some kind of liaison leading to marriage in an age of high mortality, and she expected to get something if circumstances cooperated and you can also bet that (b) Proctor would have known that that was her expectation. Miller makes it all about the emotions, but sex is rarely like that, particularly in an age where the whole romantic edifice we’ve built around sex today didn’t exist.

      Essentially to put a female character in a position where she takes the only option she has to pursue her goals, then punish her for doing that, AND make her look crazy? That’s the purest distillate of misogynism I can think of. Typical of the 1950s but no less disgusting IMO for all of that. I don’t know what Farber does with it; I haven’t seen the performance. But the play is sickening enough on its own terms that it’s hard for me to see how even a female director can save it.

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  6. I concede 2nd/3rd Wave feminism interpretations. And make no excuses whatever for Miller, who USED his view of women as a prop to his polemic? against the political extremism in an extremism of his own view of women. (Read “After the Fall”.) As props? Only, to view a play or a book through one lens of 21st C eye, seems not quite balanced. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Mrs. Gaskell, were not feminists, in our terms, yet many have attempted to make them so. Miller was not a nice man. He used people, in life, as in play-writing. Nice. I might have used a much cruder word…..

    I have other thoughts, but they require proper arrangement from mind to word. 🙂

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    • I think The Crucible is typically misogynist for the 1950s. (That’s not the only thing I dislike about it, but it’s one thing.) As a historian, I can both note “this play is typical of the 1950s in the following ways” and still say, “I dislike it because of that.” One does not preclude the other. If I did not say the second, I would be lying and denying that as an observer, I too have a perspective. I’m not claiming to react in ways that people who saw it in the 1950s did — that would be a lie. If i want to know that, I need to look back at the sources that trace audience reaction in the 1950s. The portrayal of women was not a significant theme in the initial criticism of the play — which underlines the typicality of the attitude. But, and this is key, it is not my attitude.

      Or, to take another typical example of this problem: “The Taming of the Shrew” is a play that appears hugely misogynist to me and many other viewers. Its humor comes heavily at the extent of its oppressed female protagonist, the generic type of the “shrew” who shows up in a lot of other plays of the period. There’s no problem in acknowledging something as a typical product of its time and even laughing at pieces of it if we think it funny (to me this depends a great deal on how it is played). But it is also denying our own reality to fail to note how badly Shakespeare abuses the female character. When we attend the theater, yes, we are obligated to try to understand what makes a historic production “tick.” But we are not obliged to deny our own reactions to something. As audience members, we are also important. And if we don’t point it out, even as we enjoy it, we run the risk of excusing it. I have zero interest in serving as the apologist of Miller (and frankly, there are plenty of masculinist critics who do that just fine. I’d be superfluous).

      In this light, there’s an interesting comment on “Taming of the Shrew” here: http://orlandocreature.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/oh-what-can-we-do-with-the-taming-of-the-shrew/

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  7. I re-read your earlier posts on The Crucible. I see extreme punishment of “un-normative” (my description) behaviour as an immediate response within that very small and inflexible 17th C community in New England. As it was in Lancashire at the same era. Accusations of witchcraft were always centred on women, as the weakest, and often on their leaders (warlocks) as per John Proctor. As well as being a social means of control, it was much a political tactic (in England, especially, as in the accusations and actual trial of high-born ladies such as Eleanor Cobham, or even the accusations against Queen Joana of England.) When employed politically, it is secondary to the political aim – the man/men are the target. When Proctor’s adultery became knowledge in the community, was it Proctor who was the main object to be removed? Because he acted on the impulses of every man in that community and was discovered? Which might make this a political act, as well as sacrificing women en route.

    No, I do not like Miller. I do like not the cavalier manner in which he uses women to advance his plays – himself. The Crucible is hideous in that respect. Is the presentation/oppression of women all that we might learn from it? Is Proctor meant to be a Miller as he sees himself? A staunch foe against extremism, while not regretting the women in his wake? Biography meets author. 1950s clashes with 2014.

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    • Here we get into trouble, because the play isn’t really history. Historically, the dominant research on New England and Salem suggests that the targets of accusations were not weak people, per se, but rather those who were perceived to be outsiders and/or “stepping out of their place” or up and comers. Again, historically, given the age difference between John Proctor (60s) and Abigail Williams (11), it is unlikely that any adultery occurred between them. Proctor could have been an adulterer but the reason that the historical Proctor became a target was probably that he was a relative outsider to Salem Village, belonged to the faction who had refused to pay the parish allotment, and was relatively litigious / combative. This was political, but it was very much local politics, and it doesn’t have much to do with the machinations of European elites.

      If you’re speaking from the perspective of the play, Miller seems to make us want to think that Proctor was attracted to Abigail because his marriage was “cold”. (Whatever that means — it assigns an affective quality to marriage that wasn’t really in the Puritan vocabulary, and it’s not an excuse I’d accept for adultery today). However, even within the confines of the play, Abigail is so relatively powerless with regard to Proctor (her only choices are to give or to withhold) that blaming her for the accusations seems at the very least unfair. In this the Flick Philosopher reviewer is exactly right.

      Miller’s most important modern interpreter reads the Proctor / Elizabeth / Abigail triangle as a working out of Miller’s problems in his own marriage and with Marilyn Monroe.

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  8. I think we are in fundamental agreement. The historical details did not engage Miller – he had other fish to fry, and fry them he did. It is a very shaky line (if it exists) as a line between “political” and “social”. I take your point, I hope, on that .

    I hope the reviewer will read your bog posts on the crucible. My comments were intended to move beyond one narrow reading of the play to further discussions of perspectives.

    As for Miller and Marilyn, it appeared insufficient to his vanity to “work out” his “marriage problems” with The Crucible. He continued, after her death to write another play, to work out HIS marriage problems.

    One last question to you? Why is witch hunt and Salem Mass. so much an issue in American history? It seems so much less in English history, though having much more history.

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    • There’s a great book on this topic:

      http://www.amazon.com/The-Specter-Salem-Remembering-Nineteenth-Century/dp/0226005437

      Essentially, beginning with the 1780s, US history schoolbooks used the Salem story to demonstrate how “Enlightened” the US had become with its democratic constitution. Salem was a bad example. There were other permutations after that, but the story of Salem has been taught continuously in schools for over 200 years and it is the event from colonial history that the average American is most likely to remember.

      as far as England goes — although there were a few periods of heightened wichcraft prosecutions (esp during mid-17th c.), England was not (seen from a comparative perspective) a center of witch hunting, not least b/c English common law prevented torture to induce a confession. (Scotland is a different story.) The places where witchchunting were really central social activityies were Scotland, the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland, and France. In fact, the relative scarcity of witch trials in England was something that anti-Catholic polemicists of the 17th c. pointed to.

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  9. Indeed, there were fewer instances of witch hunts in England than in other, and post-Reformation eras. And, from what I’ve read of the Lancashire and the career of Matthew the Witch-finder, relatively less in England. How it becomes an issue for religion – anti-Catholics and Protestants justifying themselves!

    You have far more knowledge than I of European history. I am not an academic, and my research has been confined to Britain. and only to beyond where it touched England (mostly medieval, which is where I had my measly only degree search 🙂 . This has been an interesting discussion. You have known me for nearly four years, and I thank you for this discussion – greatly engaging, if off the original point of the review. I think it has reached its end? But thanks – I have always much enjoyed your historical perspectives. and always will.

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