Musings on Richard Armitage’s remarks on John Proctor: Digital Theatre interview

vlcsnap-2014-12-06-22h34m45s43Richard Armitage discusses his reading of the character of John Proctor in The Crucible at the Old Vic for the Digital Theatre audience. My cap.


If you haven’t seen the video Digital Theatre has on offer, you can do so here. This video offers a classic example, for me, about why Armitage explaining as a piece of his social media presence was and remains important. Yes, Mr. Armitage, we don’t just want to see you do it; we also want to know about how you thought about it.

Three things in the interview interested me.

First, Armitage’s assertion that in finding Proctor’s physicality he learned or established something about the inner character of Proctor — that the connection of his movements to certain daily activities illuminated the mind of someone who was focused on his work and nourishing his body and sleeping with his wife. This remark is akin to something a bit more broadly diffused throughout his performance that I noted here: It’s not just that he knows how a farmer moves and is convincing on that score, but rather or additionally that Armitage comprehends and expresses a essential insight into the simultaneous strength and vulnerability of the farmer’s position. As Proctor moves, so he is, we might say. This is what we get from the dancer who became an actor.

Second, the postulation that something about the play represents a cri de coeur from Miller about his own life — particularly the hypothesis that Proctor always knew he had this flaw (though Armitage doesn’t say precisely what the flaw is — pride? a propensity toward adultery? an inability to cope with obstacles laid in the way of his own sexual appetite?) — and that he chose Elizabeth as wife because he thought she might help him circumvent it — by implication (Armitage doesn’t say this) putting himself into precisely the situation that was going to cause him to “fall” (or as the Puritans would have said, “sin”). Although that’s a reading of the work heavily influenced by Greek tragedy, and involves a stronger notion of fate than Miller might have intended or than is consistent with Puritan thinking about Providence and temptation (see below), nonetheless, it’s a fair assertion to make for someone familiar with Miller’s life, and it brings me to wonder again whether Armitage has read Bigsby’s biography, which postulates a working out of the triangle between Miller, his wife and Marilyn Monroe in the play. Of course, we’re also familiar with the contention that it was Miller’s association with Marilyn Monroe that caused his radical politics to become an ostensible matter of national concern in the era of McCarthyism, although in the play we have the situation that the local concern about witchcraft reveals the Proctors’ troubled marital history. But of course Armitage isn’t postulating a roman à clef here; he seems to mean to say more than that. What bugs me is what, precisely.

To me, some of this explanation sounds like Armitage’s characteristic move, one he’s been making at least since Guy of Gisborne and likely before, of finding and exploiting that sympathetic point in a problematic character. I thus totally buy it as the mood at the basis of his acting — that the reason Proctor tries so hard to make things good with Elizabeth is that he realizes more exactly than anyone else including both women just how responsible he is for his circumstances. It also makes more intelligible and believable Elizabeth’s statements throughout the play that Proctor can’t forgive himself. At the same time, however, it’s hard to overcome in any staging of this play Miller’s depiction of Elizabeth for almost all of the play as a rigid, unsympathetic, unforgiving moralist (ideally I’d have written a post about that earlier, but I still have time) whose chilly sexual vibe gives off just as little heat as her wounded principles. Yael Farber tries to lend us sympathy for her by showing us, at the transition to Act Two, some of the grinding physical toil that fell upon such women — but even so, Proctor will always already appear more sympathetic to most audiences than Elizabeth (if this play involves an autobiographical statement by Miller, that’s totally understandable, of course). After watching the play so many times, I grew to appreciate Farber’s emphasis on a sort of reflexive personal cruelty as a synecdoche for the political issues in the play even more than I had projected before I knew I’d be able to see it, in part because it shows how unfair and personally motivated certain sorts of moralistic charges can be, in any cirection.

Still, even light of his insight about the nature of Proctor’s flaws, it’s hard for me to put the spin on this that Armitage suggests, that what he learned in progress of the play is that the essence of love is forgiveness. If Elizabeth forgives Proctor at the end of the play, still Proctor insists on going to his death, having apparently been unable to forgive himself, Elizabeth refuses to do one thing to stand in his way. So I find the reading of love as forgiveness here, as warm as it makes me feel, to leave too many threads having Given how the play ends, I don’t find that Proctor has learned much about forgiveness — he marches to the hangman either out of principle or in expiation of sin — but in love? Out of forgiveness? I don’t buy that. (Then again, they’re struggling with an Act Four that has never made a lot of sense to me either morally or dramatically.)

(The other thing that bugs me about reading the play as a cry from Miller is that it makes me dislike Miller even more, even though Armitage says knowing about Proctor’s tragic flaw doesn’t let Proctor off the hook. But here my own raising with a rigid moralism is getting in the way of a more subtle reading. Nonetheless, as Bigsby’s biography makes clear, Miller was an absent husband who, in the mood of his age, let his college-educated wife cope with all of the family responsibilities in order to remain preoccupied with his writing, who justified this via his role as the breadwinner, and who, then, allegedly deprived of warmth in his marriage, turned to Marilyn Monroe at least in part because she seemed to represent a sort of unlimited warmth and nourishment — even though she was needy on a level that even a hugely generous man would have found impossible to cope with. In short — if Armitage thinks Proctor’s fate somehow exonerates Miller or represents Miller’s attempt at self-exoneration — that’s mansplaining.)

Finally, a lot of what Armitage has been saying in this last round of Hobbit publicity reflects an apparent renewed interest in ideas about fate and individual trajectory, both in terms of Thorin Oakenshield’s journey to the end of the film and his own journey to playing Thorin. Given things we’ve heard lately about his ambitions, readers should compare Oedipus Rexsee Obscura’s notes on this play in relationship to Armitage— or Macbeth – see my notes about Armitage’s interest in Throne of Blood of The Cherry Orchard. This mode of explanation casts an interesting light on how we as humans make meaning out of our experiences and our lives — something that’s easier to do when there’s a clear way station that one has reached. Would an early fascination with Tolkien reflect the effects of fate for Armitage if he had never played Thorin Oakenshield? It seems a very Jungian, synchronicity-based reading of his life, as opposed to a linear, causal one.

~ by Servetus on December 7, 2014.

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