Richard Armitage characterizations: me + John Proctor as lover

Richard Armitage speaking in September 2014 in an interview that Digital Theatre did to promote The Crucible on film, here at about 3:57ff:

Proctor’s a very physical man, he’s got a voracious sexual appetite, and I think that that’s the core of his essence, you know, he’s a man that works the land, he works with animals, he eats his food, and he, you know, has sex with his wife, and it’s essential to his core being, and when that’s denied him as his wife was sick, instinctively he, he went somewhere else, not, that’s not to condone what he did was right, but it’s an appetite that the man has. I think in the process of the break in relationship that happened because of that action with Elizabeth, he discovers what love is, and to him, and to me as well, I think, as I have discovered Proctor’s discovery of love, it’s about forgiveness and acceptance of the flawed man, which is everything that Elizabeth gives to him in the final act of the play.

***

When it comes to sexual pleasure, Puritans get an unfairly bad rap. An association between strict religious sentiments and opposition to physical pleasure is mostly an association we make about them today. They enjoyed the verdant beauty of their new surroundings and praised the explosive richness of their new fields. They came from a very bawdy century in the Anglophone world — the seventeenth — and although they certainly set their lines firmly against the religiously tolerant moments of this atmosphere within the Church of England, neither were they aliens to it in other aspects of their attitudes. They drank cider, beer, and spirits, for instance. They enjoyed their meals, which (after a initial few slim years) were richer both in calories and diversity of foodstuffs than those of their English predecessors. And — to the topic of this post — New England Puritans had plenty of sex during the century of their preeminence. They had a high birth rate in comparison to the English, if I remember correctly from college the highest premarital pregnancy rate of any early North American population, and one ground for divorce in their communities was failure to fulfill one’s marital obligations (including male impotence). They bundled enough that their most notorious preachers railed against the practice. Puritan marital partners were expected to be exclusively faithful, but sex between them was not heavily laden with notions of sin in comparison, for example, to medieval religious culture. In a culture where men worked hard and muscles were a sign of virtue and work ethic and a powerful, well-fed body also testified to wealth, a man without a shirt was not primarily a source of titillation for the spectator, as it is today. Visualizing the male body — or making it available to see — sent a different message. Even if New England Puritan women no doubt enjoyed the sight of a man without a shirt, that enjoyment would have been overlaid with other meanings in a world where the connection between sexuality and procreation was necessary rather than optional. They had their own power: they pushed the children out of their bodies, they maintained households, prepared and preserved food, spun clothing, managed finances, nursed the sick. Even as they desired, they were also objects of desire for similar reasons.

As I’ve tried to suggest in my posts so far about Richard Armitage’s performance of John Proctor’s masculinity, and in the attempt to redefine that word in this case as virility, lines drawn around sexuality were different in the past than they are today. I want to continue that to talk about Armitage as Proctor’s interactions with Anna Madeley as Elizabeth, but on the way to writing that post I keep getting a little sidetracked, into thinking about Puritan sex, and what it was like when Proctor had sex with his wife.

According to Armitage, that Proctor sleeps with his wife in the same way that he works and tends his stock and eats was an elemental piece of his vision of Proctor. I’m wondering if he wrote about this in his character biography or his notebooks or however he does that. But since I can’t see that material, I’ll just think about it a little all on my own.

***

Miller’s lines here connect one the fundamental themes of Puritan attitudes about sex — the connection of prosperity, implied fertility / procreation, and pleasure, through a double entendre on “please.”

***

This scene offers some clues, I think. Early modern men did not necessarily seek to coax their wives to pleasure, not least because of the contemporary cultural assumptions about female libido that predominated from the Middle Ages up til the mid-nineteenth century: that women were the more eager partners. This is not to say that the Puritans did not engage in petting or foreplay — just that practices of foreplay were less important than penetration as part of a sexual encounter in a period when marital partners hoped for offspring. Babies were the point (children, especially healthy children, symbolized all kinds of things) and to some extent relief of what was seen as a normal human level of desire in the wake of the fall into sin, rather than orgasm itself. Partners were expected to accommodate each other’s needs, and prevailing attitudes about female desire meant that women were assumed to be largely willing partners. So Elizabeth’s refusal, in the context of Puritan culture, would have been not just a sign of her lack of desire — it also signals her non-participation in their entire contract: home, hearth, children, farm, procreation, productivity, prosperity.

***

Screen shot 2015-02-01 at 7.01.52 PMJohn Proctor (Richard Armitage) kisses a reluctant Elizabeth Proctor (Anna Madeley) in Act Two of The Crucible, performed at the Old Vic under the direction of Yael Farber, September 2015. Cap of above.

***

If Miller could have, would have, included a happy sex scene for the Proctors, and Armitage would have played it — admitting immediately all the epistemological problems I am setting up with this question —

Sex is, for Proctor, routine and expected, which doesn’t mean he doesn’t need it or enjoy it. Sex is like water when he’s thirsty, both necessary and unbelievably satisfying. He gulps it down, he requires it, it relaxes him, it gives him energy, it’s simultaneously a vent and an engine. With it he affirms his virility, his place, his ability to plan and make and do. In it he plants his prosperity. He expects his wife to accommodate him even as he assumes he is accommodating her; they engage together in the common project of the farm on all its many levels, of which their sex life is one.

During the day he comes into the house for the noon meal and when his sons are occupied elsewhere, he approaches Elizabeth with a smile, he reminds her of how many trees he has felled that day, his touch at her hip is more than a caress but not yet a rude grab, his kiss a signal of current desire and a promise for later. He touches her with the assurance that his hands are welcome. He walks out of the house with his gun and his whip, she smiles a little when she sees their sons run out after him, she clears the dinner table, thinks about which preserves, which mending, she will work on in the afternoon, she calls to her hired woman and sets her a task, she assembles bread and fresh butter and pickles and ale to take to her sickly neighbor.

In the evening, after the children are in bed, the table clear, when he has mended some bit of harness, when they have read the Scriptures and said their prayers, when the embers have burnt low — in the cooler seasons of the year, Proctor banks the fire to keep it smoldering overnight — when she has braided her hair to keep it neat in the night, the Proctors retreat to their room and blow out the candles and settle into bed, she in shift, he in night shirt. Proctor asks her some little thing about the garden and she wonders if he will help carry in the milk for her cheesemaking the next morning. He rolls toward her and the touch that that travels up her side this time is purposeful, it maneuvers her toward him and her mouth toward his. He starts with a peck, full on her lips, he feels her catch her breath, he knows she wants him, too. He pulls back a second, nuzzles his beard against her, gauges her mood. He pushes his hand into her hair, he undoes the braiding, lets go his breath and a rare endearment, the feeling of her hair sliding through his fingers, falling around her face against the sheets draws him further in. Proctor moves his hand to roll her further onto her back, he looks at her eyes in the low light from the stars and then at her mouth, his hand catches the hem of her shift and pushes it up. As his hand reaches her breasts, his kisses become more insistent, hungry, unsatisfied. He feels her breaths answering his.

Elizabeth’s under him now, his hands are warming her belly, moving restlessly across her abdomen, his desire is rising, he’s ready, he’s waiting for her to catch up with him. As he kisses and nuzzles, her hands arms come up behind his shoulders and she shifts her hips and he settles across them. She smiles at him, and reaches out to touch him. He groans, taking the touch for a stroke or two before he pushes onward. He moves his hand down mostly to take her temperature, he strokes her there a few times, maybe he moistens his palm with his tongue and touches himself, and when her hips shift a few more times in response, and he knows she’s ready, she grasps him again, this to direct his entry. He pushes in neither gently, nor roughly, but with the urgency of a need that can only be satisfied one way and the practice of something he’s done a thousand times and expects to do a thousand times more. He sees her eyes widen slightly and he chuckles, but he does not wait long before he moves. He looks once more to see her face, his mouth moves to hers again, but then his eyes close and the need to fulfill himself, to push against her, takes over. Her eyes open and she watches him, sees the frown and wince of ecstasy, she moves her hands across his back and feels his muscles contract, she smiles, her breath speeds up, she gasps. He works as hard toward this as he does every day on his land, though this work is shorter and more joyful. Soon, his eyes open briefly, his jaw drops, his breath rushes out, a strangled sound, a few more thrusts.

His head falls on her shoulder, he kisses and nuzzles at her again, she gives him her lips, she strokes the back of his hair. He pulls himself out and lies down next to her, pulls her to his side, kisses at her hair, strokes at it. She kisses the margin of his beard, uses the hem of her shift to wipe the sheen of sweat from his forehead. He is near sleep, satisfaction tracing his features, but also exhaustion. Maybe she rises and pulls herself to rights, rebraids her tangled hair, uses the chamber pot, maybe she wipes herself dry — or maybe she dozes off along with him.

Keeping in mind the crazy anachronism involved in fantasizing about the sex life of a Puritan man as written through the lens of a twentieth-century playwright and personified in the work of a twenty-first century actor, what does this fantasy mean to me? I’m not sure entirely and I don’t want to vouch for the entire historical accuracy of what I’ve written — but there’s something incredibly appealing about that picture of the simply-built man, the man who is a part of the land and has relatively uncomplicated desires that a woman can satisfy with her body, her arms, her wits, and not a lot of additional effort, as one piece of the many things she manages during the day. A more visceral kind of sex, and, perhaps, one better integrated into the landscape. The vision of a man who tries hard to please and whose pleasures, in turn, are equally simple.

~ by Servetus on February 2, 2015.

31 Responses to “Richard Armitage characterizations: me + John Proctor as lover”

  1. I can really see now how it is all a part of their partnership and a part of their whole life, a part of the farm; how her rejection of intimacy is rejecting everything, not just him, but their partnership, their world toget her. Your imagining of their marital relations…well, that was pretty sexy. And there definitely is something attractive about it; about not having pressure to perform like a porn star like some expect it to be nowadays.

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    • Yes — exactly. This is the central rhetorical problem of modern sex. In the wake of porn one expects sex to be like porn, but we know porn is fake whereas we expect sex to be real. It puts a lot of pressure on the act and the question of why desire is there or isn’t there. I’m sure Puritans had problems with sex, too (given divorce suits by women for their husbands’ impotence), but that kind of pressure seems to have been absent.

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  2. Just had a shower and was thinking…so, perhaps Proctor felt so much self loathing after his affair because it was purely for lust, his fatal flaw he always knew he had according to RA’s interview? And RA said that he married Elizabeth in particular because she would keep him on the straight and narrow — Proctor saw in Elizabeth a willing partner — in every way — as you have said in your post. Not that their sex didn’t involve lust but it was very acceptable to Proctor in the confines of the marriage bed and all the other meanings you wrote about…it wasn’t sinful or shameful to him as it was when he did it with the servant. And I think now I am getting why RA said it doubly so because of Elizabeth — like he didn’t just lose Elizabeth’s affection for him, but he was losing his entire world?

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    • You raise the obvious question that anyone should ask after reading this article, which is: what was it like to have sex with Abigail? How did he feel before, during, and after? Well, I guess he tells us in the play how he felt after, but what were the aspects of attraction? And what was it like during. Abigail says in the play that he clutches at her back during, for instance …

      but yes — sex constitutes a family and a family constitutes a world in Puritan society.

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  3. RA says his John Proctor was a man with a sexual appetite, which could not be satisfied while his wife was sick. I think his attraction to Abigail was simply as an outlet for that appetite….he didn’t care for her at all. I don’t really think he actually enjoyed the sex with Abigail, it was a release of built up sexual need. There was no love or sharing or purpose like with Elizabeth in it in my mind…simply a physical release. A betrayal to himself and to his wife and his whole way of life. A need, the flaw he knew he had and so a weakness. A strong man like Proctor would be ashamed of that failing, that weakness. There are so many levels to this play I hadn’t thought of before until reading your post tonight.

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    • Oh, and I have to say, sex like a porn star is pretty unfulfilling. However, sex with John Proctor …….

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    • and, perhaps, a little enjoyment of Abigail’s “wickedness,” although this is one place where Armitage’s performance diverged from the stage directions slightly. Miller has Proctor say that line with a certain amount of appreciation; Armitage delivers it with disgust. But you see in the performance that he’s still, despite himself, really attracted to her.

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      • Which now brings to mind that sonnet from earlier today. I can hardly wait to see the play. And I’m looking forward to seeing what Farber and Armitage do next. They really seem to dig deep and come up with insightful and fresh takes on the material. When I first heard RA was doing the The Crucible I was happy he was in it but at the same time felt, wow, hasn’t The Crucible been done to death? And hadn’t Daniel Day Lewis pretty much done the definitive portrayal. And him being married to the playwrites daughter? Sounded pretty safe and rote to me. But, turns out that wasn’t the case thankfully. The play had an awesome run.

        I think I like that they diverged from that stage direction as you say…if he says it with appreciation, it takes on a different feeling to me … like Proctor isn’t truly and deeply disgusted with himself, or with Abigail, if he appreciated it on some level. Although, him being still attracted to her…I get that but I can’t explain the not really enjoying it part to myself now…maybe it’s like eating salt and vinegar chips…I can’t stop, they taste good, but they really make my tongue hurt. Hmmm. I just don’t know how to reconcile the still being attracted to her. Other than sex feels good? But that contradicts everything. But I’m still thinking it an interesting and different take on it by him not saying the wickedness part with appreciation.

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      • Oh really? …with disgust?… I can’t wait to see it !
        I’m going with my hubby…he plans to nap 😀

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  4. Proctor has enlightened her about the pretense of life in Salem, and proclaims, “You loved me, John Proctor, and whatever sin it is, you love me yet!” Abigail’s interpretation of love is different that Proctors? Would she not confuse lust for love being so young? I don’t really know what pretense about life in Salem she is referring to though. The more I think about it the more confusing it becomes to me. But that’s ok, it feels good to start trying to think things through…I’m new at this.

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  5. A thoughtful essay and illustrative ficlet! And would it be too shocking for prim little me to acknowledge that the pulling out and away from the coupling you mention is a telling moment about the possibly “routine” nature of Proctor’s lovemaking. He’s done, now to sleep.

    But I wonder if Elizabeth might like him to linger, to stay joined together for several more deliciously intimate moments even after their raptures have subsided? Nuzzling each other, arms wrapped around each other, placing light kisses on each others’ necks and shoulders. I would.

    Of course, the flip side of that post coital dance is if the man–like Proctor (and his portrayer)–is a big muscled fellow, and you literally can’t breathe until his weight is off of you. Would Proctor know that about himself (probably), and not wanting to crush her underneath him, he considerately moves off of her? Maybe he wants to stay and linger in their intimate coupling as well.

    There has to be a compromise found–to stay intertwined and lovingly joined together, and still be able to breathe. Ha!

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    • Most of the verbal and visual traces of the New England Puritans in survivng sources suggest that they were not a group for endearments or light physical affection. The difference between the willingness of Puritan correspondents to use affectionate terms in letters, for instance, is something that historians have traced from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the end. The later Puritans were more open about their feelings, but it was still nothing in comparison to the way that the people of New England apparently spoke to each other after 1720 or so (when religion was also becoming more emotional).

      So I’m not saying they didn’t cuddle; but rather that from what I know of the Puritans, their enjoyment in each other came elsewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ich denke auch, dass wir mit unserem heutigen Verständnis von Partnerschaft und Sexualität das Leben eines Bauernpaares im 17. Jahrhundert in keiner Weise nachvollziehen oder verstehen können. Bei Ihnen ging es um Leben und Überleben. Wir sind inzwischen so “hochgezüchtete Wesen”, brauchen uns im Normalfall nicht um das Überleben des Winters Sorgen machen, es ist alles vorhanden. Es sei denn wir zählen zu den Ärmsten der Armen. Dann würden wir aber auch nicht in diesen Foren unterwegs sein und uns über die Beziehung der Proctors Gedanken machen.
    Daher können wir uns in unseren Gedanken und Interpretationen der Beziehung von John und Elisabeth auch nie von unseren Erlebnissen und Erfahrungen aus dem 20. und 21. Jahrhundert frei machen, in denen das Selbstbild der Frauen sich so sehr verändert hat. Welche Frau heute würde sich ein Leben, wie das von Elisabeth, denn wünschen? Welche Frau möchte denn heute auf die Annehmlichkeiten des technischen Fortschrittes verzichten? Welche Frau möchte heute Sexualität nur als Befriedigung eines animalischen Verlangens erleben? Haben nicht die meisten von uns es als schönste Nebensache der Welt erfahren oder erfahren wollen?
    Die Anziehungskraft eines nackten Körpers auf die Menschen hat sich in der gesamten Evolution nicht verändert, aber definitiv die Interpretation und die Vorstellung von Sexualität.

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    • I’m totally with you on technology and labor saving devices, and for that matter, political participation. re: sex — I sometimes experienced it as the satisfaction of an animal-like desire. I have nothing against extended foreplay, which seems to be the standard of our age, indeed where we can almost say that foreplay is the whole point because the sex is disappointing without the orgasm. There’s conflicting evidence about this from early modernity — some scholars have pointed out that there were natural philosophers in the middle ages and later who felt that the female orgasm was essential to successful fertilization. However, that didn’t seem to translate into a widespread focus on the female orgasm as an elusive goal of sex (as opposed to the 1950s, e.g.), at least in the popular mind. One can, indeed, derive satisfaction from different things. I think there’s a sort of attractiveness to the thought of the lover who simply needs one and one’s body and not a whole performance.

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  7. I had been waiting long for your reaction to this passage in RA interview (even thought I missed it); these words you quoted had such an impact on me that I watched this part of the interview over and over again completely mesmerised by RA vision of John Proctor and my reaction to it. This post exceeded my expectations. That’s all I’m able to say in my simple non-native speaker English.

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    • Thanks — sorry it took so long. He keeps promoting these films and I keep getting distracted!

      I think it’s interesting how he interjects that “you know” before he says “has sex with his wife.” He’s much less shy in interviews than he was years ago but there are still, you know, these little conversational hitches …

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      • Oh, yes I sure noticed this tiny pause and expression of his eyes…And I loved it!
        Btw, I read recently in Australian (?) review that Richard’s acting is convincing but lacking Daniel Day Lewis subtlety. Do you agree?

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        • I’ve never seen Daniel Day-Lewis’ version — before this I thought it would spoil it for me, and now I can honestly say I don’t care, lol 🙂 I have not been super impressed by him in other things I’ve seen, but I know he is considered the actor of his generation.

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          • I watched the Daniel Day Lewis movie a few years ago and frankly, I found it boring. He was good, but it was boring. I also think a movie and a play would be two different types of performances.

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  8. I found this post so evocative and interesting to contemplate what it would be like to be a Puritan wife in John Proctor’s bed. I can’t fathom why, but I had never really gone there in my imagination before now. I’d imagined him with Abigail, and it was always in my mind a quick coupling, from behind, in the barn, which no doubt comes from his bending Abigail over the table in Act 1 and the line in Act 2 “The Promise that a stallion gives a mare I gave that girl.” But I hadn’t really imagined him with Elisabeth in terms of sexual congress, and I also admit, I hadn’t recognized the double entendre of “I mean to please you, Elisabeth” even though it was right in front of my face and the very next thing he did was make a tentative sexual advance on her.

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    • There are a lot of things that annoy me about this play when Richard Armitage is not in it, and one of them is the fake idiom (even though I think Yael Farber said she thought it was a beautiful text — Didion, who studies this century closely, and I were laughing about this this summer. Like Miller didn’t even know that people didn’t use the word pregnant in the sense we use it until the twentieth century, apparently … sigh). That said, when Proctor connects prosperity, the heifer, pleasure, and his move on Elizabeth he’s doing something very much typical of the culture that Proctor came from. Miller got that much right.

      re: Abigail, I totally get the resonance of what you’re saying, although she says he clutched at her back. So I guess we’re talking a frontal encounter. I think in that case it was very much a simple physical relief — she flirted with him when she served him to get his attention and he responded, his wife having been ill. That said the same sorts of factors come into Abigail’s calculation (and Elizabeth’s lines point this out in the play). The way to get ahead in Puritan society for a woman is marriage to a prosperous man so that one can have the status of leading one’s own household. Given her apparently lack of dowry, jumping into Proctor’s bed could have been very attractive to her. We have to consider whether her whole speech in Act One about how she only understood what was going on in Salem after her relationship with Proctor is on some level an obfuscation on her part, an attempt to flatter.

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      • I didn’t visualize it that way- as a frontal encounter. It would make sense if you have the assumption that the encounter with Abigail involved a close embrace, clutching the back would probably have to be done from the front. However, if the encounter was at arm’s length and from behind, like my cough oft-referenced photo: preoccupiedwitharmitage.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/stallion1.jpg
        one could argue that a lover could clutch at the back from behind as well. Lol.

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    • another thought, just musing — one thing that sort of makes that kind of sex tolerable is that you know your partner admires you. It’s clear that Proctor admires, respects Elizabeth (even if he doesn’t adore her); it’s clear, to Abigail anyway, that Proctor doesn’t have that attitude toward her. The adultery is a breach in respect as much as it is a sexual infidelity.

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  9. […] Here’s a general review of Richard Armitage’s performance in the play. Here’s a general review of Adrian Schiller’s performance in the play. Here are posts where I discussed Armitage’s performance of virility as John Proctor, and his chemistry with Samantha Colley. Oh, yeah, and I discussed his use of microexpressions in the play, too. Then there was this post about the significance of the staging in the round for what the viewer sees. Some discussion of John Proctor as lover. […]

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