You may have seen a couple witches this past Halloween, whether a green-skinned caricature in someone’s front window or a “sexy witch” who carries around a broomstick to complement her miniskirt and fishnets.
But I’ll ask you to take a step back now to a time when witches were not just cheap seasonal gimmicks, when they were very real and very dangerous, when the servants of Lucifer snuck around in the dead of night, at any moment bringing you under one of their dark curses. Welcome to The Crucible.
Opening this week at the Greystone Theatre is Arthur Miller’s classic play about the Salem Witch Trials. It is a story of fear and confusion run to dangerous heights and it spoke to the audience of the 1950s when Joe McCarthy was launching his own witch trials across the United States. But Jim Guedo, drama department head and the play’s director, is quick to say that the themes are no less relevant today than they were when the script was first written.
It is a story of fear, suspicion and paranoia that take hold of the human mind and lead to hatred, madness and death. At the time of the witch trials, people believed Satan was lurking around every corner and that belief was a cornerstone of their society.
There is still a “climate of hate-mongering and fear-mongering,” says Guedo, and a person does not have to look too far to see it. In an age of terrorism and tea parties, the hysteria that gripped the town of Salem still threatens us today.
“A lot of these things start with the children,” he said. A society’s desire to protect its children can often get out of hand. It breeds an atmosphere of fear that leaves itself open for abuse of power.
The Crucible is based on the witch trials that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-3. The content of the drama is drawn from court transcripts and the story is constructed from there.
It begins with Abigail Williams, a teenage girl who, along with her friends, was seen dancing outside of town late at night (dancing being an immoral activity at the time) and is thought to have been engaging in occult activities with a Hispanic slave woman. To save themselves, the girls claim to have been bewitched and accuse other women in the town of consorting with the Devil.
At that point a fire is lit that continues to spread, as the village turns on itself and accusations of witchcraft fly from all corners. At the centre of it is John Proctor, a man who wants to prove the girls are lying, but knows the only way he can do that is by publicly admitting to an affair with Abigail.
The lives of the people of Salem twist and turn in a web of lies, suspicion and revenge. Villagers took advantage of the climate of fear in order to work out grudges and ambitions. Various personal agendas work their way together to form a mob that tears Salem apart.
This is not a historical play, however. The characters portrayed were real, but Arthur Miller had to craft their personalities to suit the story. The Crucible is not trying to be a documentary, but rather is using the Salem witch trials as a timeless example of the power of fear.
The audience can find in John Proctor what Guedo calls “a hero by default.” He is not made of particularly strong moral fibre, but he becomes the hero of the play because he is the one who takes a stand. He is a flawed hero, “who hates hypocrisy but is a hypocrite,” and within him, the audience can find that part of themselves that knows the right thing to do, and knows that it is not easy.
The world of The Crucible is strange, and still dominated by the strict puritan views of early Colonial America. The principle behind the witch trials may seem as strange today as someone who watches The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and sets out to execute every lumberjack he comes across, but the fear of dark forces was intrinsic to the daily life of people in 17th century New England. The play shows that each generation holds an irrational fear, or a fear that starts out rationally and becomes irrational as it persists.
“It’s not a soapbox,” Guedo said. The play is not meant to simply speak out against the evils of McCarthyism or whatever other social paranoia is in vogue at the time. It is a complex story that looks at how fear, intolerance and hatred spread, how each person’s fears and desires created a monster that engulfed the village.
“Whether you like it or not, you have to understand how it happened,” he says.
Guedo believes this performance will have no trouble connecting with a university audience, because he is approaching it as a simple but intense modern tragedy, rather than as a classical piece of theatre. In other words, “don’t put it on a pedestal,” he says. The young actors composing the cast can give the play a sense of immediacy and energy, rather than letting it be bogged down in its own seriousness.
The actors in The Crucible will be onstage with an imposing set that gives the sense of the world closing in around them, but there is little in the way of spectacle to draw attention. “The focus,” Guedo says, “is merely on the actor,” and it is the visceral storytelling that will connect with the audience. The story will teleport the audience back in time, to be caught up in the flaring emotions scorching through Salem. The spectator will confront the dark forces existing both outside ordinary existence and within the human mind.
“They have to believe in witches,” he says.
image: Pete Yee