Friday, January 22, 2010

Notes For January 22nd, 2010

This Day In Writing History

On January 22nd, 1953, The Crucible, the celebrated play by legendary playwright Arthur Miller, premiered on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre, now known as the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Although the play is set in the 17th century during the time of the witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts, it's actually a scathing allegorical satire of the modern anticommunist witch hunts being conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) under the direction of Joseph McCarthy, the notorious senator from Wisconsin who would later be censured for his outrageous and illegal conduct.

The Crucible opens with Reverend Samuel Parris, the unpopular minister of Salem's church, (he is disliked because of his greedy and domineering nature) praying over his daughter Betty, who had fainted after being caught in the forest allegedly practicing witchcraft, along with Parris' niece, 17-year-old Abigail Williams, and some other girls. John Proctor, an honorable married farmer, enters the room and is left alone with Abigail, who tries unsuccessfully to seduce him. He had an affair with Abigail when she worked as his maid, but he regretted it and broke it off.

Reverend John Hale, a respected minister and self-proclaimed expert on the occult, is summoned to look into the incident of alleged witchcraft. Abigail accuses her uncle's slave, Tituba, of being a witch. Afraid of being hanged and threatened with a beating, Tituba accuses two other women of being witches. Betty awakens, and she and Abigail accuse a list of people of practicing witchcraft.

In the second act, John Proctor's wife, Elizabeth, tells him that he must expose Abigail as a liar. Proctor tells her that he can't prove that Abigail is lying because they were alone together when she admitted it. The fact that they were alone together again upsets Elizabeth. Proctor sees her reaction as an accusation that he has resumed his affair with Abigail and they have an argument.

Later, the Proctors' new maid, Mary, arrives and tells them that she will be absent while she performs her duties as a newly appointed court official. Thirty-nine people have now been arrested and charged with witchcraft. John Proctor is angry that the court is condemning people to death without any solid evidence that they're guilty of the crime. Elizabeth makes a prophetic prediction that Abigail will falsely accuse her of witchcraft so she can marry John.

When Elizabeth is later arrested and charged with witchcraft, John tells Mary that she must testify against Abigail, because she can prove that Abigail is a liar. Mary is afraid of testifying for fear that Abigail and her friends will accuse her of being a witch. Proctor meets Abigail in the woods. She tries to seduce him again, but he pushes her away and demands that she take back her accusation against his wife. She refuses.

In the third act, during the trial, which is presided over by a sadistic, coldhearted, and ignorant judge, Mary is brought in to testify against Abigail, who, along with her friends, puts on an act, pretending to be in the throes of a spell. Finally, Proctor can stand no more. He admits his affair with Abigail and accuses her of being a whore. Elizabeth denies that her husband had an affair in a misguided attempt to save his good name. Abigail and her friends continue their act, pretending to see a bird that Mary sent to attack them. Mary, fearful of being accused of witchcraft, then accuses John Proctor of the crime. He's arrested, and Reverend Hale quits the court in protest.

The fourth act begins with Proctor in jail and Reverend Parris revealing to the judge and the deputy governor that his niece Abigail and her friend Mercy are not only liars, but thieves as well. The authorities are unsympathetic. They send Elizabeth to get John to confess to witchcraft to save his life. Elizabeth forgives him for the affair and he agrees to confess, but when he learns that his confession will be nailed to the church for all to see, thus ruining the names of many innocent people, he tears up the document and refuses to confess. The play ends with Proctor being taken to the gallows to hang.

Ironically, a few years after The Crucible debuted on Broadway. Arthur Miller found himself a victim of the witch hunts he had satirized in his play. In 1956, Miller applied to have his passport renewed, and the HUAC took advantage of it to subpoena him and make him testify about his leftist political activities. Miller told the committee he would testify to his own activities if they didn't ask him to denounce other people. The chairman agreed.

Miller appeared before the HUAC and kept his part of the deal, providing them with a detailed account of his own activities. The committee then reneged on the chairman's promise and demanded that he give them the names of friends and colleagues who participated in similar activities. He refused to comply. As a result, in May of 1957, a judge found Arthur Miller guilty of contempt of Congress. He was fined $500, sentenced to 30 days in jail, blacklisted, and denied a renewal of his passport.

Fortunately, Miller's conviction was overturned on appeal. The appeals court ruled that Miller had been deliberately misled by the HUAC chairman.

Quote Of The Day

"A play is made by sensing how the forces in life simulate ignorance - you set free the concealed irony, the deadly joke." - Arthur Miller

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a conversation with Arthur Miller and actor Daniel Day-Lewis on the 1996 feature film adaptation of The Crucible. Enjoy!

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