Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Old Vic Theater
“The Crucible” at the Old Vic Theater on July 8th, 2014 was one of the highlights of my experience on this program so far. I do not say this because I felt jovially entertained, nor do I say this because a sense of peace and happiness greeted me on my way out. “The Crucible” angered me and challenged me to think about the implications of what it means that both good and evil are in the world, not only during the Salem witch trials, or even during the historical context of the play—the Red Scare, but really in a general sense that faith, justice, and truth can so hard to be distinguished from evil at times. In “The Crucible,” evil in the form of paranoia takes hold of the small town, causing real fear in each citizen of being condemned as a witch or instrument of the devil. Theatrically, the set, the lighting, and the acting all highlight the hypocrisy of the church, the existence of witchcraft, and the lie that Christians are supposed to be perfect humans.
In the Old Vic theater, the set for “The Crucible” was made in the round so that the audience surrounded the world onstage. In this position, the audience felt both powerful as the prosecutors of the guilty, and powerless to change anything when the innocent were wronged. This powerful yet simple set up was able to evoke an array of emotions within me: one moment I may have felt like all was in control when Abigail Williams was about to get caught in her pretenses, yet another moment I may have felt tempted to throw a shoe at Judge Danforth when he refused to accept John Proctor’s confession as valid, only to protect his own pride. Never have I felt so helpless while watching a show before, even though I already knew what would happen (from reading the play beforehand) and that I was only watching a rendition of reality (a very good rendition of reality), not reality itself. Perhaps the theater in the round symbolizes the hypocrisy of the church in this play. The religious leaders begin with good intentions—Reverend Parris wants his daughter cured, and Reverend Hale truly senses witchcraft to eliminate. As audience members, we want the good, innocent people to be believed, and the bad, deceiving people to be found out. However, as the accusations cause chain-effect condemnations on unassuming women in the society, the reverends are at the mercy of those who do the accusing, and we as the audience are correspondingly at the mercy to whatever the play unfolds to be, even though we would ideally—hopefully—stop such rash, hysteric, and unfair situations in real life.
As for the existence of witchcraft, the spookiness of the lighting was all it took for me to be convinced that evil spirits were indeed loose and rampant in the Salem on that stage. The darkness of the set consisted of shades of black, grey, and brown contrasting with beaming spotlights of yellow light, outlined in foggy haze. The lack of light showed that Salem was a dark place, where light competed with darkness. Darkness abounded anywhere there was lack of light, just as evil abounds where there is no good in this world. This staged version of “The Crucible” intentionally realized the existence of witchcraft onstage, shown by Abigail’s spell on Betty at the beginning of the play, setting the poor girl into her deathly sickness, as well as by Tituba’s ape-like strolling in the opening scene around the stage with what was apparently a magic soup. The physicality of Tituba, Abigail, and the girls in Abby’s gang literally embodied the dark forces at work in Salem in the play, whether it was supposed to be pretense or not.
The goodness in this play was seldom seen, except at the end of the play when Goody nurse didn’t confess herself, and of course, when John Proctor did not feel right to give other people’s names. The goodness in the play is so covered by the injustice of the paranoid leaders, and tends to convince the audience of the delicate balance between good and evil. When would confessing and admitting to the involvement of other people be okay to save your own life? When is the only righteous action silence, and acceptance of the consequence which accompanies that—death? We know that John Proctor committed adultery with Abigail, but regrets it completely. This detail is important because it shows that even our protagonist, who is a Christian, is not perfect and has made sizable mistakes in his past. When Elizabeth Proctor says she cannot judge John, goodness goes hand in hand with forgiveness, and is often not defined by the absence of evil but the necessity of evil in order for goodness to be apparent. Similarly, in order for the light to shine bright, darkness (and the overwhelming amount of it) is necessary to bring out the purity of the light itself.
The play as a whole recognizes the easiness by which evil can take over frightened individuals who try to defend their pride, but the redeeming goodness of the play comes when John Proctor refuses to lie that he had seen any other individuals “with the devil.” John was willing to falsely confess that he had worked with the devil to spare his own life for the good of his family and future, but the judge’s push to have him lie that he had seen others with the devil was out of John Proctor’s conscious right to do. In addition, John’s guilt for having committed adultery haunted him throughout this play, and unceasingly convinced him that he was not a good man, even though he was a Christian and felt remorseful for his past sin. This play shows that Christians are far from perfect human beings. To the atheist or agnostic, this would arouse thoughts of hypocrisy and statements like “God is dead,” which John Proctor did say in response to the judges’ unreasonable belief in the “children’s” performances. To the Christian viewer, however, frustration, because hypocrisy is definitely a problem, fights with the belief that humans are inherently sinful and imperfect, and God is the one who is perfect and forgiving. Even though the reverends and judges did not die for putting people to death, they will still have their own crosses to bear—as the transitions in this play so clearly showed—in the end when all will be judged fairly.
For me, I stand with the latter half, and I prefer to see the play as a depiction of the human dilemma between good and evil. We may desire to do good, but end up caught up in self-righteousness and pride like the judges and Reverend Parris. On the other hand, we may begin acknowledging our own sin, and never really feel good enough based on our own efforts to right things. Therefore, there must be some other force, some perfect, good force that exists, to counter the rampant evil shown in this play. Otherwise, there is no hope for this human dilemma. What use would John Proctor’s last decision have had if there was no goodness for him in the end? As for me, I choose to believe that there is an uncompromising goodness to fight for, and each person bears their own cross of pertinent decisions to make to point towards the one true goodness that exists beyond this world.
Euripides’ Medea at the National Theater
In theater, many individually unique ideas combine to create a whole piece of artwork manifested in the final production of the show. Ideally, these combined parts of the play—the set, the acting, and many other things—mesh well together and work towards one clear goal of presenting the play in a coherent manner. The set should complement the action of the play, and should not distract from the action, but assist the action. Finally, acting almost goes unsaid—It should ideally be such an accurate portrayal of reality that any doubt that what happens on stage is actually happening should be nonexistent. In “Medea” at the National Theater, much can be said about the benefits and drawbacks that these aspects of theater had on the entire show.
The set of “Medea” was an artistic and beautiful set, with multiple compartmentalized rooms in a house-like fashion. The ground was wooden paneled, with four exits in front of and behind two walls on either side of the stage. Stage left had a staircase that let up to the second floor of the house. On the second floor, a covered patio with glass walls showed into a room with a piano and a long table with chairs. On the first floor beneath the patio, there was what seemed like a forest, the exit from the house where Medea, her children, and the nurse lived, that occupied the rest of the first floor. There were couches, tables, and chairs to decorate the home space.
Individually, the parts of this highly compartmentalized set were beautifully designed, but problems arose in the audience’s sightlines, especially near the sides and top of the theater. For example, the second floor’s glass-covered room was used during one interval to show Jason and the princess having a photoshoot. Because the actors were standing so far to stage left in that room, I was only able to make out a flash of light and the princess’s profile, but I did not see Jason at all. In the audience, my seat was far right, and on the balcony. Anyone sitting to my right and above me must’ve not been able to see what exactly went on in that room as well. There was also a very engaging dance sequence happening at the same time, so I was also distracted from noticing the photoshoot, but my sightline was compromised anyhow. I had to be informed by my classmate of what happened the next morning.
The exits of Medea on her way to kill her children, as well as her final exit with her children on her shoulders were also frustrating because of restricted sightlines and the use of epic music to build up the emotion. Generally when music builds up, something important is either expected to happen or is happening. In Medea’s case, she was exiting the climax of the play after she showed Jason their dead children—a very important and emotional scene. Was it appropriate to use music—as epic as it can be—here? Absolutely. Did it make sense to have Medea exit deliberately and meaningfully with her children, who she loved dearly? Of course. But the sightline was the problem for me. Because the deep-set walls cut off Medea’s exit prematurely for me, the music was still building up yet I had already lost sight of the action. Once the music grew to the point of highest intensity, marking the end of the scene and her final exit, the scene had already ended half a minute ago for me. The deep-set house structure catered towards the audience members sitting in the middle of the audience, and the blocking of Medea’s exit was so far back inside the outer walls of the set that neither side could have seen her exit at the correctly intended time, which made a discernable sense of dissatisfaction within at least myself.
Perhaps if the walls were nonexistent or glass, no action onstage would be blocked off. I understand that all audience members see things differently in a theater by sitting in different spots, and by bringing many different life experiences to interpret the story. However, if the audience member does not SEE something meant to be interpreted, there is something missing in their experience that they DID expect to receive. This is especially frustrating when there is obviously something happening that the certain section of the audience simply cannot see. Those audience members are inevitably going to feel unsatisfied, something no director or designer should want. A truly good design should have no problems with sightlines, and if sightline issues are present, there had better be a good reason why it is designed that way. So far as I can tell, there was no reason why that particular set was used to tell such a magnificent story, which can be told in so many beautiful ways.
As for the actors, Helen McCrory was undoubtedly the star of the show, as she was expected to be, hinted on all of the posters advertising this play. However, this should give no reason for the other actors onstage not to give their complete selves into the acting as well. As I said before, acting is best when there is basically no difference between reality happening on or offstage. Otherwise, acting can be distracting and the constant thought that, “This actor is acting,” is in the air. I enjoyed the performance of Medea, Aegeus, Creon, the children, and even the messenger, but I felt like the other characters in the story could embrace the reality—and absurdity—of their situations a bit more.
There were many things that I truly enjoyed about the show. I wasn’t distracted by the lighting, I loved the hidden floorboard where Medea hid her magic ingredients, and I was enthralled by Helen McCrory’s inspiring performance of such a complex character as Medea. However, a show should never rely on the fame of one performer or the spectacle the set offers, for success. A theatrical performance is one show, one piece of artwork that needs to work together. Otherwise, the imaginative, beautiful puzzle pieces just don’t fit together, as this play seemed to me.
Perseverance Drive at the Bush Theater
The performance of “Perseverance Drive” at the Bush Theater touched my heart by portraying what it means that “Goodness is not a competition.” Competition is a very tangible part of all of our lives in this world, often as a productive and positive influence, but also as a negative, hatred-brewing force. Christianity is no exception to the spheres of competition. In “Perseverence Drive,” the siblings Zachariah and Nathan competed to see who would be the best church leader. The wives Ruth and Joleen competed against each other in the areas of sexual purity and supportiveness for their husbands, and Eli competed against his own pride, which is the ultimate problem in all of these characters. Finally, the character who had the lowest status in the family, Joshua, sacrificed the most time and service into taking care of his father, which proved to Eli which son carried the most understanding about goodness. The phenomenal performance of all of the actors in this play successfully contrasted the examples of bad, meaningless competition and selfless, loving sacrifice.
Founding a church was an integral part of the history of the family that lived on Perseverance Drive and an important factor for the competition that arose between the siblings. Eli’s moving testimony about how the Anglican Church had treated his family (sympathized by many elderly black women in our audience) provided the reason for why he decided to start a new church. Understandably, his sons have also taken upon themselves the responsibility to lead the church their father Eli had started. However, the petty dispute over the purity of Zachariah’s new love interest split the two brothers and led Zachariah to form a new church. The result of this dispute showed how little the brothers actually knew each other, how religion had clouded their understanding of true love, and how reservedly they were to forgive.
Ruth and Joleen also competed against each other. In the first act, Ruth was obviously the daughter in law that Eli preferred. Ruth wore a modest dress and had to show Joleen what was wrong with her revealing, sleeveless dress. There was always a tension between these two women to see who could gain the most power over the other, especially because so much power was already taken from them in their conservative, patriarchy households. In the second act after Joleen and Zachariah were becoming successful ministers, Joleen began assuming a lot of power over the rest of the family, and often judged Ruth for being unfaithful to Nathan, as evidenced by the way Joleen boldly accused Ruth of adultery. Ruth was generally less vocal than Joleen about her complaints, less proud and less competitive. However, this was because of her subservience towards her husband, who, by the end of the show, she decides to leave in order to find her own calling in the ministry. The differences between these two women show that humility is often necessary to find closure and happiness—Joleen needed to stop being rude to everyone, and Ruth needed to put down her label as a perfect wife.
Finally, Eli’s pride that he was always right needed to be broken down by accepting Joshua as his son again, after kicking him out of the house for having a boyfriend years ago. In the first act, Eli refused to acknowledge Joshua’s status as a son in the family and did not allow him to speak at the mother’s funeral. In the second act, however, Joshua was the son that came to visit him the most, even without knowledge of how often his brothers came to visit. It was during this time that Eli and Joshua could finally come to understand each other better, and Joshua’s persistent and serving heart was what softened Eli’s pride. Eli forgives Joshua for whatever he may have done wrong in the past, Joshua forgives his father for being so stubborn, and the two of them finally have a true relationship.
In the latter half of the second act, Ruth tells Joshua that he would’ve been the best pastor out of all of the three brothers. “Really?” Joshua replied, with a subtext that sounded like, “Would I really make a good pastor do you think?” My prediction for the future of this storyline is that Joshua does actually become a pastor and really does become the best of them all because of his understanding of love and forgiveness. The remarkable contrast between the character of Josh and his siblings in this play shows how the important things in life can so easily be covered up by petty arguments, competition, and pride. We cannot expect competition to disappear, nor would the world be healthy without it, but we can do our best to “Thank [the] Lord for another day” (a song during the transitions in this play), because our time on earth is short, and as long as we have another day to live, we ought “to be and be better.”