Australian Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith once recalled one of the most dazzling pieces of theatre she had ever witnessed: the production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible by New York's experimental ensemble The Wooster Group at the Adelaide Festival in 1986. I, too, sat in that venue night after night watching this unforgettable performance.
Miller had denied the troupe permission to use his text. So, reasoning that everyone who ever attended school in America knew the play anyway, they pulped it into twenty-five frenetic minutes of hysterical gabbling, posturing, screaming and dancing.
How I longed for The Wooster Group to burst into the middle of Nicholas Hytner's dully directed film of The Crucible. This is the respectable, authorised version (adapted for the screen by Miller himself), and one almost suspects it was made with secondary school English classes in mind as the principal, target audience. I pity all the poor kids who will have to suffer this movie in the years to come.
Inspired by the horrendous events of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, The Crucible tells the tale of fiery young Abigail (Winona Ryder). After leading her friends in a spell-casting frenzy in the woods, Abigail finds herself and her cabal accused of witchcraft. The girls energetically deflect suspicion onto almost anybody else – including, eventually, the wife of the man for whom Abigail lusts, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis).
It is well known that Miller intended his play as an allegory of the McCarthy era in America and its anti-communist hysteria. The extreme righteousness of the piece, with its heavy-handed insistence on values of truth, honour and justice, might have been justifiable as a gesture in the '50s. Today what sinks the film version, and makes it seem so dated, is its fatal lack of complexity or ambiguity.
The casting does not help matters. Ryder, who can be fine in some films, is way out of her depth here, adopting a single wide-eyed, frightened look for the entire running time. Paul Scofield is a theatrical ham and an incorrigible up-stager. Several, including Bruce Davison, seem overawed to be in such a classic, and pose accordingly. Only Day-Lewis brings conviction, and intense moments of truth, to his role.
Despite everything, there are elements in the material – especially Abigail's passion and the insane tragedy of the witch-hunt – which can still move an audience. But this Crucible is not true drama. Rather, it seems to have been constructed upon banal, largely rhetorical questions like: Would you betray your best friend? Would you tell a lie to please your peer group, or save your own life?
The Crucible is a film that scarcely needs a study guide: all the classroom pointers are already there, hammered into the script and onto the screen.
upbeat Hytner: Center Stage
MORE Miller: Focus
© Adrian Martin February 1997