[Written by Witch Awareness Month team member, Carole Lanham]
The Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are definite as stone…
~Arthur Miller The Crucible
I have a real soft spot for this story, having played doomed old Rebecca Nurse in a stage performance a couple of years ago. It’s an intense show when done live on stage. It adds a certain weight of responsibility to the telling when you realize that the people whose lives we glimpse in both the play and the film are not simply characters, but real souls who were forever marked by this nightmare. None of the names have been changed. The trial, the hangings, these are difficult to imagine when you live in a world where young girls get gobs of candy for dressing up as witches once a year, but The Crucible really happened.
In my opinion, there is a certain extra bit of excitement that comes with any live production, but director Nicolas Hytner has taken a much-loved theatrical script and created a biting film that raises goose pimples and stirs up an added level of complexity. By giving life to scenes that happen off stage in the play, the film hits with a powerful punch.
The theatrical version begins after the girls have been discovered dancing at night, thus, an intriguing and critical piece of this grim puzzle is left to the imagination. It works in the play but Hytner begins his film by rubbing your face in a scene that is as shocking as it is illuminating. The girls bear their breasts as they dance around a boiling pot and Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) drinks animal blood. Smeared lips and fevered words expose the depth of these girls’ desperation in this repressed society to conjure the forbidden. When Abigail’s uncle, the Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) spies them in the woods, it sets off an insidious chain reaction. Accusations fly and hysteria ensues. Denial becomes ”proof” of guilt. A mad paranoia overtakes the village.
Abigail’s secret love affair with an older man, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) is brought to light. Proctor is a farmer whose household once employed Abigail as a servant. His prim wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen), has never forgiven him for betraying her. Still smitten with John, Abigail accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft and, despite her lily-white reputation, the woman is taken away and locked up.
Allen plays Elizabeth pitch perfect. Pious and just a shade sanctimonious, she is a cold fish in the face of Ryder’s mesmerizing schoolgirl tantrums and spellbound eye rolling. Likewise, Day-Lewis is an actor who never disappoints and his layered performance of John Proctor is no exception. Between his fiery confrontations with Ryder and his frustrated, regretful, battle-wearied scenes with Allen, he makes for a sympathetic character, past mistakes not withstanding.
As the movie progresses, there is a transfer of power from the town leaders to the hysterical young women who have the ability to point out witches. Those who will not confess are hanged. The story ends in tragedy when John Proctor must choose between the truth and a lie that has the power to save his life.
Playwright Arthur Miller used the witch trials as an allegory for McCarthyism. In today’s society, one might look for similarities in the way the media inflames, corrupts, and all too often informs the way we think. In this manner, the story of The Crucible is sadly timeless.
If you haven’t ever seen the film, don’t miss your chance. It’s a piece of thought-provoking work.