The Crucible: The “Oooooooooo”

ARTHUR MILLER’S THE CRUCIBLE—a process, a passion, a purpose—part of ClassicsFest (March 25 & 26, 2012)

So, it all started in the dressing room of The Malcontent.  Mr. Foxworth was adjusting his wig and glasses, preparing for an entrance as Malevole, the disguised Duke Altofront, and I was NOT preparing for an entrance as Maria, Duke Altofront’s imprisoned wife, since it was NOT yet the fifth act…sigh…but I was lacing (or unlacing, I can’t exactly remember) Ms. Jules Wilcox into (or out of) her corset like I always did, in preparation for her entrance as Aurelia, the cheating wife of the usurping Duke Pietro, when a conversation was struck up that went something like this…

Jules:  You guys are such a great “stage couple”.

Bo & Ann:  We are!

Jules:  You guys should do The Crucible.

Bo & Ann:  Ooooooooooooooo.

This is how things get started at Antaeus.

However, as I’m learning as a rather new company member, this is not how things “end” at Antaeus.  As many of you know, Antaeus is fond of what we like to call “process”, which basically consists of grabbing a few hours here and there and sitting around a table with a play and reading it and talking about it and reading it again and talking more about it and looking things up about it and arguing with someone about it, etc.  What is remarkable to me is that this rather ordinary act of sitting around a table and discussing and studying a play can lead to something rather extraordinary.  That “something”—as it seems to me—is the transformation of a mere personal desire to “play a part” into a rather altruistic need to share the entire play—its story, its message—not only with our fellow artists, but with the world as a whole.

In other words, what has happened, particularly in this case, is that instead of just myself and Bo saying “ooooooooooo”, the whole gang, that read the play at the Down-n-Dirty Reading last October, said “ooooooooooooo”.

So, here we are, thick in the scheduling, pre-rehearsing, rehearsing, cancelling rehearsing, re-scheduling rehearsing, casting, re-casting, putting together binders and scripts, emailing, texting, calling that is the “process” of ClassicsFest.  It’s a challenging road and requires many dedicated and patient hands; however, because of what happened at that reading last October, because of that communal “oooooooooo”, these minor inconveniences pale in comparison to the opportunity that lies before us:  the chance to read one of America’s greatest plays, by one of America’s greatest (some say “the greatest”, but O’Neill diehards would beg to differ) playwrights at a time when the message and story could not be more relevant.

As most people know, The Crucible was written by Arthur Miller as a response to the Red Scare/Cold War mentality that swept America and culminated in the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.  Calling up the frightful tale of the actual witch-hunt that took place in Salem in the 1690s, Miller’s allegorical tactics could not be lost on his audience of the day.  And even for those who were not alive in the 1950s or have been versed in that painful time in American history, they can still be left with no doubt of Miller’s intentions and opinions as he boldly includes a series of essays on the subject of our human (and particularly American) proclivity towards “scape-goatism” within the text of the first act of the published script of The Crucible.

And while, as an actor, it’s frustrating to have such “digressions” within the middle of the action of the play (especially while trying to memorize lines!), it soon becomes apparent that these essays provide a much needed historical and sociological context for anyone attempting to work on a production of the play.

Of all the brilliant insights that Miller has and presents about our human and societal nature, the over-arching idea that is so very frightening in its accuracy is our inability to change:  that we, as a people, as a country, as a society, tend to repeat the same horrendous and violent acts over and over again; we seem to be incapable of learning from our past, to make a better future or even a better present.  We still seem to love a good ole fashioned “witch-hunt”.

Some of his most potent excerpts include:

“The Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil’s last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand.  To the best of their knowledge the American forest was the last place on earth that was not paying homage to God.  For these reasons, among others, they carried about an air of innate resistance, even of persecution.  Their fathers had, of course, been persecuted in England.  So now they and their church found it necessary to deny any other sect its freedom, lest their New Jerusalem be defiled and corrupted by wrong ways and deceitful ideas.”

“The people of Salem in 1692 were not quite the dedicated folk that arrived on the Mayflower.  A vast differentiation had taken place, and in their own time a revolution had unseated the royal government and substituted a junta which was at this moment in power.  The times, to their eyes, must have been out of joint, and to the common folk must have seemed as insoluble and complicated as do ours today.  It is not hard to see how easily many could have been led to believe that the time of confusion had been brought upon them by deep and darkling forces.  No hint of such speculation appears on the court records, but social disorder in any age breeds such mystical suspicions, and when, as in Salem, wonders are brought forth from below the social surface, it is too much to expect people to hold back very long from laying on the victims with all the force of their frustrations.”

“The Salem tragedy…developed from a paradox.  It is a paradox in whose grip we still live, and there is no prospect yet that we will discover its resolution.  Simply, it was this:  for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies.  It was forged for a necessary purpose and accomplished that purpose.  But all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space.  Evidently the time came in New England when the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organized.  The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.  When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday.  It is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.”

“The witch-hunt was not, however, a mere repression.  It was also, and as importantly, a long overdue opportunity for everyone so inclined to express publicly his guilt and sins, under the cover of accusations against the victims…Long-held hatreds of neighbors could now be openly expressed, and vengeance taken, despite the Bible’s charitable injunctions.  Land-lust which had been expressed before by constant bickering over boundaries and deeds, could now be elevated to the arena of mortality; one could cry witch against one’s neighbor and felt perfectly justified in the bargain.  Old scores could be settled on a plane of heavenly combat between Lucifer and the Lord; suspicions and the envy of the miserable toward the happy could and did burst out in the general revenge.”

“These people had no ritual for the washing away of sins.  It is another trait we inherited from them, and it has helped to discipline us as well as to breed hypocrisy among us.”

“Like [the characters] on this stage, we conceive the Devil as a necessary part of a respectable view of cosmology.  Ours is a divided empire in which certain ideas and emotions and actions are of God, and their opposites are of Lucifer.  It is as impossible for most men to conceive of a morality without sin as of an earth without “sky”.  Since, 1692, a great but superficial change has wiped out God’s beard and the Devil’s horns, but the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes.  The concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing, and always joined to the same phenomenon—such a concept is still reserved to the physical sciences and to the few who have grasped the history of ideas.  When it is recalled that until the Christian era the underworld was never regarded as a hostile area, that all gods were useful and essentially friendly to man despite occasional lapses; when we see the steady and methodical inculcation into humanity of the idea of man’s worthlessness—until redeemed—the necessity of the Devil may become evident as a weapon, a weapon designed and used time and time again in every age to whip men into a surrender to a particular church or church-state.”

“Political opposition, thereby, is given an inhumane overlay which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized intercourse.  A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence.  Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a congeries of plots and counterplots, and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.”

What strikes me most about these essays, however, is not merely Miller’s capacity to articulate his beliefs and observations in such an exacting way, but the fact that he chose to include them in the text of his play.  It’s as if he knew that by themselves, they would be “interesting” or “thought-provoking” or “clever”, but when embedded into the rich, dark world that he’s created out of the Salem tragedy, they become an echo that reverberates within the human heart.  We know that what he says is true.  Not because it is historical, or “well-phrased”, but because he is speaking through his play, his art, his “poem” to the world.  And when we hear through the heart, we hear well.  And we do not forget.

I’m reminded here of the lines of William Carlos Williams which seem to ring so profoundly true and loud today:

“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Antaeus Member, Ann Noble, is project initiator of ClassicsFest: The Crucible, along with Bo Foxworth (Elizabeth and John Proctor).  Tickets are now on sale.

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Macbeth Process Work

MACKERS AT THE TABLE

Kitty Swink, Linda Park & Bo Foxworth (photo by John Apicella)

So here is why I always wanted to be an Antaean.  Why I am thrilled I became one.  Process.  Table Work.  Sitting around with the smartest group of actors I know, talking, fighting, parsing, and laughing.  And we do it over every little word in a play.  Especially when that play was written by William Shakespeare.

We’ve had three long sessions so far.  Each session is 3 to 4 hours around a table, we’ve just reached Act III and we’ve barely scratched the surface.  There are old hands –  John Apicella, Jeff Nordling, Armin Shimerman – and folks just new to the Academy, Sam and Danielle and others.  Everyone has something to say.  Something to contribute.

Men are reading women’s roles, women reading men’s roles.  Old is young, young is old.  Who knew Fleance’s few lines would be so fun?

Armin Shimerman (photo by John Apicella)

So far, Liz Swain and John Apicella have led.  Armin begins tomorrow.  But it really isn’t leading.  It is more like herding cats.  Smart ones, but cats nonetheless.

We’ve talked a lot about bird imagery.  The play is rife with it:

A falcon, towering in her pride of place,

Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at, and kill’d.

The swooping hooting sounds that go with every mention of owls intrigue us and owls are everywhere.   We speak of the broken irregular lines that cascade whenever order begins to spin to chaos.   I keep seeing and commenting on Lady M speaking monosyllabically whenever she takes control and pushes her husband on to “catch the nearest way.”

Antaeans around the table for Macbeth tablework (photo by John Apicella)

We talk and we talk and we talk.  We also act.  I’ve been acting with some of these people for decades.  Okay, I am married to Armin and we did our first play together 30 years ago.  But others, too.  Larry Pressman and I did Dangerous Corner together probably 20 years ago.  We were in the Matrix Company and he was doubled with Greg Itzin, another wonderful Antaean.  I’ve been married, onstage, to a bunch of them. I’ve been sister, wife, mother, friend and enemy to others.  Yet they all surprise me, teach me and make me laugh.  It is this kind of work that makes us an ensemble.  This kind of history.

And one other thing.  There are treats.  Always.  Someone, or several someones, bring goodies.  From seaweed crisps to macadamia nut chocolate chip cookies.  It takes a lot of fuel to do these sessions.

Antaeus Member, Kitty Swink, reveals the inner workings of our company. Macbeth will be the 2nd show in our 2012 Season.  Tickets will be on sale soon.