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World of fear

15 April 2006

12:00 AM

15 April 2006

12:00 AM

According to theatrical lore, no play can be considered an out-and-out masterpiece unless it’s initially rejected. The most famous example is Look Back in Anger, which received a critical mauling in the dailies and was only saved from closure by Kenneth Tynan’s rave in the Observer. The second most famous is The Birthday Party, which had actually closed by the time Harold Hobson’s favourable review appeared in the Sunday Times. (According to legend, one matinée was attended by just six people.) The Crucible, too, passes this test: its initial Broadway run in 1953 was not a success and no critic was willing to stake his reputation on the play’s merit.

One of the objections to it at the time was that, in making an analogy between the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Salem witch trials, Arthur Miller was effectively saying that there were no communist agents in America — and even those who disapproved of Joseph McCarthy’s methods thought that was going too far. Indeed, when Arthur Miller died last year, several conservative commentators pointed out that Julius Rosenberg, to name just one, was guilty as charged — a fact confirmed by the opening up of the Soviet Union’s intelligence archives. ‘Miller was the most useful of the useful idiots,’ wrote Mark Steyn.

Watching the RSC’s revival of The Crucible, which is among the two or three best things I’ve seen this year, it soon becomes apparent that this criticism is beside the point. It may have been partly inspired by Miller’s opposition to McCarthyism, but the play’s liberalism transcends the historical circumstances in which it was written. Miller is less concerned about the actions of the officials who sit in judgment on those suspected of witchcraft and more interested in the souls of the accused. Will John Proctor go against his principles — and sacrifice his reputation — in order to save his life? This is the crucible of the title, the blast furnace in which the hero’s mettle is tested. It is not Senator McCarthy that Miller is taking on — or, at least, not just McCarthy. It is any officer of the state who uses his authority to try to force an individual to betray his conscience.

Another of the reasons The Crucible has outlived the particular circumstances of its creation is Miller’s shrewd use of 17th-century American dialect. The play is set in 1692 and the fact that the characters speak in a language that would have seemed as peculiar to audiences in 1953 as it does to us today means that, unlike some of Miller’s other plays, The Crucible doesn’t sound dated. One of the strong points of this production is how authentic-sounding the diction is. Ian Gelder, in particular, has perfect pitch as Reverend Parris, the loathsome priest whose vowel sounds conjure up a world of superstition and fear.

A Whistle in the Dark is also a revival, in this case of a play written by a 24-year-old Irishman called Tom Murphy. At the time of its debut in 1961, even the sadomasochistic Kenneth Tynan was shocked by its violence, but the most striking thing about it today is how similar it is to countless films that have been made since. Murphy seems to have stumbled upon one of the all-time great plots: the ambitious immigrant who tries to make an honest fortune in his new home but who is sucked into the criminal underworld by less evolved members of his family/race. This plot reverberates through The Godfather trilogy, not to mention a host of other ethnic melodramas, such as Boyz n the Hood, State of Grace and Bullet Boy, one of the strongest British films of recent years.

Like Bullet Boy, the subject of A Whistle in the Dark is the cult of violence and why it is that so many first- and second-generation immigrants are claimed by it. The answer it provides is identical, too: it’s all about respect. The Irish family at the heart of A Whistle in the Dark are at the bottom of the status ladder and, in order to compensate, they’ve developed a corrosive pride based on their ability to fight. They’re a fearsome bunch and the play comes to an explosive climax when the most enlightened member of the clan, played by Patrick O’Kane, goes head-to-head with the brutal patriarch, an old tyrant played by Gary Whelan. I can’t recommend it too highly.

With so many revivals being produced at the moment, I’d love to be able to sing the praises of Smaller as well, an ambitious new comedy by Carmel Morgan starring Dawn French and Alison Moyet. Alas, it’s pretty feeble. The characters are well drawn and the situation — a middle-aged single woman forced to sacrifice her own happiness to care for her invalid mother — is full of comic potential, but the plot is simply too threadbare to sustain a two-hour play. It doesn’t lack for gags, but almost none of them advances the story, which is a critical weakness in a comedy. Before writing her next play, Morgan would do well to heed the words of Woody Allen, who articulated one of the golden rules of comedy writing in a recent interview: ‘You’ve got to keep relentlessly moving forward…once in a while your instinct tells you that you can permit yourself a little digression here and there …But to be on the safe side…it’s better that every joke move the story forward.’

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