Patrick Carnegy

Demons within and without

At its première just over 50 years ago, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was, at least in part, a sane man’s strike against America’s McCarthyite paranoia about communism. Miller’s cover for his protest was, of course, the infamous Salem witch-hunts conducted by the New England Puritans in 1692. In resurrecting the play as its tribute to Miller, who died just over a year ago, the RSC is plainly aware that the piece is now tested against new terrors confronting the liberal world.

Extraordinary that Miller, four years after the play’s première, should have admitted that at the time of writing The Crucible he didn’t conceive ‘that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example we should not know the good’. It almost seems as though he had to write the play in order to discover the Iago principle that, in Miller’s own words, ‘a dedication to evil…is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal’ (as one knows Iago should seem in any half-decent production).

Precious few of the characters in the play can come across to anyone but themselves as ‘agreeable and normal’, but it’s plainly important that the evil endemic in the Salem witch-hunters should not for one moment be caricatured but be part and parcel of credible characters, as it indeed is in Dominic Cooke’s exceptionally fine and sensitive production. Resisting the rather obvious temptation to reset the play in the heartland of today’s bible-belt America, or in some other hotbed of religious zealotry, Cooke holds true to its historical period. When the play opens, he lets us see the ecstatic dancing of the young girls in the woods upon which Pastor Parris (Ian Gelder) stumbles, and which ignites the notion that the village is rife with demonic possession.

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