There IS a Witch in this story

When the spouse was wooing me and the Eldest, she once told him the tale of “the little girl named Apricot who named herself. There is NOT a witch in this story.”

Well, there is a witch – actually several, if only alleged – in this one. Anxious for something non-taxing to watch last night, I flipped to the Daniel Day-Lewis version of The Crucible while spouse snored on the couch. I’ve avoided the movie all these years (it came out in the mid-90s) due to my own baggage with the play. When I was packing for my first (and only, as it turned out) year of graduate school at Cornell, The Crucible was scheduled as the first production. I was excited, as I had wanted to play Abigail from the first time I read the play, probably when I was around 10. She’s sexy, she’s bad, she chews lots of scenery, and in short she’s a great role for a young actress.

Due to a great deal of internecine battle prior to my arrival, the director, who I was later told had planned on casting me in the role, disappeared. I was stuck with the dreadful role of Goody Putnam, who says things like, “There are wheels within wheels in this town, Reverend Parris.” Look, as an actress, I was great at two things: looking really pretty on stage and extremely deadpan comedy. The first would have been about all I needed with Abigail, but neither served me as Goody Putnam. About the only positive thing to come out of the whole experience was my critique in front of the department. I said, “As Goody Putnam, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing….which was very perceptive of me.” It got a big laugh and from then on, the faculty seemed to get a kick out of me even when I wasn’t doing so swell in my classes.

Another interesting casting note: Jane Lynch, of Best in Show fame and originally slated to be Rebecca Nurse, got the plum role of Mary Warren, the retiring, whiny servant of John Proctor. Jane is at least 6 feet tall, and towered over all the people who were terrorizing her, either subversively brilliant casting or just a really bad idea. My consolation was that neither she nor anyone else in the entire production was particularly good, though the Proctors were not bad; the roles are in Miller’s sweet spot (good if tarnished salt of the earth man, long-suffering wife), and Catherine Marcroft, one of those women who exude quiet presence onstage, was solid in everything she did that year. But other than that the director was awful, and the show’s difficult anyhow. Not my favorite hours spent in a theater.

Interestingly, I bopped down to New York after the show closed and saw the Performing Garage’s version of the play, called LSD (some number here), and it was a revelation. The late great Spalding Gray prayed Reverend Hale, delivering the character’s many, many lines in a rapid monotone that heightened the inanity of the charges. The possessed girls were diminished, providing background noise and a low cacophonous hum that rose toward the terrifying climax. Perhaps the most brilliant moment was the end of Act I, when Betty Parris, the 12-year-old supposedly “witched,” rose out of bed – up til then you hadn’t seen her face – to reveal that she was really an old crone. Great theater, and the beauty part was that long, long play being performed in under 90 minutes.

Anyway, back to the movie. Miller apparently adapted his play, and much of it is intact; the endless discourse in Act II is fortunately shortened, and, unfortunately, Giles Corey’s memorable line, “A fart on Thomas Putnam!” – what Miller was thinking when he put that in the character’s mouth, I have no idea – has also been scrapped. Here’s the thing: Onscreen, The Crucible works much better because it’s a great story. The Salem witch trials were a blot on America’s history taught even when I was a kid and before Howard Zinn came along to show us that our treasured mythology is so blotted it’s hard to find any clean spots. But Miller is a self-righteous preacher, something that even comes through in the flawed but great Death of a Salesman, and onstage, the heavy-duty McCarthy witch trial allegory weighs the play down like the stones that press Giles Corey to death. Incidentally, the pressing scene is enacted in the movie (onstage it’s only referenced), a graphic acknowledgment to the savagery of our sainted ancestors.

In fact, the verissimilitude of the movie is a huge service. There’s a wonderful opening scene tacked on, of the girls dancing in the forest with Tituba, the slave from Barbados who proves once again that black folks just can’t get a break when there are white folks who need to blame somebody for something. The forest is key, and it’s easy to imagine Young Goodman Brown lurking in the background. Hawthorne so brilliantly evokes the repressed passion that doesn’t have a chance of staying repressed in his Puritan woods as well as the dark side of our forebears, and the movie nods nicely to his great works. It’s easy to see the Salem witch incident for what it was in this version: a bunch of adolescent girls with zero fun in their lives getting carried away by their 15 minutes of fame while escaping pretty terrible punishment. The brutality of the men is emphasized throughout, with women getting slapped, whipped, and thrown around like flour sacks. It’s not something that happens in the play, and it keeps the story focused, giving the girls a rationale that they don’t have as long as they’re just fingers for Miller to wag at rats like Elia Kazan. Not that Kazan didn’t deserve worse, but no one likes a scold.

The great actors at work include Day-Lewis and the amazing Paul Scofield. Joan Allen is clear-eyed and rocks her bonnet, and even Wynona Ryder is not bad. But the best part is that the movie basically removes the spectre of Tail Gunner Joe that stifles the play. Taken on its own, the story of the colossal screw-up in Salem is good theater and ended up as a decent movie. Miller manages to get a powerful lesson across here, about the terrible things people do when they’re afraid, without force-feeding us The Truth and chasing it with The Guilt. Maybe it’s too bad he didn’t write more screenplays. (Though since I’m not a Misfits fan…..maybe not….)

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