BRECHT IN PRACTICE
Rejecting Miller’s (Stage) Directions

The Crucible not only contains numerous stage directions, it also includes sketches of many of the central figures. Through the stage directions and sketches, Miller attempts, like other playwrights before and after him, to control the performance of his text.

It should be clear from the page discussing why we staged the play that a Brechtian analysis of the text differs greatly from Miller’s own interpretation. Such a discrepancy is the point of departure for applying Brechtian ideas to plays that don’t appear to support them: they open up new ways of understanding (classic) texts. As Brecht writes in Buying Brass: ‘Even when [playwrights] make things up […], it seems as though the incidents have been lifted from real life. All you ought to do is take the incidents themselves as seriously as possible, and the playwright’s use of them as lightly as possible’. With this in mind, it’s time to turn our attention to the directions and sketches themselves in order to understand the world Miller is seeking to construct and how Brechtian analysis proposes something different.

 

Stage Directions

Stage directions influence two aspects of a production for the most part: where the figures are and how they appear or deliver their lines. However, these directions are written with a conventional sense of realism in mind: this is how people behave in such circumstances. Brecht, however, wanted to reveal the processes that lead people to behave as they do, something he considered to be ‘realistic’, and so conventional stage directions can be treated more critically in the interests of a different type of theatre.

 

For the most part, we ignored Miller’s notes on positioning the figures. Brechtian theatre is keen to demonstrate relationships through placement on stage. Thus, at the beginning of Act II, for example, it was important for this production to keep Elizabeth, with head mostly down, behind Proctor for the opening of the scene to establish her role in the marriage. The directions to have her sit, stand and move about were not respected in the name of clearly showing the nature of the Proctors’ relationship.

 

Later in the Act, Hale arrives. This short clip shows how we treated Elizabeth’s responses:

 

Before Hale enters, Elizabeth’s head is down as she’s spoken to by her husband. She responds to his lines by turning her head towards him to show that she can stand up to him when necessary. However, on Hale’s arrival, she automatically stands and lowers her head to acknowledge the presence of a the clergyman. Hale asks for her name and her head turns to Proctor who, as per the script, answers for her. A potentially comic moment ensues when Hale bids Elizabeth to sit down and Proctor then offers Hale a drink as a matter of course, which sends her straight back on her feet to fetch the jug. Hale then invites Proctor to be seated. Elizabeth remains standing until Proctor nods to her that she is permitted to sit as well.

This exchange adds considerably more detail to the sequence than is present in Miller’s directions. In his text, Elizabeth simply sits and Proctor offers the drink to break the silence. In our production, a network of power relations are clearly displayed. Indeed, as the visual documentation of the production shows, an attention to gestic detail pervaded the play, often running contrary to Miller’s stage directions.

 

Character Sketches

The extended sketches, now a standard part of Miller’s text, proved unhelpful for a Brechtian production of the play. Their widespread historical inaccuracy wasn’t a huge problem. Proctor, for example, wasn’t a farmer, but an inn-keeper, and was 60, not in his mid-30s, while Abigail was only 11, not 17. Miller reduces the age-gap, for example, to make Proctor more sympathetic. The Crucible is not a history lesson, but an exploration of themes and issues. In this, it is not dissimilar from Shakespeare’s treatment of historical material.

What is problematic about the sketches is their construction of the human beings seen on stage. According to them, Thomas Putnam has ‘a vindictive nature’, Abigail ‘an endless capacity for dissembling’ and Mercy is ‘a fat, sly merciless girl’.  In short, the sketches are undialectical, suggesting the that figures behave as they do because they are ‘naturally’ so. A dialectical account of a person’s behaviour understands it as the result of interactions between individual and society. Miller’s thumbnail sketch of Abigail presumes that she is a born liar. However, the text itself shows her to be a teenager who finds herself in the middle of a maelstrom that centres on witchcraft, something that clearly doesn’t exist. There is also the suggestion that her toughness is influenced by the brutal death of her parents.

 

 

As a result, this Brechtian production portrayed her more as a victim of circumstances initially before she sees the writing on the wall and denounces fellow villagers in accordance with those who hold sway in the community. Her ‘nature’ defers to the pressure of events: we may criticize her choices, but not trace them back to innate characteristics.

Another function of the sketches is to load their reader with sympathy or opposition to the figure in question. It is clear that the figures mentioned above are all considered negative, while Proctor, in his sketch, is presented in a more compassionate way. He is ‘a sinner not only against the moral fashion of the time, but against his own vision of decent conduct’. That is, he is flawed, but redeemable, unlike the examples, above. Again, this bias doesn’t help a dialectical construction of the figures, and Proctor in particular was presented as deeply contradictory, not a tragic hero.

 


BRECHT IN PRACTICE - Copyright 2017 © Prof. David Barnett | All Rights Reserved

David Barnett
Professor of Theatre
University of York

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