The Fabel: Act by Act
Unlike in the production of Closer, the team working on The Crucible was able to develop a clear interpretation of the action and how it would be presented to audiences.
In this production, the first act is largely expository. It aims to show where power lies and how that is closely related to social standing. The play’s opening crisis, the girls’ infringement of Salem’s norms (even though the dancing takes place out of sight), is contextualized as an innocent act, undertaken by energetic teenagers. With this in place, the adults can be presented as manipulative and self-serving: they are pursuing a course of action that is ludicrous from today’s perspective. Yet there is a central contradiction running through the action: something we consider laughable today will send many to their deaths and damage others along the way. The production thus sought to engender distance from the action (mostly through comedy) while also indicating the staggeringly high stakes.
If Act I was about establishing the social relations on stage, Act II adds gender to the power mix. The central action here is the arrest of Elizabeth at the end of the Act, but in order for this to be understood socially, the audience needs to understand the status of women in this society clearly. Elizabeth is ‘fair game’ for the court because she is a woman, even though she is of unimpeachable character, like Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey who, we learn, are also arrested in the course of the Act. Proctor’s treatment of his wife at the opening of the Act is indicative of how the Court behaves towards her, too. In addition, the interpretation of this society as patriarchal will have special significance in Act IV.
This Act shows how those in power maintain their power. The judges are vested with authority and take none of the opportunities presented to them to question the validity of the false claims made by the girls. Proctor, however, is also a man of means and status, and he exploits this in his treatment of his witness, Mary Warren. It was thus important to represent Proctor, the central figure in the play, as a contradictory one: fighting the good fight on the one hand and taking advantage of his privileges on the other. The girls themselves can be contextualized in the light their appearance in Act I. At that time they were desperate, boxed into a corner by their society’s peculiar views on dancing. Here, they have to play the parts set down by that society. They find themselves seeking devious ways to stay alive.
The final Act allowed the production to set out its interpretation of the action of the whole play clearly. At its heart is the contradiction that Proctor personifies: he is both a courageous champion of the truth and a man in a patriarchal society who can indulge his individualism to such a degree that he leaves his family without its bread-winner. Elizabeth thus plays a crucial role on stage, as there is no-one else there to enact a critique of the situation. She invites the audience to view the action with a different pair of eyes: she watches her husband make use of his privileges for the sake of his own moral victory, regardless of the material problems it will create for his wife and children. By the Act’s conclusion, the audience is presented with a direct challenge to its view of Proctor as heroic and ethical.