The Crucible

on November 29, 1996 by Ray Greene
   It is both unbelievable and unbelievably fortunate that Arthur Miller's 1953 play "The Crucible" was never adapted for the English-language screen until Miller and director Nicholas Hytner got around to it in 1996. Unbelievable because "The Crucible" is both Miller's most enduring work (in the sense that it is by far his most oft-produced play) and because "The Crucible" has always seemed too "epic" (i.e., too filmic in scope) for the regional and community playhouses that have kept it alive over the years. And unbelievably fortunate because it is only now, after the passage of four decades and the end of the Cold War, that it's possible to view "The Crucible" as a work in its own right, without undue reference to the events in Miller's own personal and professional life that gave rise to it.
    "The Crucible's" one previous filmic incarnation (financed in part by sources in then-communist East Germany) offers an instructive comparison. In 1956, a group of radical French intellectuals, including existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and actors Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, adapted "The Crucible" for the French screen. What was it that drew Sartre, Montand and Signoret to Miller's text? The milieu? It could hardly have been that, because "The Crucible" is set in colonial Massachusetts and deals with the infamous Salem Witch Trials, a uniquely American moment of madness. Miller's use of language? Unlikely, given the fact that Sartre rewrote Miller into French. So why would a gaggle of French Communists settle on a mainstream play by a world-famous American author as a project to rally around? Simple. Because in those days "The Crucible," which dramatizes events that had become the American Left's primary metaphor for describing the political "witchhunts" of the anti-communist McCarthy era, was viewed predominantly as a masterpiece of propaganda_a thinly veiled allegory of the suffering of Miller and his friends during the time of the American blacklist.
    Structured as it is on the moral and judicial dilemma of naming names to an illegitimate kangaroo court, "The Crucible" does in fact bear the mark of Miller's political trials and those of his comrades in the '50s. But it's far too narrow a view of any work of art to say that it is only the sum of its influences; when a work is a true piece of literature, there is a qualitative difference between the thing itself and that from which it sprung, which is why we still read (and make movies from) Shakespeare's history plays like "Richard III," while Holinshed's Chronicles, the history text from which Shakespeare drew much of his event structure, is a title few can name and even fewer have read. The strange necromancy of the creative process transmutes the things it absorbs into something different and hopefully better; although it's useful to know that Miller wrote "The Crucible" in part as a direct response to seeing friends and professional collaborators like director Elia Kazan name names to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in order to save their careers at the expense of others, to view "The Crucible" solely from that perspective is to deprive it of life.
    The adaptation by Englishman Hytner ("The Madness of King George"), created in close collaboration with the 81-year-old Miller himself, illustrates the point by largely ignoring any political undercurrents present in the original play and instead focusing on the moral struggles faced by Miller's based on-fact creations. "The Crucible" is everything Roland Joffe's "The Scarlet Letter" could have been but wasn't; where the Joffe film felt obliged to modify Nathaniel Hawthorne's original with modern asides about feminism and justice for Native Americans, Hytner and Miller inhabit the world of 17th-century America with an almost frightening exactness.
    The result is a layered examination of mob hysteria and of the Puritan mindset on which America was founded and which still dictates so much of our belief system in this era of "family values" rhetoric. Watching the madness of officially sanctioned murder take hold of seemingly sane and moral Salem, it's hard not to reflect on how easily even a carefully controlled social structure can break down when discourse devolves into the demonizing of a "them" by an "us." The American McCarthy era was certainly one such period, but "Tailgunner Joe" hardly had a monopoly on the rhetoric of hate. It survives to this day, in Zaire, Bosnia, the West Bank; it flares to life every time another arsonist burns down an American church. Half a decade after the Cold War's end, Miller, Hytner and their impeccable cast have made it possible to find in "The Crucible" something far richer and more rewarding than the simple political polemic it has previously been taken for. Simultaneously more epic and more intimate than t Simultaneously more epic and more intimate than the play that gave rise to it, this "Crucible" steers clear of using characters as mouthpieces for politics, instead telling its tragic tale in the starkest and most compelling of human and dramatic terms. If there's any justice when Oscar time comes around, "The Crucible" (which takes its name from the ancient alchemist's mixing tool) will perform an alchemy of its own, turning movie footage into richly deserved Academy gold.

Reviews Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield and Joan Allen. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Written by Arthur Miller. Produced by Robert A. Miller and David V. Picker. A Fox release. Drama. Rated PG 13 for intense depiction of the Salem witch trials. Running time: 115 min. Opens 11/27 NY, 12/13 L.A., 12/20 wider.

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