NEW YORK — Every night, at the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," audience members gasp as a tidal wave of hysteria overtakes the characters. Although it is his most-produced play, "Crucible" is often categorized as purely political. But fresh audiences always discover its true universality.
"The applicability of this particular story," notes Miller, a Pulitzer Prize winner, "seems to go on and on, forever." This new production, staged by British director Richard Eyre and starring Laura Linney and Liam Neeson, "replicates that feeling that I'm sure must have happened in Salem in 1692 and of course has happened since then, in various places in the world, including here, where people could no longer step away from their terrors."
A 1953 Tony Award winner for Best Play, "The Crucible" tracks the mounting hunt for witches, the devil, and the influence of evil in the 17th-century Massachusetts colony. The purges resulted in hangings and imprisonments, based on the testimony of "witnesses" to witchcraft.
In America in the early 1950s, the search for Communist infiltrators pervaded society, and Miller was among the few public figures who stood against the power of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee, refusing to cooperate in what many perceived as a contemporary witch hunt.
A crucible is a cauldron, which melts down the impurities of any metal. "In its crazy way, it's supposed to purify everything," Miller says.
In researching the play, Miller read through transcribed testimony from Salem court records. He compared the religious devotion of the 17th century with the trust Americans had in their judiciary and Congress following World War II.
In both cases, people in positions of power were "manipulating the faith" that Americans had in religion or in government, Miller says. "It's a little bit like how you have millions of people in Muslim countries all worked up now, and I'm sure the mullahs who lead them are manipulating those people."
The play's prosecutor warns that "a person is either with this court or against it. There be no road between."
Miller points out that "in one way or another, that speech is repeated anywhere this kind of a movement begins. It's always 'it's a new time.' We don't consider the shades of evil. You're either for us or against us."
Miller admires the work that director Eyre has done, acknowledging that sometimes productions treat the play with a reverential tone, rather than seeing it in human terms.
"He's thrown caution to the winds, and I like that. It's done the way the British often do Shakespeare's history plays," he says. "It's decisive, it's strong ... and a lot of stuff is coming out that previously slid by."
An example of this clarity is the emergence of John Proctor's wife, Elizabeth, as a woman undergoing an even more startling personal journey than her husband, as they both challenge the growing epidemic of accusations. "They both arrive at the same point, but she has a much longer journey to get there," Miller says.
Eyre often tells the story of having directed a production of "The Crucible" in Edinburgh in 1967, and meeting one of the students from that audience 25 years later: "He said it woke him up to the latent tyranny of a repressive society. He became a politician. His name was Tony Blair."
For Eyre, "This play thrives across the boundaries of history and geography, culture and race. It's just as accessible in Lagos [Nigeria] and Beijing as in Los Angeles and New York."
Miller recalls when "The Crucible" was running in Shanghai in 1967. "The [Chinese] saw the play as being a complete analogy to the Gang of Four," he says. "I later talked with a Chinese woman who had seen it, and there were tears in her eyes. She said the exact same interrogations took place under the Gang of Four."
He says that the real message of the play is "to keep God and the civic civilization separate, where they belong. Backing up the government with the imprimatur of the church, any church, is a catastrophe."