Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mass(achusetts) Hysteria

On this day in 1996, Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" made its second big–screen appearance since it premiered on the stage in 1953.

"The Crucible" was inspired by — but not necessarily a literal history of — the infamous Salem witch trials of the late 17th century.

I'm not a full–fledged historian — really more of an amateur one who minored in history in college and has always had an interest in the subject — but I think that is an important distinction to make.

Miller wrote it as an allegory of McCarthyism. If one recognizes that fact, it is easier to understand what is said and done in the play.

And, while those events do have something of a basis in fact, it is not, as I said before, a literal history. It is a dramatization.

Miller, who had already won a Pulitzer Prize for "Death of a Salesman," was fascinated by the witch trials and did extensive research in Salem, Mass. As nearly as I can tell, many of the characters in the play (and movie) were real — and I know there were witch trials in Salem in 1692, resulting in 29 convictions, 19 hangings, one case of a man being crushed under heavy stones when authorities tried to coerce him into entering a plea and at least five other deaths of people while they were in prison.

It's just that some of the details were inaccurate.

That is understandable, though, considering that few of the written records that have survived from the time offer much in the way of clues about the personalities of the people who were involved.

But that wouldn't have meant much to Miller, anyway. His play used the witch trials to inspire, not inform. He made no pretense that he was being historically accurate in his portrayals.

Characteristics of several real people were merged into one — a judge, a witness, a defendant — to be representative of the people and the attitudes of late 17th century America.

Even if the people were real, facts were altered to fit the needs of the story. The antagonist of the story, Abigail Williams (played by Winona Ryder in the movie), was a real person, one of the accusers — but in reality she was 11 years old. Miller made her 17 in the play so she could be the lover of the story's portagonist, a real farmer named John Proctor (played by Miller's son–in–law, Daniel Day–Lewis) — thus providing her with the motivation to accuse Proctor's wife (played by Joan Allen) of witchery, a crime that was punishable by execution.

There is no reason to believe that such a clandestine relationship ever existed. It was created to fit Miller's needs, and that made it necessary to play around with the characters' ages.

Williams, as I said, was 11 years old at the time, but her age was elevated to 17 to make the relationship seem more plausible, and Proctor was 60, but his character in the play and movie was about half that — again, to make the affair more palatable for mainstream audiences.

Other changes were modest, even understandable. In reality, the number of girls involved was far greater than it was in the play, but Miller wisely cut many of those minor characters. I suppose, if one wanted to pick nits, one could quibble over the exclusion of some and/or the inclusion of others.

In fairness to Miller, though, I must say that many of the other characters and circumstances appear to be legitimately represented. The dialogue is what one would expect from people of that time — i.e., the use of Goody as an abbreviated form of Goodwife, the customary colloquialism for a female spouse.

Miller wrote the adapted screenplay for the 1996 movie and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination, the only one he ever received.

I could not help wondering, as I watched the 1996 version again recently, if Miller (who died in 2005) might have seen "The Crucible" as an allegory for the War on Terrorism and the use of waterboarding to coerce information from witnesses — and if he might have made adjustments to the story to make it appropriate for 21st century audiences.

For example, early in the 1996 movie, several girls — including Aibgail — gathered in the woods at night to perform a ritual with a slave named Tituba. The ritual involved a dead chicken, the drinking of its blood and dancing around a fire — and it was witnessed from a distance by the town's Puritan minister, Samuel Parris (played by Bruce Davison).

That event was only mentioned in conversations in the original play. Moviegoers in 1996 saw it acted out.

The minister was alarmed when two of the girls who participated in the ritual fell into unconsciousness and would not awaken. and he sought to find a cause. Fearful of being punished, Abigail pointed the finger at the slave, claiming that she had been working with the devil. Tituba denied the charge but eventually confessed to being a witch after a savage beating.

And that was the catalyst for everything else.

A slave woman named Tituba did live in Salem in those days, She was one of the first to be accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem and denied it initially — but she was coerced into confessing that she had had conversations with the devil.

In 17th–century Salem, that was like throwing a lit match on gasoline.

The extensive waterboarding by CIA operatives of Al–Qaeda suspects occurred in 2002 and 2003, which was before Miller's death, but it wasn't publicly revealed until after his death at the age of 89.

He was probably too old to have written an adaptation by then, anyway. But he might have collaborated with someone.

Who knows what that might have yielded?