"Any play in which a Proctor gets hanged at the end can't be bad," Neil Faulkner said.
In spite of this ominous presentiment, I decided to go and see The Crucible anyway. I don't get the chance to see Gareth Thomas on stage nearly as often as I would like to and I had some Christmas money that I'd been saving for just such an occasion.
I posted a note on the Internet Blake's 7 mailing lists asking who else would like to come along and had several responses. Bromley being terra incognita as far as I was concerned, I asked for advice on a good place for us to meet up, and Anne, who lived locally, suggested a pub called the Partridge.
There are days when fate just seems to smile on you...
I arrived at The Partridge, which quite close to the theatre, and had a bite to eat and read some of 'Twelfth Night' while waiting for the others. Steve, Paula, Linda, Louise and Tom duly appeared. I got out some photos to show them and a few minutes later was greeted by a familiar voice saying: "Somebody said they saw a woman waving a photo of me around"!
I mentally awarded Anne a gold star for her serendipitous choice of pub and was so deep in conversation with Gareth that I didn't notice her arrival until I turned round and realised that she had joined us. We all had a very interesting time discussing the play and the period in which it took place and some of the ways in which this particular production was being approached. Gareth told us that most of the cast were wearing wigs to match the long hair of the period but that he had a hairpiece which made his own hair longer. It looked wonderful when we saw it. Someone had matched exactly the way Gareth's hair becomes darker around the back and the wave of his hair carries perfectly down into the hairpiece. You couldn't tell where the join was at all.
We must have talked for an hour or more before Gareth had to leave us to go and get ready. I actually remembered to give him a video tape he'd asked me to copy for him. The rest of us carried on discussing all the things that fans tend to chat about (ie. lots of interesting things which I can't remember now, except that I do recall starting to proof-read the second progress report for Redemption because Steve produced it with a flourish and slid it under my nose)
We headed off for the theatre around 7.30 and found our seats. We all had good seats. Steve and Paula were together because they'd booked before I started getting a group together and the rest of us were all in a nice block in the middle with an excellent view.
The play starts in the home of Reverend Parris. It's a log house set in the deep forest and the set gives a feeling of claustrophobia. Parris's daughter Betty is ill and he is worried. Betty acts like one possessed, going into sudden fits and crying out. It isn't long before his niece Abigail is also affected and several other local girls. In this deeply religious, Puritan community, witchcraft is an almost automatic suspicion for these fits. At first the charge is levelled at Tituba, Paris's slave from Barbados, but soon the girls in their fits are accusing other people of tormenting them. As the play progresses, we see that there are deep divisions between many of the villagers and these are exacerbating the situation when old hatreds are fanned by the accusations of witchcraft.
Reverend Hale is called in to try and determine if witchcraft is definitely involved. At first, he is totally convinced, but as the play progresses, he comes to have doubts and in a horrifying scene at the end, he is trying desperately to persuade people to perjure themselves and confess to witchcraft in order to save them from the gallows. (Witches who wouldn't confess were hanged, those who confessed remained in prison.)
With so much belief in their claims, the girls become extremely powerful - their accusations cover more and more people and the whole village is swept up in the hysteria. It has become a trap. Those who believed the initial accusations cannot turn back now for fear of admitting they were wrong originally. Those who doubt are promptly accused of witchcraft themselves. Events of many years ago: still-born children, sick animals, unusual habits, anything can be suddenly dredged up to make yet another person seem guilty.
John Proctor is a man who doubts. He lives a fair distance from the meeting house and he's a farmer. He frequently misses church, and is outspoken in his opinions. It isn't long before first his wife, and then himself, are accused of being witches. They are both imprisoned. Their children are left to the mercy of others, their animals either seized or left to roam. As more and more people are arrested, the Proctors are not unique. By the end of the witch trials, over 150 people were imprisoned and scores of children left without their parents.
In the third act, the trials reach their peak. Deputy-Governor Danforth (Gareth Thomas) is brought in to oversee the trials. He is a man who doesn't know the local people and has little sympathy with any of them. Danforth believes in the law and will uphold it regardless of the cost. When John Proctor is brought to trial, he pleads that Abigail is not the innocent that she seems. He says that he had a brief affair with her (and this is a difficult admission for a respected man to make in a Puritan community). Abigail denies it. Proctor asks that his wife be brought in; they have been estranged for some time because of his relationship with Abigail, but he has a deep faith in her honesty.
Without letting Elizabeth Proctor speak to anyone first, Danforth asks her whether her husband is guilty of the crime of lechery (Gareth pointed out to us that the fact lechery is is referred to as a crime rather than a sin shows how the religious and legal systems were totally entwined. Punishments for such crimes were often quite severe). Elizabeth is not aware of how much hangs on her answer. She tries to defend her husband by denying the charge of lechery and thus unwittingly condemns him to death.
There was no trace at all of the easy-going man we'd been chatting to in the pub. I'd swear Danforth is six inches taller than Gareth - the impression of authority is that powerful. He stands out partly because of the way he's dressed. He's in a long, bright red jacket whereas almost all the other characters are farmers or clergymen in black. However, Danforth is also well able to stare down anyone who dares to challenge his position. There's a moment when the girls are all having hysterics and claiming they can see spirits everywhere and pointing to various people as the cause. Abigail makes to point at Danforth and he simply glares at her. She moves on to somebody else.
The forth act takes place in the prison under the shadow of the gallows. Many people have already been hanged. John and Elizabeth Proctor are imprisoned. Hale is pleading with Danforth to stop the hangings, but Danforth is insistent that verdicts have been passed and must be carried out without delay. Elizabeth Proctor is asked to try and make her husband confess and he almost does so. But he is a man of pride. When told that he must sign a written confession, he refuses. He will not confess to witchcraft for all his neighbours to read. He is also motivated by the fact that many of his friends have still not confessed. If he signs a confession then he is effectively saying that they are guilty. He might have lied to save his own life, but he cannot quite bring himself to betray those who still insist on telling the truth even at the cost of their own lives.
If you go to see the play, watch the way it ends. There is more than one way of interpreting Danforth and Gareth said he was quite deliberately playing Danforth as finally coming to have doubts at the very end as to whether he is doing the right thing.
This was only the second performance and some of the cast were still settling into their parts. There were no bad performances or missed lines, but I think it will have improved by the end of the run (one reason why I'm hoping to go and see it again). If you think about it, having to throw a major hysterical fit on stage right near the beginning of a play is not exactly the easiest task for an actress to face. Even with that reservation, it was still a play that left a massive impact on the audience. It's a play that forces you to ask what you would have done under similar circumstances, and if we're honest, I'm not sure that we'd all like our own answers.
The acting honours in this play go to Bill Armstrong as Reverend Hale, Gareth Thomas as Danforth and Sean Murrey as John Proctor. People may also be interested to know that Roy Kinnear's daughter Kirsty Kinnear also appears in the play as Mercy Lewis. (Roy played Keiller in Gold, and Horizon's principal charity was founded by him)
After the play, feeling a mite gobsmacked, we retired to the circle bar where Gareth had said he'd meet us afterwards. He looked pretty hot and sweaty when he appeared. That's a very heavy outfit he has to wear and the hairpiece is hot down the neck. We talked more about the play and the way people can get swept in up in things like McCarthyism (which is why Miller wrote the play) and also more recent examples. Eventually everyone left to catch trains or to head for home. It had been a great evening.
PS. Gareth mentioned that he was going to try and get Paul Darrow to see the play when it comes to Woking. (He went to see 'Guards Guards' when it was on up north)
PPS. Gareth's lost a lot of weight. He was looking very fit.
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Last updated on 15th of October 1998.