Neil Simon and Arthur Miller were two of the first American playwrights I became aware of and fully immersed myself in my early teen years. Within that decade I saw numerous stage productions and film versions of their popular works, like Simon’s “The Odd Couple” or “Barefoot in the Park” and Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, “The Price” or “All My Sons.” While Simon’s works were mostly focused on the humorous side of the human dilemma, Miller’s plays took on more serious themes in dramatic ways with rich characters reflecting deeply on the emotional situations they were in.
Today’s hidden gem is one of Miller’s finer adaptations which was brought to the screen in the 1996 film “The Crucible.” British director Nicholas Hytner guided this adaptation of Miller’s Tony Award-winning 1953 play about the Salem witch trials of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the late 17th Century; its tale was written as an allegory reflecting on the early 1950s Communist witch hunt by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
“The Crucible” starred Daniel Day-Lewis as the tale’s hero John Proctor, Joan Allen as his stern wife Elizabeth, Winona Ryder as their former servant, Abigail Williams and famed Shakespearean actor, Paul Scofield as Judge Thomas Danforth. Unlike many playwrights, Miller was able to write his own screenplay for this fine film.
The film begins in a very dark and mysterious way as a dozen or more teenage girls gather in the woods, burning herbs, dancing wildly at what appears to be a love conjuring ceremony lead by a beautiful African woman named Tituba (Charlayne Woodard). The middle-aged Reverend Parris (Bruce Davidson) witnesses this event and believes that witchcraft and the devil were most certainly involved. And because he’s worried about his status in his parish he soon leads an inquiry into this event and he confronts Abigail Williams, his niece. His daughter Betty, who also attended the girls’ gathering, seems to be in a sleep-like trance.
Some believe Abby drank the blood of a fowl and put a curse on John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth because she fired Abby accusing her of tempting her husband’s adultery. Soon this leads to community hysteria and the sending for the Reverend John Hale (Rob Campbell) from the nearby town of Beverly, a specialist on hunting down evil demons. Later Abby confronts John with passionate desire. John resists her explains, “Abby, I may think of you softly from time to time…but I will cut off my hand before I reach for you again.” Abby becomes obsessed and possibly puts a curse on Elizabeth, publically claiming she too was in touch with the devil.
The young girls also begin randomly accusing others of devil worship and are forced to public confession with trials and possible capital punishment for lack of cooperation. Judge Danforth leads the chaotic trials as the community justifies their irrational actions. Blame even comes to John Proctor and if he doesn’t confess to his sins, he’ll face capital punishment.
Miller’s social commentary about individuals’ rights and his depiction of irrational crowd mentality are powerfully applicable to the colonial times, as to his experiences in the ‘50s and many would agree to this day. At one point Judge Danforth proclaims, “A person is either with the court or against—there be no road between.” Suggesting there are good folk and evil—completely separate.
Andrew Dunn photography, frequently characterized by near-constant slow camera movements captures the rustic environment and sparse living area of the Salem village and George Fenton’s music compliments the film’s more tense scenes. Day-Lewis is compelling as Proctor. Day-Lewis is, by the way, been married to Rebecca Miller, Arthur’s daughter since 1996.
And Chicago theatergoers will proudly note that two of the Steppenwolf Theatre’s finest veteran players Joan Allen and Robert Brueler contribute nicely, as Elizabeth Proctor and Judge Hawthorne respectively. The film received two Academy Award nominations, for Joan Allen, best-supporting actress and Miller’s best-adapted screenplay.
Early in my theatre-going experience (June 1973), I was so fortunate to meet Mr. Miller in the lobby of a Broadway’s Music Box Theatre during intermission of the play “Sleuth.” I treasure briefly chatting with him and the autograph I received that afternoon. On that day I was with my father, who was also a tremendous Miller fan. And I’ve been thinking about my late father a lot, and all the great theatre we shared and experienced, as his 91st birthday approaches this week.