Look back with hindsight
By Arthur Miller Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford - upon-Avon, February 16 -March 18 Tel: 0870 6091110 (pound;5 ticket scheme for 16 to 25-year-olds) www.rsc.org.uklearning
Dominic Cooke, director of the RSCproduction of Arthur Miller's 1953 play inspired by the Communist-hunting hysteria led by Senator McCarthy, has visited Salem in Massachusetts. The play is set in 1692, in the village just outside the modern town. Many of its events are taken from history and signs of some of the characters - Proctor's tavern, Rebecca Nurse's house - survive, but what Cooke found most useful was the sense of landscape and climate which still prevail and hint at the privations of the early Puritan settlers who had fled to America to escape religious persecution.
"It was a bit like a cult, with a very extreme set of values and quite fascistic in trying to create a perfect society, a perfect world, something which still exists in the US today, wanting to be the leading light in the world. The reason I wanted to do it now is because of the post-911 hysteria, Bush's erosion of the secular state and the return to extreme Christian fundamentalism exemplified by the teaching of Creationism in schools."
The little community of Salem, enclosed and inward-looking, fearing attack by Native Americans, was rocked by accusations of witchcraft which led to a number of executions. Miller gives the beautiful orphaned teenager, Abigail, a lead role in the proceedings and John Proctor, her lover, has to make the decision in the final scene either to confess to guilt to save his life or stick to the truth but face death.
Cooke is full of admiration for Miller's skill here: "It is brilliantly motivated. Everyone - seven or eight people - wants Proctor to sign, but all for different reasons, personal, political or spiritual."
Cooke says of Abigail: "She is very attractive, but also very needy and vulnerable. She's terrified of losing Proctor and goes to extremes to keep him. Proctor is definitely parallel to Miller: the play is as much about infidelity as McCarthyism, but Proctor is also concerned about authenticity and being true to his conscience. Miller was writing about things very close to home -politically, and in his own domestic situation at the time.
He had met and fallen in love with Marilyn Monroe and was torn within his own marriage."
Cooke and his cast have researched mass hysteria. "It's crucial how children, particularly girls, were brought up," he says. They had no childhood and were expected to work from seven years of age. They were taught to read but only to read the Bible. There was no playtime, even dancing was forbidden. In the play they go to Tituba (the Barbadan servant) to have their wishes fulfilled. They had no control over their lives and hysteria grows out of such a situation. Then, usually ignored, they begin to get attention, to be noticed; they are suddenly in the limelight."