Moment of decision

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Aleks Sierz examines the consequences when individuals defy irrational authority?

The Crucible

Arthur Miller

Birmingham Rep

Tours nationwide until December 4.

First staged in 1953, Arthur Millers The Crucible is not only an account of the 1692 Salem witch trials, but also argues that the individual conscience can defy authority in any age. The plot is about a farmer, John Proctor, who has had an adulterous affair. When a witchcraft panic breaks out, his wife is accused of witchcraft by his former lover. Defending his wife, Proctor is also accused and has to choose whether to save his life by making a false confession. Director Jonathan Church says, "I suspect this is one of those plays that will still be with us in 300 years' time. It deals in large human themes, and it's basically about what happens when power finds that people question its authority, and then shows what it has to do to hang onto its power.

"What is so fantastic is that, even if you know nothing of the American McCarthy era when the piece was written, it empathically questions any organised religion and any government - I can't think of a year in which it hasn't been relevant." As New England is a theocracy, the play also has an acute contemporary resonance.

For Jonathan Church, "the whole community is responsible for what happens - everybody has a moment when they have to decide what is best. If any of them had done something different, the final disaster might not have happened." His version focuses on collective responsibility in allowing a religious authority to run its course: "Proctor is an anti-hero searching for his own identity, and represents the best of what was happening at that historical time: he has an honesty, a straightforwardness and a passion for living. It was an age when order was just breaking down, and the church was losing its grip. That vacuum led to the witch craze."

The Crucible is also "a favourite with teachers because of its large cast of teenage girls", one of whom, Abigail, has had an affair with Proctor. "I hope kids enjoy the play for what it is - an extraordinary piece of writing - and that the younger characters, who are trying to deal with an over-oppressive society, appeal to them. I also hope they identify with Proctor's moral dilemma about standing up to authority."

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