In the dictionary, the word ‘crucible’ is defined as ‘a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new’. Arthur Miller took this definition and applied it to his own witch–hunt drama, The Crucible, which has proved to be a stalwart work of modern literary genius. Originally staged on Broadway in 1953, the play has stood the test of time, being reinterpreted many times since on stage, film and now as a ballet.
Arthur Miller’s play was originally written as a response to the McCarthy era ‘witch hunts’ which searched for Communist sympathisers in the US, comparing them to the Salem witch trials of New England in the 1690s.
Ironically, this is one of the only times in early American history that can be identified as female focused. Although the consequences of the Salem witch trials were devastating, in the trials men of the court gave power to women’s voices – specifically very young women, often teenage girls. Their opinions were not only being heard, but ultimately believed, their claims and accusations increasingly acted upon. We do not know exactly how the witch hunt started in Salem, but multiple sources cite that the original children that cried ‘witch’ were in Beverly and Boston, the accusations eventually pouring out to Salem. It is Salem where Miller’s drama is set,
focused on eighteen–year–old Abigail Williams. The Crucible charts Abigail and her plot to bring down the wife of John Proctor, who rejected her after a passionate affair. In The Crucible, there is always one character any young girl can relate to: either the love struck, jealous and confused Abigail Williams; or Mary Warren, a girl terrified to lose the trust of her best friend or the staunch, kept, young mother Elizabeth Proctor who is the victim of the chaos that surrounds her, and is ultimately dragged into the proceedings without a choice. What is mentioned in the play and often unseen is particularly interesting and open to interpretation: the prologue where the girls are dancing in the forest, the love affair of John and Abigail that is never seen, the secrets passed between the girls during the outbreak of hysteria. A prequel of sorts is what choreographer Helen Pickett explores in her ballet
interpretation of The Crucible. As part of her research, Helen travelled to Danvers, Massachusetts, which ironically used to be part of Salem but changed its name, probably out of shame. Helen visited the Rebecca Nurse homestead in Danvers where she ‘touched the wood of an old house. I always find that so interesting to bring you back in time’. This certainly helped her build the world of Puritan Salem in the ballet. I have tracked productions of The Crucible. I saw Ivo Van Hove’s 2016 Broadway production starring Saoirse Ronan – the show was the unapologetic theatre director’s Broadway debut where the girls ‘flew’. Or did they? His Crucible was a stripped-down production that took place in a nondescript community schoolroom, laying the text bare, hoping to ignite and question the
themes in its audience. Great theatre can do that. Last year I read Stacy Schiff ’s bestseller The Witches, a dense historical tome. I started to write a script from the perspective of a young girl that comes into Salem to act as a servant girl and is accidentally drawn into the witch hunt. The most recent production I saw of The Crucible was at East London’s The Yard Theatre at Hackney Wick, directed by artistic director Jay Miller. This production placed the actors sitting on stage for the entirety of Act One. The script was then recited to the audience and John Proctor was played by a woman. Needless to say, The Crucible has struck a chord with storytellers and audiences for generations. It might even be an accidental feminist piece, making it feel even more relevant in today’s political climate. Ultimately, I believe the play acutely captures an innate
sense of human paranoia, and explores how more often than not, women’s competitive and jealous nature can spin out of control. Today the play and its themes still alarm us. It makes us uncomfortable, but also resonates by highlighting the fact that women have always been complex, and this play deservedly portrays them as such. The choreographer Helen Pickett is hugely accomplished across dance, experimental film and stage. An easy choice as the choreographer for this production, having previously choreographed a ballet version of Tennessee Williams Camino Real to great acclaim. According to reviews her ballet ‘unleashes the emotional force’ of Miller’s masterpiece. Luckily for audiences, Pickett’s The Crucible isn’t quite finished being performed yet. It will play Washington DC in May 2020. One morning, while having our morning cups of coffee
(Helen in New York City, me in Jackson, Mississippi) we caught up about what makes her Crucible tick.
JACLYN BETHANY for The Ingénue: Tell me about what attracted you to ‘The Crucible’?
HELEN PICKETT The Crucible is wonderful because it brings so many elements to the table for so many women. The female characters are so incredibly strong and multi faceted. I loved that. You have these two pillars of female power and John (Proctor) is in the middle. My version was based on the idea that the women would have very strong voices in this telling. Even though the women are strong in the play, it’s really John that emerges as the central character. I knew that my version was going to be a triad of central
characters. The other thing that was very important to me was I did not want to vilify any women from the onset. I wanted to show that the girls did things they weren’t supposed to do like all kids do.
I love that about the women in the story. Going off that, what was unique about your version of ‘The Crucible’? How did it differ from the play?
I got to show a lot of the inferred information that was mentioned in The Crucible. We only get to the first scene in Miller’s version at the end of my Act One. We open to Abigail playing with a dolls house and dreaming of having a home. And then the stage opens up and we see her in
the Proctor house. We see Elizabeth’s shawl and she puts it on like she is the woman of the house, dreaming of being a wife. Shortly after, Elizabeth and John enter. Elizabeth has just given birth, and we give a reason as to why John has turned away. And giving birth, that brings up a lot of emotions for any woman. And so, we are left in that room with Abigail and John. John is sitting on a chair thinking about his life. Abigail sees a chance. Then they have the affair. The impetus – this beginning – is never seen in the play. Eventually Elizabeth walks in on them and Abigail is thrown out of the house.
Then we go to a scene called Congregation, a communion of prayer led by Reverend Parris. It was very important for me to show the light in the story. No human being starts evil. You see them in prayer; they haven’t seen each other all week.
This community is friendly with each other. And then there is a reconciliation duet between John and Elizabeth – it’s a big love duet where you see the push and pull between them. She eventually forgives him. And then we go to the dance in the forest. Which is mentioned in the play as ‘the girls dancing naked in the forest’, and which I got to show. We see Tituba (the slave) first. This forest ritual is in a sense led by her and her religion from Barbados – the forest is where she feels her calling. And then the girls come in and they follow her. I made it so the girls are following her in and it’s Abigail who is the catalyst. Abigail is trying to get Tituba to cast the spell, and Tituba does not want to. And I did that because as storytellers, we have to set up the fall – what leads these characters into the situation we open Miller’s story with
and therefore the coming out of the fall is the greatest it can be. And then after that we see Parris discover the girls. And then we go to Arthur Miller’s Act One. So, it’s almost like a prequel in a way.
Where do you find inspiration?
Human beings are endlessly inspirational. And it was very important to me in The Crucible that human beings start from a good place. No human being starts from an evil place.
And do we know what happened to Abigail Williams?
A part of my choreography is process. I looked at the piece as an actor and as a dancer. I learned that Abigail was in bed with her parents when her parents were slaughtered. The historians thought that Abigail was dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that could have been why she went through such a malevolent route.
And I really went with that idea. Post Crucible, Abigail ran away to Boston and sadly, became a prostitute, so we learn a little bit about her. Then she fell off the face of the earth. Of course, Abigail Williams continues to ignite audiences and women alike – as she is preserved throughout modern history in The Crucible.