The Old Vic's production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible
is now being screened across the country at a cinema near you. It was a brilliant production which enjoyed the privilege of rave reviews for its director, its staging, and its performances. It is a harrowing evening, dark, menacing, gripping, and tragic - definitely not feel good entertainment. Arising from Miller's experience of McCarthyism after a close friend gave away names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) it is a provoking experience although I find myself in disagreement with the critics about its relevance:
'These days this superb play - seems to be about the present danger of religious fundamentalism, and of the mindset of those who believe that they should kill in the name of God.'
Charles Spencer The Telegraph
'The play looks newly acute about religious fundamentalism.'
Susannah Clapp, The Guardian
'Miller’s vision of the Salem witch trials, which convulsed colonial Massachusetts in the early 1690s, was intended to draw attention to the political repression that scarred America in the 1950s. But it could just as soon be interpreted as a picture of the way modern religious fundamentalism can strangle reason, tolerance and individuality.'
Henry Hitchens, The Standard
The critics seem to agree that this interpretation is about 'religious fundamentalism' yet I came away with an acute sense that this still resonates with Miller's own question: when faced with the choice between sticking with the truth and suffering for it or selling out your beliefs and your friends for an easy life which would you chose? Seeing 'religious fundamentalism' as the evil of which we need to be aware is born from a world view that values 'reason, tolerance and individuality' but cannot understand a belief in truth. The fight in The Crucible is against lies, manipulation, prejudice, power, vengeance and self-preservation wrapped up in superstition clothed as Christian teaching. It is simplistic and ignorant to describe it as 'religious fundamentalism'. To call it that exposes the horror our culture has with the concept of firmly held religious belief. I wonder if the critics were not moved by the tragic cost of holding onto truth because they cannot imagine what it must be like to be faced with that decision.
Last week the BBC aired the third episode of Wolf Hall
which is set against the backdrop of the English reformation, an episode in which a man was burned at the stack for declaiming the bible in English and refusing to recant. Available as background to Wolf Hall is the BBC documentary 'The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor History
' an excellent biography of William Tyndale who was burned at the stake for the heresy of translating the bible in English so everyone could have access to it. (Isn't it awful that we treat the bible with such casual disregard today?) Miller's play leaves us with the question what would we do? Could we suffer for the sake of the truth? Chose life and recant or submit to death and remain faithful to what we know to be true? [Spoiler Alert] John Proctor chose death. In writing his play Miller examined himself - how would he fare confronted by McCarthy?
Maybe our theatre critics did not see this focus because they believe we have no need to ask ourselves this question anymore and yet ... We know that in various places in the world in many contexts from Saudi Arabia, Sudan to North Korea people still face this choice. Baroness Cox tells of a young mother in the Sudan asked to relinquish her faith in order to receive essential life saving aid for her children - the agony of this cannot be imagined. But it is different in the UK, after all we live in a tolerant society, we are free to individually express our views within the parameters of the law. Well maybe so but the parameters of the law change and even in our so called Christian country it can be very uncomfortable to hold on to the bibles teaching on everything. Our lives are not at stake but it is hard to stand up for what we know to be true. This week I have been asked to talk to a group of Christian teenagers about the bibles teaching on sexuality. Their difficulty is not that they reject the bible's message it is the fact that having the beliefs they do is offensive to their contemporaries. Out theatre critics may consider that we live in tolerant times but it doesn't feel like it to young people who are facing a conflict over what they believe and the culture in which they operate on a daily basis.
Three years after Miller wrote his play he was examined by the HUAC - he did not give away any names. He was prepared. Maybe more of us need to ask Miller's question. What would I do? How much do I care about truth?