A sheet of rain between the audience and the stage was the first thing we noticed while taking our seats at the opening night of The Crucible at the elegant Gielgud Theatre in June. It was so impressive I had to go up close to see how it worked (it poured into a kind of sink so didn’t flood the stage). This dramatic downpour bookended each act of the play, which otherwise featured simple staging; a bed, some tables and chairs. Our eye was drawn to the costumes worn by the cast of girls: pretty, floral dresses over long-sleeved Peter Pan collar shirts, evoking innocence and giving me wardrobe envy.
The Crucible, is, of course, Arthur Miller’s story of paranoia and reputations destroyed, set during the 1690s witchcraft trials in Salem. In writing it, he sought to reflect his surroundings: the “Red hunt” conducted by Joseph McCarthy, which affected Miller personally as he was subpoenaed to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and refused to name possible communists.
The themes inspired by the 1950s and anchored in a fictionalised version of events in the 17th century ring just as true today. The way reputations and consequently lives can be ruined by the smallest of mistakes or innocent comments easily twisted is currently referred to as ‘cancel culture’. Being blacklisted then is being cancelled now. The favourite targets these days, rather than Reds or devil worshippers, are women who fail to deny biological reality. And just as older women are targeted by the young generation of girls in The Crucible, so there is broadly a generational divide between “TERFs” (trans exclusionary radical feminists) or “GCs” (gender critics), more likely to be middle-aged ‘Karens’, and trans rights advocates, more often millennials.
I came out of the play horrified by the girls who falsely accused neighbours and family friends of witchcraft while knowing their words would lead to imprisonment and death.
My daughter was more sympathetic to the young girls. They act selfishly, yes, but from a vulnerable position, she says. Their ringleader Abigail Williams (portrayed deftly by Milly Alcock from House of Dragon in her stage debut) is just a teenager. (This is important because we know social contagion affects teenage girls most acutely.) Accused of witchcraft because she and others danced naked in the forest, Williams had to think on her feet to survive. She is guilty of hatred towards Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of the local farmer John Proctor with whom she had sex, but that is typical teenage behaviour. Hating on their mothers/older women, desperate not to become them. It is John who is most culpable for the original sin – cheating on his wife with a young servant – and therefore the witch-hunt.
Being physically weaker, women create cliques to protect themselves against men. The cliques provide a structure within which women support each other and validate emotional responses to the difficult situation they’re in (like being accused of witchcraft). But they are unstable and socially corrosive, and the impact on the women who lose out to a clique that gains the upper hand can be terribly violent. The Crucible is the story of what can ensue when male sexual incontinence is not restrained.
This play has ongoing resonance. Go see it before it ends on 2nd September this year. Book here.
The food bit:
Just before the play I went across the road on Shaftesbury avenue to Kung Fu Noodle for a large bowl of hand-pulled noodles. Served in large blue and white bowls with dipping sauces in blue and white teapots, the food was cheap, filling, tasty and stylishly done. I ordered a vegetarian friendly spring onion bowl. The rest of the customers were majority Asian, so that’s always a good sign. Noodles and witch-hunts, always a good combo.
The fashion bit:
William Morris fabric √
Peter Pan collar √
Puffed sleeves √
Prairie chic √
New Modesty √