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The Strumpet Blares

In the 43 years since The Crucible first saw a footlight, Arthur Miller has steadfastly maintained that his dramatic condemnation of the Salem witch trials was really a veiled outcry against Senator Joseph McCarthy and the political terrorism of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Almost no one's argued with him. Back in 1953 a couple of cultural critics, left- and right-handers, pointed out the flimsiness of Miller's parallel, but that didn't keep the U.S. State Department from preventing the supposedly pinko author from attending the play's European premiere, and members of the original American cast were gray-listed. Since then, nobody's much challenged the considerable difference between actually hanging nineteen "witches" out of religious superstition and sniffing around for mythical ex-communists on the sociology faculty.

In any event, now that Nicholas Hytner's incredibly overwrought film version of The Crucible has come to theaters, the question is whether this vintage examination of mass hysteria and martyrdom in the colonial 1690s remains as relevant and stinging in the 1990s as it was during the Cold War red scare. Are we to take it as a Miller period piece? As a warning against new-age political correctness? Or has it now evolved into a dark caution about the dictates of the religious right?

Choose your poison. The last of the big-time witches, Alger Hiss, moved on to the big Comintern in the sky a couple of weeks ago, and the Berlin Wall is still down. So the force of Miller's original metaphor has inevitably dissipated: Seen today, The Crucible looks more than ever like an empty vessel into which every viewer can pour his or her own social concerns. One fear fits all.

Director Hytner, who gave us another kind of power-mad caprice in The Madness of King George, has made some daring, if peculiar, choices here. To start with, the teenage witch wannabes who foment all the trouble in Salem with accusations that various townfolk have pacts with the Devil now bear a distinct resemblance to members of the Manson family. The ringleader and chief snitch, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), stages her freakouts in the most theatrical Squeaky Fromme style, howling at the moon and smearing animal blood all over her face when the girls are out dancing in the woods, descending into stricken fits every time she supposedly feels Lucifer in the room.

As you know, the ferocious vixen Abby--more a product of 1953 than 1692 or 1996--has an ulterior motive: For months she's been giving herself to a married, upright farmer named John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), and now that he's called off their illicit fling, the vengeful lass can't help starting up the Massachusetts Bay Colony's own gory version of Fatal Attraction. "You'll be clapped in the stocks 'fore you're twenty," John warns the desperate strumpet. On the other hand, he might just wind up dangling from a noose rather than confess to Devil worship and give up what's left of his good name. Meanwhile, Miller and Hytner continue to ignore a fact you can find in any history book: In 1692 the real Abigail Williams was only eleven years old, and John Proctor was sixty.

I don't mean to sound flip about a work of the theater so many people find to be enduring and important. But Hytner and his bellowing actors have turned The Crucible into a kind of low-grade horror flick--Curse of the Puritan Blood, maybe?--despite a screenplay by Miller himself. By the time frenzied, wild-eyed Abigail, her hour come round at last, fingers the stern local preacher (Bruce Davison) and Elizabeth Proctor (terrific Joan Allen), the stouthearted wife of her former lover, as Satan's playmates, I found myself yearning for some real colonial drama, as well as a more vivid depiction of buckle-shoe adultery. You know what I'm talking about: Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter.

Not even Paul Scofield can save the present piece's bacon. Halfway through the proceedings, he blows into gloomy, embittered, storm-tossed little Salem as Judge Thomas Danforth, the stern, craggy chief inquisitor who really turns the locals against each other and raises informing on your neighbor to an art. This proto-McCarthy rules by rectitude and intimidation, stoking up the murderous hysteria of the place with the fervor of an avenging angel. "Who are they? I want names!" Danforth thunders, echoing, of course, the naming-names quandaries of the Red-scare period. You are either with this court, he shouts, or you are against it. Thus does Scofield's magisterial Man for All Seasons turn into his bleak little opposite--a man confined to the season of the witch.

At last, The Crucible seems far less weighty than it should, and almost tragically dated. The moral and metaphor of the tale are still there--if you're looking for them--but they've been blunted by time and confused by intervening events. In the end, we find ourselves watching a trash-gothic melodrama instead of a powerful political manifesto, and that makes all the difference when it tries to get to our hearts.

The Crucible. Screenplay by Arthur Miller, based on his play. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. With Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen and Bruce Davison.

 
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