Dramatists can rapidly go out of fashion, as Arthur Miller painfully learned when he was largely spurned by Broadway during the last three decades of his career. But, ahead of next October’s birth centenary, a traditional point for re-evaluation, Miller’s reputation stands staggeringly high.
Two of the standout London theatre productions of this year are the scorching version of The Crucible that opened on 21 June at the Old Vic and the Young Vic’s brilliant rethinking of A View from the Bridge, which closed earlier that month. The Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park also recently staged a sharp All My Sons.
Great writing is often acclaimed as timeless but the greatness of Miller’s plays resides in being constantly topical. Drawing on the example of his Norwegian literary hero Henrik Ibsen, the American dramatist set out to write moral parables for his times. The Crucible used the witch trials in 17th-century Massachusetts as a metaphor for the McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, while the protagonist of All My Sons is an industrialist who has knowingly shipped shoddy aircraft parts to the Second World War front. In A View from the Bridge, a Brooklyn longshoreman, from motives of racial and possibly sexual insecurity, shops illegal immigrants to the authorities. Each involving some form of tragic betrayal, the plays end in a variety of violent deaths: execution, murder, suicide.
Although historically located, their central situations – an atmosphere of hysterical accusation, the consequences of corporate malpractice and the suspicion of new arrivals in society – remain current in most countries. Nor has the governing worry of Death of a Salesman – capitalism’s indifference to human cost – become archaic.
So The Crucible, whenever and wherever it is produced, warns against the risks of groupthink and injudicious pursuit. When, at the Old Vic, John Proctor, whose wife has been charged with witchcraft, asks, “Is the accuser always holy now?” the words have obvious and painful relevance to the media, the Crown Prosecution Service and businesses in a culture where a pointed finger can become a weapon against which facts or innocence are considered irrelevant.
If he were around for the Old Vic staging, Miller would perhaps note that, while the jailing of three celebrity paedophiles (Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris) represents a necessary correction of earlier inaction in this area, a succession of others have suffered damage to their health, reputation and finances over public accusations of sexual offences that either never reached court (Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck, Freddie Starr) or were rejected by a jury (William Roache, Michael Le Vell, Nigel Evans).
In this context, it’s intriguing to consider the question of whether John Proctor is a sex offender. The Salem farmer, Miller specifies, is in his mid-thirties, while Abigail, the ex-mistress who calls Goodwife Proctor a witch, is 17, although the playwright admits in an afterword to having raised her age above that of the historical model. So, with typical moral perspicacity, Miller has understood that sexual error is often an aspect of a flawed personality – although there may be some in the audience who take the view that Proctor deserves to hang for seducing a teenager, regardless of whether he danced with the devil.
The recent revivals have shown that Miller’s texts can take – and gain from – innovative presentation. The Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge was sensibly permitted by the estate to ignore the stage directions and set the action in modern dress on a bare stage that climactically rained blood, reconnecting the play with its origins in Greek tragedy.
And, in her version of The Crucible, the South African director Yaël Farber locates the play in a place of mud, shadows and darkness that has more in common with settings of Macbeth than the designs Miller described in 1953. But the fear in Salem that “private vengeance is working through this testimony” echoes down the centuries and decades. Farber makes the play both timeless and topical.
In a Straits line
Captions are a tricky calculation for art curators: thumping footnotes can irritate the knowing but novices may be thrown by the gnomic. The comments beside works by Ryan Gander in “The Human Factor”, a survey of figurative sculpture at the Hayward Gallery in London, adopt a curious attitude. We are told that his bronze bodies involve a “quotation” from Degas’s dancers but not that two of his titles – which include the words “Come up on different streets . . . ” and “When we made love you used to cry . . .” – draw from the Dire Straits song “Romeo and Juliet”.
The possibilities seem to be that the Hayward anticipates a clientele that needs nudging on Degas but has no trouble with a Mark Knopfler lyric; or that the curators are too highbrow to have picked up Gander’s pop culture nods. If the latter, it seems appropriate that Gander called one of his books In A Language You Don’t Know and even more fitting that he adapted that phrase from a pop lyric (by Low), as well.