Exploring the Politics of Fear: The Crucible and Eight Abigails

The Crucible  photo by Chris Bennion //  Eight Abigails  thumbnail photo by Jenny Peterson

The Crucible photo by Chris Bennion // Eight Abigails thumbnail photo by Jenny Peterson


Two recent Seattle productions--ACT’s The Crucible, directed by John Langs, and choreographer Kaitlin McCarthy’s full-length dance,  Eight Abigails–reveal that Arthur Miller’s 1953  play is on people’s minds. It’s hardly surprising. The Crucible’s concern with a fragile American community in crisis, vulnerable to fear-mongering that generates a state-sponsored killing spree, is resonant, in so many ways, with our present moment. However the play has not aged well, and Seattle’s ACT production—though very well-acted by a stellar cast--cannot rescue it.  McCarthy’s exploration offers a more generative way to engage with Miller’s work; it is at once a critique, a rejoinder, and a stand-alone creative piece.

Miller was a victim of the red scares of the 1940s and 1950s that loosely get labelled McCarthyism. Although not a communist party member, he was considered sufficiently left-leaning to be of interest to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which summoned him to testify. Miller refused to name names, the honorable path. And he wrote The Crucible, for which he chose an allegorical approach. (In dangerous times, allegory is prudent.) The infamous 17th century Salem witch trials, when 19 people (14 of them women) were executed for witchcraft, and close to 200 were accused, was Miller’s overt topic. But the paranoid premise of witchhunting--the invisibility of sorcerers—applied equally to his only slightly more covert topic. The devil’s minions are hiding everywhere among us corresponds with “reds are under the bed”.  This opens the door to opportunism; to torture; to coercion, given the absence of evidentiary norms. Among the historical Salem accusers were several female children, including the 11 year old Abigail Williams. She was an orphan, her parents killed in the Pequot War.  Among those accused, and executed, was John Proctor, a 60 year old farmer and innkeeper, now in his third marriage, to Elizabeth, with whom he had seven children.  There is no evidence that Abigail knew John Proctor personally, before she accused him.

 Miller decided to fabricate a love triangle and to organize the play around it. He raised the age of Abigail to 16, lowered the age of Proctor to 30-something, and removed all trace of Proctor’s former marriages and his abundant procreation. Abigail, in Miller’s backstory, had been a maid for the Proctors, had an affair with John, and had been fired for it.  Miller makes the vindictive Abigail a double instigator of Salem’s disaster. She is discovered by her uncle, in her attempt to kill Elizabeth off through Caribbean ritual (as she understands it, via by the enslaved Tituba). Not only is Abigail responsible for ushering “witchcraft” into the white community; she also then leads the witchhunting reign of terror, to deflect focus from her own culpability.

What could have been a piercing account of social injustice and disaster shrinks, in Miller’s hands, to the personal tragedy of a “good” man, John Proctor, destroyed by a fatal attraction to a calculating and vindictive young woman. Tragedy, and, of course, redemption; his pregnant wife forgives his betrayal, and supports him to the point of perjuring herself, endorsing his choice of death as evidence of his essential goodness.  This is frustrating on so many levels. At a time when more and more “good” men are being exposed, and held to account, as sexual predators and abusers, this play asks us to see a man who cheats on his wife and has an inappropriate affair with a young employee as more sinned against than sinning. Miller exploits this adulterous lapse as the classical “tragic flaw” that then helps Proctor attain the exalted status of hero. That Miller should rely on the cliched ideological polarities of Madonna/Whore, and present adolescent women as public enemy number one, bothers me too.  

It’s not only as a feminist that I’m frustrated. As a socialist also. This play is unremittingly liberal (rather than radical) in its emphasis on the suffering and moral salvation of an individual. The apex of the play is Proctor’s decision to die, after his attempts to legally expose the fraudulent proceedings fail.  What matters most is the fact that brave Proctor has spoken truth to power, and chooses death over falsehood. (Though Miller includes other suffering innocents, who also refuse to falsify themselves, they are bit players who function merely to magnify Proctor’s struggle.)  It’s a bleak and individual solution to a collective problem. This production fully supports the script’s sanctification of Proctor; lighting, acting, and elevated stage props all highlight his (literal) ascension.

This play dates from 1953, the year that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on the charges of espionage for the Soviet Union. It’s little wonder that Miller should lean to bleakness. However there were –and are now--other ways to frame and explore the politics of fear. The historical record shows that unstinting public petitions, clergy apologies and speeches, and the archival efforts of the weaver Robert Calef, led to conviction reversals and financial compensation that began 10 years after the executions. Miller is silent on these successes and the possibility of effective collective mobilization that gave rise to them. So how, then, to read the current political takeaway of this play? At best, as an invitation to heroic, outnumbered individuals to keep on struggling to speak truth to power. Through aligning with Proctor, the audience enjoys seeing through the deception, feeling righteous indignation about the “deplorable” way that the gullible masses, and their manipulators, behave. It’s a sanctimonious ego boost that operates through denigrating less enlightened others.   (Another takeway: Guys, if you must be cheat on your wife, try using Ashley Madison, or an escort service, instead of a volatile teenager.)

This elitism rests on anachronism. As Emily George, DeConstruct’s 17th-century witchcraft specialist suggests, Miller overlooks the fact that “in  17th century English/Anglo-American culture, essentially no one did not believe in witches. He presents an entire culture as stupid and gullible, which doesn’t get at what’s really insidious and frightening about witch trials. Even famous skeptics who didn’t think people could work magic or make actual pacts with the devil didn’t go so far as Proctor; they just suggested that people who thought they were performing witchcraft weren’t actually having any effect on the world. It would be so much more effective to make the audience feel less superior”.

If historical Salem is diminished in this play, by Miller’s equation of belief with stupidity, the political culture of contemporary USA is too. Miller contests McCarthy’s view that American Communists were possessed by Satan by mocking the notion of the supernatural in general. And by stressing just how much the accused have in common with their accusers. They form the respectable backbone of their society; their values and ideas are indistinguishable from their accusers’. This throws the radical baby out with the bathwater. Miller sidesteps the real ideological and material conflicts that structure and divide American society, in order to promote an anemic notion of a ‘common humanity’.  What we need now, in an era where socialism is enjoying increasing popularity in the US, is playmaking that embraces and engages those oppositional, radical ideas so feared by McCarthy. Not an art that makes these ideas disappear from view.  

Despite its homogenizing impulses, the play allows some expressions of otherness on stage. Most importantly, enslaved Tituba, brought by Rev. Parris from Barbados (as she was in the historical record). Miller is not indifferent to Tituba, but he’s not too invested in her either, seeing her primarily as the vessel of Afro-Caribbean culture. (For a splendid fictional corrective to this neglect, read Maryse Conde’s I Tituba, Witch of Salem.)  Her spiritual power is granted no credibility, but Miller respects her sufficiently to invite sympathy for her sad fate.  Since we are in white liberal land, he endows her with compassion towards her white owners and captors. Kindly, benign, a Caribbean black Mammy, in short. Shermona Mitchell is impressive as Tituba, injecting emotional nuance lacking in the script. As Emily George observes, this particularly in an early scene where she is forced to confess, where she started to show anger that Miller doesn’t allow for.

However Langs evidently wants to take the subject of race to a different level, altogether, and  opens the play with a non-verbal scene of his own invention.  As a director, Langs consistently, and laudably, takes movement very seriously in his productions, and does more than many Seattle directors to use its resources creatively.  In a highly verbal play like this one, physical theatre is particularly welcome. However, this scene is deeply problematic.  The scene places Tituba at the center of stage action. She’s seated on the ground, engaged in the act of conjuring: singing, declaiming, summoning spirits.  Abigail, and her adolescent buddies, stand around her, and we witness the girls begin to become possessed, as Tituba continues. Amy O’Neal’s choreography suggests that this is possession at work, and that Tituba is the orchestrator. The girls jerk and contort their limbs, involuntarily pulled into ugly angles by invisible forces.

In a different context, as part of a different story, this could be an exhilarating spectacle. One that honors the energy and authority of black expressive traditions, rituals and spiritualities. Here, however, it runs counter to the secular framework of the play and scrambles Miller’s script by suggesting that Tituba is indeed a powerful witch, capable of possessing white bodies and bending them to her will. She morphs from black Mammy to treacherous agent of black magic. Not only does the scene risk fueling anti-black racism, it suggests that the witch hunting might have been warranted. See what black women do when you aren’t looking; they bewitch white women!

Without the Tituba-as-mastermind element, a dance scene might have made a valuable commentary on the patriarchal body politics embedded in the play. As we later witness, Abigail is an impressive physical performer: she fakes Satanic possession, twisting and contorting her body, and incites and bullies others to do the same. To move one’s female body beyond the bounds of Puritan propriety is in itself, for this community, disturbing. To shape that movement into the forms of dance is to assume a degree of independent agency that can only be construed as malign. It’s the imagery of dance that Proctor uses, to convey Abigail’s murderous agenda, when he denounces her as a ‘’whore” to the authorities; she wishes, he says, to "dance with me on my wife's grave".

 Which leads me to the Eight Abigails.  This takes the social threat posed by dance in the play, and turns it into a powerful exploration of trauma and healing. It is beautifully performed by dancers who are also skilled actors, in a work that requires its performers to enact—in voice, face, and movement-- a supercharged set of emotions. Miller is interested less in emotions than in the injustice that they can generate, and in passing judgement on the perpetrators. Eight Abigails lacks judgementalism, looking instead to chart and accept those emotions, and understand the conditions that create them. If Abigail manipulates the fear felt by others in The Crucible, here she experiences fear herself. Intensely, and graphically. And many other feelings also.   As the title suggests, there are many Abigails. In contrast to Miller’s reductive homogenizing of a “common humanity”, McCarthy emphasizes the emotional heterogeneity within individuals and across societies.  

You might think that all this multiplicity would be hard to follow. My fellow DeConstruct team member Kate Forster initially found it so, though as the dance developed, she found that it gained form and direction as a stream of consciousness. I saw the 20 minute version of Eight Abigails earlier this year at On the Boards, and to me, this 70 minute version was legible, and compelling, from start to conclusion, and an exciting advance on its shorter iteration. It effectively harnesses dramatic lighting by Marnie Comings, imaginative sound by Mike Hamm, and costume design (by McCarthy herself) to shape its story, which moves Abigail from terror through to a state of grace, wholeness and perhaps even serenity.  (Unlike Proctor’s heroic arc of mis-step and exalted redemption).

Why choose eight Abigails? Eight creates a large stage impact, and allows a rich variety of movement and counter movement to emerge from dancers operating as a bloc, as dynamic pairs, and smaller groupings (including repeated, striking use of a solo dancer, Britt Karhoff, juxtaposed to the seven others). Eight is too large a number to allow the audience to focus on individual performers at the expense of others; we are forced to accept the ensemble for what it is, a company of women, whose work  imagines and probes the experiences of a young woman who has been marginalized, exploited, hurt, and demonized. 

It also enables McCarthy to evoke a community, of young women and of the Salem society at large—not just Abigail times eight. McCarthy writes in her Director’s notes that their preparation involved inducing “psychosomatic states of mass hysteria” that gave credibility to the young women’s historic courtroom performances of demonic possession. Yes, this is a bunch of hysterical women. Unframed by Arthur Miller’s sexism, speaking through the body. McCarthy’s space troubles the play’s polarities of innocence and guilt by highlighting the fear that unites them. McCarthy’s notes further explain that the company (she credits the dancers as collaborators) “improvisationally explore(s) the ideas of hive mind and unity that allows the girls to rise to power in the story”. The final product seamlessly combines improvisation with choreographed movement, a methodology that perfectly fits the subject itself. The choreography is always interesting, never gimmicky; the function of the movement is not to show off acrobatic skills but to articulate the ideas, and emotions, of the piece.

Eight Abigails launches us into a terrain of visceral terror, repression, and “wildness”. The Abigails shriek, dart, huddle, shake, stare, scan the space, sniff, laugh, gambol. They are dressed in grey shift dresses with white hoods. The costumes, designed by McCarthy,  evoke popular ideas of Puritanism: drab, functional, uniform. But at the margins of their clothes, slivers of red and orange lurk. This was a change from the 20 minute version, where no color contested the  austere, regimented life implied by the design. (Some of the early movement mirrors this rigid, circumscribed aesthetic—backs, legs and arms stiff, angular—postures of prayer and labor). As Eight Abigails develops, this design innovation becomes critical. The costumes, it turns out, are reversible. And reversal occurs—of not only the dresses but the lives they house. The costumes are turned inside out to engulf the dancers with flaming colors. The piece concludes with a stunning baptismal ritual, wherein each dancer bares her breasts (literally and symbolically), is carried by the others, embraced, transformed to a state free of fear, and full of possibility.

For a brilliant account of Eight Abigails’ feminism, please read Miranda Chantelois’ “Born to be Wild”  (http://seattledances.com/2017/11/born-to-be-wild/). Rather than retread Chantelois’ ground, I’ll end by naming some arenas Eight Abigails might productively explore in the future, should this project continue its evolution (as I hope it does). Although the work’s intensity  derives from its singular focus on patriarchal repression,  the work might gain a different, equal intensity were the colonial and racial dimensions of the story incorporated. The death of Abigail’s parents at the hands of Pequot Indians, the relationship of Abigail and Tituba: it would be fascinating to see what McCarthy would do with these characters, dynamics, and contexts. And since Eight Abigails is in a pointed, critical conversation with Miller’s play, it would be interesting to bring the script directly into the dance work, the better to engage and contest it. As it stands now, however, this is a major accomplishment that sets McCarthy, and this gifted company of Britt Karhoff, Hannah Rae, Erin Johnson, Danica Bito, Anna Krupp, Jenny Peterson, Tayler Tucker, and Alexandra Spencer, in the forefront of innovative contemporary Seattle dance.

  • The Crucible Produced by ACT 
  • The Crucible Written by: Arthur Miller
  • The Crucible Directed by: John Langs 
  • The Crucible October 13 -  November 12, 2017 performed at ACT

  • Eight Abigails Produced, Devised and Choreographed by Kaitlin McCarthy 
  • Eight Abigails November 10 - November 12, 2017 performed at Velocity Dance Center's Founders Theater
  • Review Lead: Laura Chrisman / Review Team: Emily George, Kate Forster