Plays are written to be performed before an audience, and not necessarily just read from the page. As an English lit major, I’ve read many more plays than I’ve seen, and when I’ve seen plays I’ve also read, I always marvel at how the work comes alive on stage. Yet, I equally enjoy parsing through the text, because I believe that the best writers make every sentence count -everything means something and has a specific purpose in furthering the theme, the character, the mood or the plot. I think Shakespeare is a great example of this. I find something new every time I re-read a play, but then when I see some director’s interpretation of it, I see how the bare words can be shaped into another, different vision.
I’ve mentioned before that I’d never seen The Crucible live, despite many opportunities. I saw the film after I learned Richard Armitage would play Proctor, ( I think it worth a discussion on the film alone at some point, as Arthur Miller wrote the screenplay), and I listened to an audible play. And of course, I reread it a number of times. So, I cannot write about the film by comparing it to the live production. Instead, most of my comparisons will be with the text itself.
Watching Yaël Farber’s version of The Crucible, even on screen, gave me more clarity than I had before, even though I knew the words so well. The three sharpest instances of this for me were the scenes with the girls, especially in Act I when Abigail, (Samantha Colley) aggressively, even violently, intimidates, threatens and bullies the other girls into submission and fear, almost all the scenes with Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin), who, on the page, is not as simpering and cowering as she was on stage, and the complete, physically disintegration of Reverend Hale, (Adrian Schiller) who starts out in the play tightly buttoned up – literally, in his high buttoned coat, and ends up, in Act IV looking almost as a prisoner as did Proctor – with his open shirt, disheveled hair and haunted visage.
Having said that, my original and long-held opinion of the play, and some of the crucial decisions made by the characters, especially, Danforth, Elizabeth and John Proctor, have not changed. But more of that a little further below.
As I felt when reading the play, Act I, while long and a little tedious, was brilliant in carefully setting up and out the milieu, the problems in Salem society and the factions that push the play on. In some ways, I think it the most brilliant of all the Acts for its success as providing a foundation for most of what comes next ( excluding the Proctor/Elizabeth relationship and the authority of the court). From the get go, the audience can knows the characters of Parris, Abigail and Rebecca Nurse. It’s made clear that citizens have grievances against one another and their minister, that this has gone on for a while, that there is a true belief in the Devil and witchcraft, and of course, the history of John and Abigail. I think it a perfect Act I, for so successfully fulfilling its obligation as the first act.
I drooled a little watching the scene between Proctor and Abigail, finding the staging sexual and a little violent, in a hot way. When Abigail presses her palms on Proctor’s thighs, when they get up to one another nose to nose, when he whips her around and slams on on the table in what has to be seen as a reenactment of “from the rear,” when Proctor, making his escape from the other side of the stage but they come together again, I was entranced. Though, I didn’t find much chemistry between Armitage and Colley, and I’m more impressed by Colley’s movements than her acting.
It was always my opinion that Abigail had as strong hand in either seducing or going along with Proctor’s seduction, that he still had sexual feelings for her ( as both Abigail and Elizabeth smartly note). What seeing it live changed for me, was Proctor’s ambivalence and shame. The certainty that she still “stirs him” to borrow a term from Guy of Gisborne, and that he has, indeed been looking up at her window, that she saw something in his face when Elizabeth put her out on the high road, It doesn’t come through on the page as it does on screen. The words alone ( unless one reads the stage notes) leave room for doubt as to where the two currently stand. The action doesn’t.
Act II held some surprises for me because it fleshed out John Proctor’s personal character. For example, when he tasted the unseasoned rabbit stew and decided to salt it. He wasn’t just “displeased” as the program notes read, he seemed disgusted and angry. I’d often read this as amusing, especially after he tells her it’s a well-seasoned dish, but this production showed something different. To me, his displeasure, or some emotion anyway, was also evident when he notices the flour left on the table, from where his wife had earlier been kneading bread. I wonder whether the significance of this stage direction was intended to indicate his displeasure that she had not adequately cleaned up after herself and what that signaled to him.
Elizabeth’s coldness towards her husband is much clearer on screen than it is in the play. In fact, everything about Anna Madeley’s Elizabeth is cold and forbidding, from her angular face, to her halting style of speech at times and her frail, invalid movements.
Proctor, as a person, comes through the live version, at least this one, with characteristics I’d not paid much attention to before. In addition to the shame, sin and self-disgust that illuminates the page, on stage, in Act II, there’s a certain naiveté or simplicity that I find in sharp contrast to Elizabeth’s more realistic and politically savvy assessment of their current situation. Elizabeth understands more about Proctor than he does himself. Elizabeth is more in tune with what’s happening in the community, the risks and dangers, and the inevitability of what Abigail is about. I don’t believe her when she says that she’s not judging her husband, but he is judging himself.
Elizabeth is shrewd and calculating:Proctor is not. And I maintain my original opinion that her shrewdness extends itself to her actions later in Act III when she lies in court, and in Act IV when she refuses to convince him to save himself.
Despite Proctor’s lyrical dialogue about the beauty of Massachusetts in the spring ( lilacs are a particular favorite of mine), and his statements that he aims to please Elizabeth, along with her reassurance that she knows he does, I have never and still don’t see love in this marriage. I see partnership, commitment to the marriage, to the team, to the family -I see respect, but I don’t see the passion or romance that a more perfect marriage should include. What it was “before Abigail,” I cannot say for sure, but I think Elizabeth tells us some of this in Act IV when she tried to explain her coldness to her husband as he is minutes away from the rope.
On the page, when John verbally attacks Elizabeth for her cold, pious and unforgiving nature, when he recounts how over 7 months he has tried everything to win back her trust, it has always come struck me as a sort of pleading, explanatory speech. But in this production, he’s angry and accusatory, calling on his full power as husband and head of the family to bend her into submission. ” I cheated, I’m sorry, get over it.” And yet, he continues to lie to her, cover up, omit – all of which she knows. I find little sympathy for John Proctor in this scene, and more brutishness than on the written page.
I thought the part of this act when he chases Mary Warren around the room with a whip was poorly done, and almost comical. Perhaps it was so intended. Other than that, I think Natalie Gavin’s performance throughout is stellar.
In general, except for his speech about the beauty around him, I preferred Richard Armitage’s performance in this Act when he was soft, hesitant and conciliatory over the parts when he was angry, powerful and demanding. I preferred his non-verbal acting to his dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, I know there were a number of theater-goers and reviewers who commented that he shouted too much and sometimes was not understood. I know this was filmed at the end of the run when his voice was probably at it’s most stressed – but I found that in a few instances – only a few, that his diction was imperfect – in at least two scenes I thought I detected a lisp, ( maybe dry-mouth? I wrote down the exact dialogue, but misplaced it, however I think it was something he said to Mary Warren when she returned from court.) and his sentence about a five legged dragon was unintelligible. This could be because of the acoustics, but no other actor seemed to have this problem, and although Armitage’s voice is at such a low register that his words may get muffled, Adrian Schiller also has a low voice, and I didn’t notice these problems.
To be continued.
11 thoughts on “Perry’s Take of The Crucible on Screen – Part 1”
I agree, I was disappointed with the clarity of the five-legged dragon line, too. Hubby and stepdad both didn’t understand him, and I only did because I knew the line from the live performance (when I had no trouble understanding it). Unlike you, I didn’t really read Elizabeth so much as cold and calculating as numb. Emotionally numb, and exhausted in the way that someone clinically depressed is exhausted.
Good comment, jholland. I also read Elizabeth as being exhausted both physically and mentally. And I really enjoyed reading your assessment so far, perry. I’ve always thought that RA had a slight lisp. But, don’t forget the HUGE amount of dialogue that Proctor has as opposed to the rest of the cast. Many of the main cast, like Danforth and Abigail, only appear in two out of four acts – it’s not surprising that RA’s voice became strained and a bit rough, especially since he was often required to shout.
I’m looking forward to part II.
I can’t say that I thought Richard Armitage had a lisp – but if he does, it’ll come in useful for his next role as Francis Dolarhyde.
I remember the part where Elizabeth mentions she was sick for a while after the birth of their last child. As a mom I’ve always wondered if she was suffering from PPD. When I saw the play live the first thing that came to mind was that she was tired and possibly depressed. I also saw her as a woman who is insightful, but does not have much self respect. She blames herself for the affair because she was sick and a cold wife. However, It was John’s weakness and Abigail’s manipulation that was the cause. As for the girls, all I could think…They are the original “mean girls”. OMG, Natalie Gavin as Mary Warren was outstanding. My eyes would follow her during Act III
Fascinating analysis! As a fellow English major who focuses heavily on the written word, I always find myself surprised by the power of the director and actors to shape and interpret the text.
As to the marriage of the Proctors, I found myself wondering whether marriage in those days was still traditional in the sense that it was not supposed to be about romantic love, but about commitment, trust and loyalty. Especially in the colonial world, I can see how people could not afford to make alliances based on romance and sexual chemistry. If it was present, it was lucky for the couple, but maybe they thought of it as a luxury, or even a sin, given their Puritan backgrounds.
I am finally watching this. I think Elizabeth is depressed as well. I thought it seemed as if John loved Elizabeth, but it is less clear how Elizabeth feels about John. She obviously doesn’t want him to kiss her, but that could be anger or disgust rather than lack of love.
I’m really liking Reverend Hale’s performance.
Well rounded review so far, well done! I have to agree that I see Elizabeth more as numb as well. And interesting that you pointed out RA’s not always perfect diction. I have thought that before on (sparse) occasions as well, I think as far back as North & South. As for the blame – cracks in a marriage tend to be due to both partners not being perfect and I am glad Elizabeth acknowledges some of that as well, albeit it a little late… I have not actually read The Crucible yet, so don’t know how the play compares to the text, so it’s very interesting to see your take on it here. Thank you! I’m especially curious about text-Mary-Warren now. 🙂
Hope you’re ok and just an Easter break 🙂
Loved reading this and it is interesting to read how different the impact is on people who see it.
I agree on Abigail and i think the production did a wonderful job of showing what kind of a bully she really is.
But i have a very different view of Elizabeth. I don’t think marriage was a romantic notion i those time and that in a way it was more about partnership and respect and survival above all, including survival for the next generation. I also think she is clearly depressed and she knows it, that she is not quite ok ( it comes across when she says to Danforth i was a long time sick.. her tone is almost apologetic).
I know the play feels shouty but it think as soon as we stop to think that we are dealing with life and death situations here and not just annoyances the shouting becomes justified. What would we do in such desperation?
I think there definitely is love between the Proctors, but it is a kind of love they come to recognise very late, but the signs are all there, for that reason as well the 2nd act is probably my favourite of the entire play. His anger stems from frustration more than anything, it is not really what he thinks but an outburst of his need for warmth in his marriage. He shows he cares about Elizabeth when he sends Mary back immediately when he finds her at Pariss’s home, he speaks about her not only with respect but with almost reverence, to others, not to her 🙂 He thinks she can do no wrong based on her moral strength and blames himself and his own more passionate nature for what lacks in their marriage. It is love, but his feelings for Abigail and the lack of passion in his marriage confuses him. And there is the shame and blame.
I don;t think Elizabeth is cold per se, she just has very black and white views of the world, on religious grounds mostly. It is her radar, her compass, it is how she interprets life. I felt her anger at his hiding is jealousy as well, she’s very clear that he shall have no other, and she is his only wife! I don’t think that is out of spite, it is profoundly what she feels, she cares very much and is hurt by his straying and it also enhances her own doubts about her worth as a women.
And there is of course the fact that as we later find out she is pregnant 🙂 It’s not been all that icy in those 7 months between the two. And it may not be romantic to us him buying cows for her but it is to her, she is very pleased indeed at what he brings to their family life.
I think what we see is a fight scene, provoked mostly by her suspicions about what he did in town and him not tell her all the truth and it brings them back to the first moments of their crisis when he revealed to her he has been unfaithful. But i don’t think or got the feeling it has always been this tense over the last 7 months. But it has not been as warm as he would like it, partly because she is naturally hurt and partly because she is also clearly depressed. He is genuinely concerned about her sadness, his own sadness comes through when he asks her if she is sad again.
I didn’t feel live him adding salt was an angry gesture, it was more defeated than anything else, she does everything around the house but it is efficient rather than loving, she forgot he likes his food salted although she didn’t forget to try the water and make sure it was warm enough. But he misses the flowers on the table 🙂 And wants to walk the fields with her; i get the impression they have done those things together in the past but she has no longer done them, i think at this point probably more due to the exhaustion of depression and maybe unconsciously trying to punish him? He certainly feels punished and it just re-enforces what his own heavy conscience tells him.
I also think her lie in act 3 reveals that she actually does think him a good man, she is trying to protect him, against her principles and to me that is a sign of love. It is just vat a very late stage that she realises that there are different ways of expression her love. Same for him, he probably realises he’s blamed himself more than she has done; he wishes he could undo what he did and does not realise that Elizabeth i think has accepted it but wants his commitment to openness and truth, she wants him to tell her he is just hers 🙂 whereas he needs forgiveness. And i think they give each other what they need at the end, but it is all too late.
Just a thought, or this is how i felt about it 😉 I thought there was romance between these too, but the times were such that expressing it was not easy and they are so entangled in how they individually feel that they fail to recognise what the other actually needs to be able to move on.
one day i’ll remember to read through and edit before posting, sorry for the typos and so on…
I agree with much f what you say, in that I think notions of marriage, partnership, sanctity of vows and so forth is probably what drove the marriage more than passion.
In Act II, I don’t think she forgot he liked his food salted. Perhaps she was being penurious as salt was expensive. I noticed that she never tasted the stew when she stirred it ( bad cook to add to everything else). As for her pregnancy, – as he husband he’s entitled to his conjugal rights, and was a good wife, I guess when she felt healthier, she allowed him. I believe her when she says he is a good man who just had his head turned, and I think he does revere her for her piety and goodness – but he wants more than reverence in his relationship, and he doesn’t get it. While she never actually tells him she forgives him, she never actually tells him she doesn’t.
More coming part 2.
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i think you are right in your points 🙂 It could very much be that i wanted to see a bit more love than there was … especially the one time i was close he was so tender on that night and not so furious, especially in the kiss. It was very hard to understand the women who refuses that kiss so completely 😦 Especially because he was so tentative and not at all forceful, that was a brutal rejection come to think of it, much harsher than words 😦 Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts 🙂