Richard Armitage, The Crucible and Dramatic Impact

From The Old Vic

From The Old Vic

I’ve been wanting to talk about the connections between Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Greek tragedy (and they are legion) but I very often shy away from blogging about the hard core literary side of the classical tradition.  It’s not that I’m not interested in it, but that in the past, I’ve felt out of my depth in such conversations with colleagues. Part of it has to do with the specific path of study of Classical Archaeologists versus that of Classicists.  I’ve studied both ancient Greek and Latin, being required to exhibit proficiency in both.  However, while my classicist colleagues went on to hone their language skills, I was learning to triangulate a point in three dimensions with a plumb bob (prior to GPS locating) to accurately map field discoveries.   I’ve read a large amount of Greek literature both in Greek and in translation, but when the Classicists moved on to in depth critical analysis of Greek dramas, I was learning about the physical forces that make buildings stand up (and fall down) and the difference between the Severe and Hellenistic styles in Greek sculpture, vase painting and architecture.

You see the thing is, Classical Archaeology is a field that is really a composite of information incorporated from several different disciplines.   We study methods and theory of field archaeology to be able to excavate source material, and while I know that there are archaeologists who work primarily in the excavation (in the US for instance, there are contract archaeologists who work for governmental and private agencies to undertake “rescue” excavations to salvage materials that are in the path of destruction, usually from some kind of construction project.) Classical Archaeologists must also complete graduate level work in art history, classical civilization, ancient and modern languages, history, anthropology and a host of other subjects depending on what their special area of interest is – ask me how those ceramic classes went sometime!  Essentially, in the face of everything that has to be crammed into the schedule, something’s got to give, and for me, it was literature, drama, especially tragedy, included.

Up until now, I’d kind of bought into the notion that I really wasn’t well versed enough to comment in any depth about classical tragedy, but as I was re-reading The Crucible over the past week or so, I’ve realized that’s crap.  As reports pour in from the first two preview performances, I’ve been struck by how strong the impact on the audience has been…especially from people who had no prior knowledge of the play.  These reports really resonated with me, because it strikes me that this is exactly what drama should do….it should make an impact.  Commenting about drama need not be confined to critically picking apart the text or even the specifics of performances, but also can include a discussion of the reaction it produces in an individual.  One doesn’t need an advanced degree to do this, just the desire to look closely at the play and ask why it causes the reactions it does.

A University of South Dakota production of Medea Source

A University of South Dakota production of Medea

Ancient Greek theater had its origins in religious ritual, eventually evolving and attaching itself to the worship of the god Dionysus, especially in Athens.  As such, Greek tragedy was not written for an erudite audience, but for the οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi) – the masses.  These masses, whose education varied from wholly illiterate to Platonic scholarship, would all have been well versed in the mythological landscape in which tragedies were set.  No spoiler alerts were required…everyone in the theater knew that Oedipus would blind himself and Pentheus would lose his head.  The Classical Greeks went to the theater to see how an individual playwright would spin an ancient story in a new and interesting way.  How an old tale could be written to produce a new response.

In essence, that’s what the classical playwrights were trying to do…to take these well known myths and evoke a visceral response in the audience by focusing on themes and concepts that were ideologically important or conversely, frightening to the Greeks.  For the audience, no special knowledge of dramatic theory was necessary…one only need be human.  In a sense, every audience member judges the success of a performance, but for the Greeks this took a literal turn.

Tragedies were written and produced in a competition that was a part of the festival devoted to Dionysus.  Playwrights competed for a spot in the festival, and the three finalists each submitted three tragedies and a satyr play which were performed and judged.  The ten judges were drawn by lot from a pool of eligible candidates within each of the ten tribes of Athens and represented a mix of ordinary citizens, whose primary connection to the theater was as spectators, and those with a more professional interest.  At the end of performances, each of the ten judges would write their three winners in order of preference on a tablet.  The ten tablets were placed into a container, and then five were chosen at random to prevent bribery and bias.  The votes on these five tablets were tallied to determine the winners.

The assessment of the success of modern dramatic performance has changed considerably from its ancient antecedent.  While audience impression is still important to the commercial success of a production, a great deal of emphasis is now placed on the opinions of professional theater critics.  I suppose that this in part due to a kind of unspoken, yet pervasive, idea that the hoi polloi are not equipped to judge what constitutes “good theater.”  I’m not trying to suggest an overthrow of the system, but I think that this is an attitude that can be misleading at best, and snobbishly exclusionary at worst.  The motivations of modern theatrical performance are not so very different than they ever were – to shock, to amaze, to entertain, to question – namely, to evoke a reaction from the audience.

One of the elements of the preview performances of The Crucible that has been buzzing around Armitageworld is the portion of Act 2 where Richard Armitage is shirtless on stage as John Proctor.  I was kind of disappointed to see that some commenters pooh poohed all the excitement this caused.  Seriously?!  To this I would say, take a look at the original text and stage directions of The Crucible – I defy you to find this element there.  This scene was deliberately crafted by the director Yael Farber and played by the cast specifically to evoke such a visceral, human reaction…no different than cringing in horror at Proctor’s tortured condition in the final act or weeping at his ultimate fate.  It’s an evocative part of a new retelling of an old story.

Drool're only human! From the Old Vic

Drool on…you’re only human!
From the Old Vic

That post on the connections between The Crucible and Greek tragedy is coming shortly 🙂

18 comments on “Richard Armitage, The Crucible and Dramatic Impact

  1. Servetus says:

    Reblogged this on Me + Richard Armitage.

  2. Perry says:

    As someone who does have an advanced degree in literature, and who enjoys picking apart the language in the text and the stage direction (i.e the literary aspect of the work as well as the theatrical) I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said about the knowledge required, or not required to enjoy theater. Theater can be consumed and enjoyed on a variety of levels and they’re all legitimate. For this particular play, there’s been a lot written about the allegory of the McCarthy hearings,( the simplest reading, I think) and the historical accuracy of the Salem witch trials as well as contrasts and comparison of this work to other works of Miller’s and his contemporaries, as well as to classical theater. Lots of us love these sorts of exercises, even if we don’t particularly like the play, itself. ( You can enjoy the process and gain from discussing and studying a work you hate as much as from you love – thank heavens because I’ve had to study in detail a lot of stuff I’ve hated, but I still liked the exercise). A great deal of knowledge – or even any knowledge about those topics is not essential to understanding the play on some level or enjoying it. If picking apart language, accuracy, metaphor is your thing, and if it makes the the theater experience more meaningful to you, then fine, you can enjoy the work or revile it on that level. But I also think at the heart of this play are personal relationships, individual crises of conscience and other universal human conflicts that anyone can understand, relate to and empathize with, and I think it fascinating how different directors of this play and most plays) have a different, take, focus, and approach to how it’s played. ( ah – there’s another topic not necessary to know about for enjoyment – comparing different productions). If the production elicits emotional reactions from the audience, whether they are the reactions originally intended or not, then I would say, it’s a success and it has achieved its purpose as theater.

    • obscura says:

      I absolutely agree that the mark of “good” (struggling to find less subjective descriptors) drama is that which can appeal to a broad spectrum of people. I have zero quarrel with people who like to analyze language and technical aspects, but it drives me around the bend when one or two of them insist that this is the *only* valid approach to drama. At the same time, I have no patience for people, who without any exposure, pillory theater as being too intellectual or whatever. I think that both of these positions are wrapped up in antiquated, yet pervasive biases about high versus low culture. From where I sit, it’s all one.

  3. Servetus says:

    To anyone who pooh poohs nudity in theater, I would remind them about the phalluses on Greek stages. I remember when I learned this in graduate school, and the students I was TAing that semester went on to do a scene from Menander in costume with dildos attached to their waists. Topless is NOTHING.

    • obscura says:

      Nope…nothing at all, hang ups with nudity are a pretty modern phenomenon.

      In the comments I read though, people seemed less bothered by the presence of the nudity itself than they were by the emotive reactions to it. Um, but causing the reaction was kind of the whole point of putting it in there in the first place….don’t shoot the messenger.

    • obscura says:

      Oh, and another thing, considering some of the methodology for examining witches, a naked male torso is the least of what might have appeared on stage.

  4. judiang says:

    Regarding the nudity being an evocative part of retelling an old story – I’ve been musing over its purpose. A lot of the reaction I’ve seen is “RA is shirtless, those abs, hnnnnng!” Was it the director’s intention to evoke precisely that response (focusing on RA’s sex appeal) or tie it in with something else in the play? (Mind you, I haven’t read it in order to have a fresh view if I see it.) I suppose I wondering if it was absolutely gratuitous (not that I’d object!) or playing to something else that the audience may have missed?

    • Servetus says:

      On a basic level, it’s something a farmer does. (Having observed that, at least, at close range.)

      • judiang says:

        I’m embarrassed that never occurred to me. *DOH!*

        • Servetus says:

          don’t be silly. But I assume it’s a tool of characterization. Farmer comes in the house, sets down his gone, checks the soup, washes up for dinner. I don’t know that that requires disrobing but I’ve seen men do it if they were really sweaty.

          • obscura says:

            I hadn’t considered that it could be as simple as pure scene staging…it would be kind of gratuitous in that case, but still evokes a big response 😉

    • obscura says:

      I’m not totally sure. I was just looking back over that section. I wonder if it isn’t there to maybe underscore the coldness of this marriage at this point. He comes in and reveals himself to the audience as imminently desirable, yet his wife, who doesn’t see that exchange with the audience, but who is certainly aware of what lies beneath the shirt turned him away, precipitating the affair that has now come full circle, and seemingly still does (thinking on the fly).

      Sources vary on whether Farber’s use of nudity in her adaptation Mies Julie was gratuitous or contributed to the plot. Whatever it’s intended purpose, it certainly made at least part of the audience sit up and take notice…and maybe wonder what is up with Elizabeth Proctor that she’s “cold” to all that?

  5. obscura says:

    Or, maybe it’s to set up a contrast between his vitality at this point, and the wreck he is at the end? The stage directions do point to him looking like a wholly different man in the final scene.

  6. linnetmoss says:

    I love this conversation. It sounds to me as though there are perfectly good dramatic reasons to show Proctor without his shirt–all the ones you have mentioned. But the director cannot be blind (heh) to the fact that RA has a great body. I wonder if a third reason might be more visceral. To me there is something touching about nudity onstage, especially if the disrobed person is alone. It might increase the audience’s empathy for his character, in that they have had this intimate moment with him.

    • obscura says:

      I think that there are a lot of potentially valid reasons to make what is a bold, but not wholly unexpected (given the promotional poster) change here. I’m hoping that someone will ask Yael Farber about in an interview.

      I think what really bugged me was that audience members/fans were chastised for being excited and even titillated by a moment that was put into the mix to do exactly that, whatever deeper meaning it was meant to convey. Psst….Richard Armitage is half naked on stage in act two, but everybody pretend not to notice! Um?!? 🙂

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