Defense Mechanisms? Richard Armitage, Jay Brooks & Greek Sculpture

It is well known that photographer Jay Brooks shot a striking series of images of Richard Armitage as John Proctor which were used in the promotion of the Old Vic run of The Crucible over the summer.¬† (One of them, in poster form, graces the wall of my office – curiously, my officemates don’t seem to mind ūüėȬ† )¬† Brooks published the image below, clearly from the same shoot, on his Twitter feed some time after the first batch.

Richard Armitage as John Proctor?

Richard Armitage as John Proctor?

I love “reading” iconography…deciphering the clues to meaning in a piece of art. ¬†From my perspective, this image stands apart from the rest of the series to a certain degree.¬† The pose is rather curious, the positioning of the arms relative to the head and torso creates a series of planes and angles that produce a level of three dimensionality that struck me as quite sculptural in effect.¬† It inspired me to take a look through the classical sculptural corpus to see if there was anything similar.

As it turns out, there are not a lot of male sculptures depicted in the arms to the head position, but there are a couple of pretty striking examples.  The first thing I thought to look for were depictions of Atlas.

Farnese Atlas Source

Farnese Atlas

After the battle between the Olympian gods and their elders the Titans, Zeus sentenced a number of the defeated Titans to onerous punishments. ¬†Atlas was sentenced to bear the heavens in his arms – he literally had the “weight of the world on his shoulders.”¬† Depictions of Atlas usually show him struggling under the weight he’s been charged with bearing.¬† The Farnese Atlas, a Roman copy of a 2nd century BC Greek original sculpture, shows Atlas with powerful musculature, but clearly putting forth enormous effort to hold it all up.¬† If Atlas were to be animated, I’ve always thought that one would be able to see subtle tremors and quivers in his musculature under this enormous burden.

Farnese Atlas - Face Source

Farnese Atlas – Face

Interestingly, a closer look at Atlas’ face reveals that although he shows signs of his stress, his expression is far from one of hopelessness or despair.¬† That seemed to me to bear some resemblance to the expression captured by Jay Brooks on the image of Richard Armitage.¬† Here Proctor is dirty and burdened, his expression strained, but the¬†upturned eyes indicate resilience, perhaps even defiance.

The most common examples of sculpted males with arms raised around the head are those who are captured unawares in an unguarded moment of sleep.¬† I showed you Endymion a few weeks ago and another stunning example of a “sleeping beauty” comes in the form of the Barberini Faun.

Baberini Faun Source

Baberini Faun

A faun is a half human, half goat woodland creature – similar to a satyr. ¬†This piece, 3rd century BC in date, captures a¬†faun in one of his favorite activities – sleeping¬†(cavorting about in the woods can *exhausting*!). This is a moment of extreme defenselessness and vulnerability…the splayed open legs and the upraised right arm, hooked behind his head, leave the faun completely open to attack. ¬†The problem here is that while the arm behind the head is similar, the images of Proctor never convey this level of vulnerability.

What we don’t see in the ancient corpus is a lot of examples of another reason to raise arms to the head…that is, defensively. ¬†You really only need to watch an hour or two of crime or forensic science programming to learn that defensive wounds most commonly appear on the hands and forearms of victims. ¬†It is instinctive to raise one’s arms to ward off an attack to the torso or head. ¬†However, even in sculptural groups with incredibly violent action (Centauromachy, Gigantomachy, Titanomachy) there are very few figures depicted in this defensive position. ¬†I imagine it has something to do with the sort of inherent submissive quality it conveys. ¬†Warriors are not depicted as submissive, and there is even a desire to depict enemies about to fall as glorious in defeat. ¬†In this context, the absence of a position of defense is not all that surprising. ¬†Defense doesn’t seem to be what is going on in the Brooks photo¬†either…I don’t see a whole lot of “defensiveness” in the image of Richard Armitage as John Proctor – not really surprising since Proctor’s defense is much more active than submissive.

All of this leaves me in a bit of a quandry about what Jay Brooks is trying to convey with this particular shot within the context in which it was taken. While physically imposing, John Proctor becomes increasing vulnerable as the play progresses…by the end, like the faun, he’s laid almost completely bare. ¬†Like Atlas, John Proctor does have a massive burden to bear, but is resolute, fighting against it to the very end. ¬†All in all, the connections are very nebulous, nothing quite fits. ¬†In fact,¬†if you page through the images on his website, you’ll see that Jay Brooks seems fond of putting subjects into unusually striking positions. So, maybe this image¬†was never really intended to convey any of the visual language of The Crucible, but is instead¬†an artistic expression of the photographer. ¬†(The fact that it was released separate from the images used for promotion of The Crucible is perhaps telling as well.)


Pea, Avocado and Chartreuse…Richard Armitage and The Crucible

I was doing really well coming to terms with the fact that I would not be seeing Richard Armitage perform as John Proctor at the Old Vic this summer.  I was only a sort of pale pea green with envy.  Until two days ago, and then this happened:

Awww, c'mon!  Really?!

Awww, c’mon! Really?! Source

I started running the logistics. ¬†I have a valid passport and an excellent rolling suitcase (interestingly enough, it’s green). ¬†I could probably scrape up the cost of admission, so what’s left? ¬†Oh, that’s right…there’s that little matter of transatlantic airfare and accommodations in a moderately pricey global capital. ¬†My husband just laughed at my increasingly avocado tinged skin. ¬†“What’s the big deal?” he says… “it’s not like The Crucible is¬†hot or something.” ¬†Oh really? ¬†Is that so?

Nope, nothin' hot here...

Nope, nothin’ hot here… Source

I’ve always been kind of amused by the contemporary notion that sex was completely taboo in the 17th – 19th centuries…that sexual expression is a product of the modern world. ¬†Yeah, not really. ¬†Puritan society was having plenty of sex, it was just legally confined to the context of marriage. ¬†The fact that Puritan law made adultery a capital offense is certainly suggestive that adultery existed. ¬†Adultery has always existed, and so have sanctions against it. ¬†One of the things I find most interesting about studying the activities of the human animal is no matter what the time period or the culture, the harder authority tries to crack down on something, the more enticing it becomes to humans.

There has been a lot of discussion about The Crucible being parallel to the “witch hunt” socio-political context of the McCarthy hearings, and that is certainly interesting, but I’m also very intrigued by the sexual politics of the play. ¬†Arthur Miller adjusted the age of the Abigail Williams character to allow for an adulterous affair between her and John Proctor, an affair that fuels much of the conflict. ¬† His guilt over the affair and her desire to continue it, to the point of implicating his wife as a witch to get her out of the way, creates an enormous sexual tension that runs behind the “witch” trials in the play. ¬†I doubt I’m the first person to note Miller’s allusion to the renewed sexual repression of the 1950’s America after a period of loosening social and sexual mores in the interwar period (1920’s-30’s). ¬†If the images from rehearsal are anything to go by, this production promises to deliver the goods on a variety of levels.

but I'm not bitter...

but I’m not bitter…much.

In all seriousness…to all who are going to see the play, have a fabulous time! ¬†(and for the love of all that’s holy, throw me some crumbs and let me know the details when you regain the power of speech!!)