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Salem revisited
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 12 - 2015

In William Congreve's tragedy, The Mourning Bride (1697), Queen Zara, the central character, declaims at the dramatic close of Act III: “Heav'n has no Rage like Love to hatred turn'd, / Nor Hell a Fury like a Woman scorn'd.” These two memorable lines, which have been popularly knocked together to form the aphorism: ‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned,' best sum up the basic plot of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Written in 1952, at the height of Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee's crusade against supposed communist sympathisers, the play uses the records of the Salem witch trials of 1692 to replay a terrible period in American history by way of protest and warning.
However, the play's allegorically intended critique of the violation of the freedom of conscience, thought and belief is diluted and often derailed by the intrusion of melodrama in the shape of a fictional lovers' triangle (John Proctor, his wife Elizabeth and Abigail Williams) which occupies the centre of the play. Though Proctor, his wife and Abigail are real historical characters that feature prominently in the records of the trials, the relationships of love, jealousy and hatred that bind them in the play are pure invention. As has been pointed out, the affair between Proctor and Abigail Williams, the Minister's teenage niece who works as a servant in his house, and which ends in her dismissal when discovered by his wife, is pure fiction; “in real life Williams was probably about eleven at the time of the accusations and Proctor was over sixty, which makes it most unlikely that there was ever any such relationship”.
It is this invented affair, however, or, rather, the jilting of Abigail by Proctor, that triggers and propels the action and provides its dramatic motive.
Rather than investigate the causes behind the eruption of such destructive communal hysterias and trace their roots in the socio-political and economic structure of the community, its historical situatedness, culture, creed and value system – an investigation that would have required a different dramatic mode, one perhaps nearer Brecht's epic theatre – Miller, perhaps with an eye on his audience, processed his rich material through the narrow mould of a realistic domestic drama that aspires to the tragic but falls far short of it and at times slips into melodrama. In this process, the possible real causes of the Salem tragic witch-hunt – such as its Puritanical tenets which demonise the arts and all sensuous pleasures, its economic conditions, the string of military disasters in the nearby Indian frontier war and the influx of refugees from it into the area, the property disputes and family feuds and the congregational schism that split the community before the outbreak of the witches hysteria – are pushed to the margins or completely ignored.
Miller may have intended the play as a tragedy, but hard as I try, I simply cannot experience it as such. It lacks a sympathetic centre and Proctor cannot by any stretch of sympathy qualify as a tragic hero. Every time I see or read it, I find myself disliking all the characters, with the exception, perhaps, of Tituba and Mary Warren – the former (passionately rendered by Lauren K. Clark) for her position as a slave and her alienation from her homeland and culture, and the latter (intelligently interpreted by Alia El-Saady as basically honest but a little dim) for resisting, albeit for a short while, the mass hysteria and trying to tell the truth. The rest of the Salem community, as represented in the play, including the guilty and the innocent, the accusers and accused, strikes me as religiously bigoted, morally smug and self-righteous, intellectually dogmatic and petty minded and repulsively chauvinistic with regard to race and gender. It is an oppressively patriarchal, parochial, puritanical, conformist and priggish community, dominated by greed and envy, fear, suspicion and violence, where the whipping of females and servants for disobedience and the owning of slaves are common practice. In “writing a fictional story about an important theme,” as he described what he did in The Crucible, Miller failed to do justice to either.
The recent AUC production of The Crucible is the third in Egypt. The two previous ones, staged in 1997 and 2011, were in Arabic and both were adaptations. The first, Mohamed Abul Su'ood's at Al-Hanager centre, called The Left Foot of Night (which in Egyptian lore refers to the approach of evil, entering a place with the left foot being a bad omen), was a free and rather wild adaptation of the play that added new characters, such as the town clown and doll-maker and Simon Magus, and worked into it not only Miller's printed footnote on what happened to Abigail and Elizabeth after the trial, but also other texts and varied audio-visual material. In many scenes, Lucifer, in a black and red cape, suspended on a high platform at the back, watched the characters' struggles while coolly smoking a cigarette. The changes were so extensive that the final staged script amounted to a new play written on the old one. Interestingly enough, this production, which curiously combined a real terror of religious fanaticism with a strong belief in supernatural evil forces, coincided with the 1997 hysterical media coverage of a so-called satanic cult discovered by the police.
The other Arabic production, Gamal Yaqoot's The Witches of Salem at Al-Tali'a, offered a condensed 90-minute version of the play in Abdel-Mon'im Al-Hifini's classical Arabic translation, adding only an opening scene of the girls dancing in the wood, in imitation of Nicholas Hytner's 1996 movie. Staged at a time when pronouncedly Islamic political parties, formed by various factions of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement after the toppling of Mubarak, were legalized and the danger of a repressive religious regime loomed large, it was intended as a warning against the rise of Islamists to power (for a review of the production, see ‘Sounding the alarm', Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 1070, 27 October, 2011).
The American University production of The Crucible, directed by Frank Bradley, with sets and lighting by Stancil Campbell, costumes by Jeanne Arnold and music and sound effects by Bassem El-Kahki, is the first to treat Egyptian audiences to a straightforward, complete and unadulterated performance of Miller's text. In view of the play's length, Bradley divided its four acts into two neat blocks of two acts each, with a 10-minute interval in between, making the total running time three hours. The needed set changes between the acts in each block were, perforce, made in full view of the audience on the dimmed stage. This would have been a drawback had the scenery adhered to the overall realistic style adopted in the acting. Instead, Campbell's austere and barren realistic sets of the dwellings and public places of the Puritan community of the play sported some imaginative expressionistic touches.
The performance space was structured in such a way as to place the realistic representation of the interiors of the different locations in the four acts on a raised platform that takes up most the stage floor, with no back or side walls, visually placing the action on a public stage, in the open air, as it were, against an open sky which changes in colour from one act to the next. Wearing a twilight violet hue in the first, where a large window hangs down from the flies, suspended in midair above another, smaller platform at the back, representing in Betty's bedroom, it changes to pitch dark in the rest of the scenes, as if engulfing Proctor's living room, the vestry room of the Salem meeting house and the cells of the condemned in total darkness. In the final scene, it reflects a fearful red-orange glow against which the townspeople gathered to witness Proctor's hanging are silhouetted. In all these background changes, one feature is fixed: a high stack of firewood, like those used for burning witches in earlier times, which fitfully glows as if ignited.
Campbell's beautiful, thoughtful and intensely evocative sets were fully and meaningfully exploited by Bradley in blocking out his actors' movement and creating stirring visual effects. Their combined creative input softened the grim realism of the play, injecting into it a dose of theatricality, as if it were a public reenactment of a historical episode on the stage of the world. Thanks to this dose of theatricality, the screaming, chocking, dashing about and contorting in pain performed by Abigail and her gang only elicited laughter. It also helped to extensively play down the embarrassing lovers' triangle in the interest of foregrounding the greed and pettiness of the community leaders, represented by Reverend Parris and the wealthy Thomas Putnam (played by Yousif Najem and Mahmoud Yehia El-Rayes consecutively), who argue over money and land deeds next to Betty's sick bed in the first scene, and the ignorance, bigoted stupidity and mulish obstinacy of the judges, particularly Deputy Governor Danforth (as played by Jason Will) and officers of the law in the investigation and trial scenes.
This made the second part of the performance (Acts III and IV) much more gripping, absorbing and suspenseful than the first one. Indeed, for the first time in my long experience of the play I found the character of the Reverend John Hale (performed Waleed Hammad) deeply moving and almost tragic. With some alteration in his costume, he turned from a dashing, elegant, cockily self-assured expert on witchcraft in the first scenes to a dishevelled wreck of a man, racked by guilt and remorse in the last. The fact that such a character could conquer his vanity and revise his most deeply seated beliefs and convictions – something that, barring Mary Warren's brief awakening, none of the other characters, the accusers as much as the accused, does, or seems capable of doing – provided the only glimmer of hope in the play.
That the performances tended to drag in some stretches, particularly in the first part of Act II, before the officers of the law invade the Proctors' home, was no fault of the actors; the play is to blame for this. The large cast, numbering twenty one, showed substantial talent in varying degrees and was uniformly competent, well-trained and highly disciplined. Dressed by Jeanne Arnold in accurate historical costumes, in muted shades of brown, grey, black and white – colours that blended well with the dominant grayish brown of Campbell's wood interiors – they gave a vivid, well-tuned and well-paced ensemble performance that did justice to the directorial and visual conceptions of the artistic team and well deserved the enthusiastic applause the audience gave them at the end. More applause is due to the Bradley/Campbell/Arnold magnificently creative trio who has turned a flawed play into a memorable show they can proudly add to their former joint achievements.

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