Producing “The Crucible”

Arthur Miller's The Crucible Poster and logo for saleBy Arthur Miller
Performance length: about 2 and ½ hrs. with a 15-minute intermission.




CAST POTENTIAL: This play offers a great amount of room for actors committed to expressing a gamut of emotions, including fear, grief, fury, hysteria, and isolation.

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CROWD REACTION: Though it is a long play, audiences find it thrilling and emotionally engrossing.

GENRE: Drama

When several young girls in Salem, Massachusetts are caught dancing in the woods, they each claim they were possessed by spirits. Eventually, this small lie leads to mass hysteria and many of the townspeople become indicted for witch craft. After John Proctor (our protagonist) discovers his wife has been accused, he goes on a mission to set her free and disprove the lies spreading throughout the village.

However, Proctor meets his match in a cruel, iron-willed Judge Danforth, who “speaks God’s law” with resolution. Eventually Proctor himself becomes condemned for witch craft. At the end of the play, however, when Danforth gives Proctor the opportunity to spare his life, Proctor is empowered. He refuses to lie about his honor and hangs in a final act of redemption.

Arthur Miller wrote this play in response to the House of Un-American Activities established by Joseph McCarthy in the late 40s. The sole purpose of this house was to seek out Communists hiding in the fabric of American society. Miller saw a distinct parallel between the House of Un-American Activities and the Salem Witch trial, and used that parallel to express how hysteria can lead to irrational fear and violent injustice.

This play is a monumental task for actors. Miller makes it clear right from the start that this play is about life and death. Consequently, the pace and pitch of the play can be feverish from beginning to end. This makes it easy for casts to fall into melodrama. Also, because of the length and scope of the piece, casts can be tempted to rush through without finding the play’s natural peaks and troughs.

Furthermore, Miller’s script is very dense with poeticism and high-speech that can easily bog down the action of the play. However, in the right hands, these speeches can elevate The Crucible to levels of theatric intensity. With proper direction and deft understanding of the script, this play will bring the best out of your actors, giving them an opportunity to express the depths of human emotion and passion.

Note: the role of Tituba is race specific and should be played by a black actress.

The action of the play is set in three different locations – a minister’s house, a meeting house vestry, and a prison cell. Therefore, the setting of the play should not be too difficult to justify. With an expressionistic set, all that would be needed to establish each location would be a few props. Costumes are generally dictated by the period of the piece, dressing actors in Puritan garb.

Because this play is thematically rich, many of the play’s motifs – such as chaos, religious fanaticism, and the title of the play (suggesting fire and brimstone) — can be expressed metaphorically through the set and costume. Many productions use black and white schemes to highlight the themes in the piece. I was in a performance where the set was slowly dismantled throughout the performance, suggesting the decay of law, order, and civilization.

This play deals with many adult themes such as adultery, spiritualism, hypocrisy, and death. Depending on the intensity of the acting, this play is most likely appropriate for audiences thirteen and older. However, while mature, these themes are crafted artfully by Miller and presented in a manner most people can embrace.

The play is both highly literary and didactic, which can inhibit the acting and staging quite a bit. As long as emphasis is placed on the raw humanity of the characters, though, this challenge can be overcome. Actors should remember that this play is about life and death, that every word and action their characters choose is a matter of extreme importance and that any wrong move can be their undoing. With this in mind, the literary quality of the play can be infused with frailty, passion, and humanity.

I have been in the production twice and have seen it twice more. The first half of the piece is always harder to sell than the second. Because of the high intensity of the trial scene, it is easy to really force the audience to the edge of their seats. The first act, however, is all set-up. Miller is carefully laying the groundwork for the impending fury of the second half. So the emphasis is on character development, relationships, and exposition. Remain patient and trust that the play will deliver in the second and third act.