Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Crucible: Why It Matters

I want to do a theatrical production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. The Crucible is about the Puritan witch-hunts in Massachusetts and uses them as an analogy for McCarthyism in the United States.

A lot of people know that the Puritans were sexually repressed religious fundamentalists. What a lot of people don't know is the context of their sexually repressed religious fundamentalism. As an example, in the 1600s the Puritans took control of England and banned all public performances of any kind. What do you think happened next? You might think the theater eventually, gradually recovered. No. What happened next were the first celebrity actors, the first female professional actors, and an explosion of the most sexually explicit comedies that had yet been seen on stage.

This theatrical microcosm illustrates a fundamental dynamic. In January 2009, we will finally see the departure from office of the President who's done the worst damage in history to our Constitution and our government. It's possible that we're about to follow him up with the first black President, and the first Web 2.0 President, and the first President to take no campaign donations from lobbyists. This is an extraordinary contrast. I know I'm going off-message here, but it's not really an only-in-America story. This is exactly what happened in the English theater in the 1600s.

The Crucible is a really interesting way to explore this. With George Bush and his warrantless wiretapping, the play would have been a very obvious choice in 2005 and 2006. I think it remains relevant, though, because there's an overall trend to greater surveillance in our society which began about twenty years ago in England with anti-terrorist cameras everywhere and has spread to many many countries. It's not going away with the election, no matter who wins.

The surface story of The Crucible is the terror of witch-hunts, and the girl Abigail, who fakes the witch-hunts as a way to chase this guy who she can't have, and have his wife killed so they can be together. There are a lot of ways to play her - I want her to be kind of monstrous and innocent at the same time, like the tip of a scary iceberg.

The icebeg is that the witch-hunts took place at a time of economic transition, and represented a sort of dying gasp of the old economic powers. What's implied at the end of the play is that the witch-hunts were not a creeping doom but a temperamental whirlwind. The picture you get of history is that these people were really superstitious, and sometimes they even had witch-hunts. I can't track down where I got this idea, but I think the reality of both history and the play is that the witch-hunts came right before major social upheaval followed by major improvements. The implication is that when society's about to change dramatically, conservatives turn a little psychotic - and indeed, the 1960s came very soon after the McCarthy era.

Turning back to surveillance, the future probably isn't government-powered surveillance but a whole range of interconnecting systems of self-surveillance - cyberpunk theorists call it sousveillance - for example, instead of security cameras everywhere, people use cameraphones and send their pics of crimes or dangerous situations directly to the police, or, in some circumstances, directly to each other. Parts of these phenomena are starting to happen, parts are still science fiction. But that kind of system implies a breakdown in the old order, because these technologies are decentralizers - they put power in the hands of individuals.

Having cameras monitor the world for crime makes a lot of sense; it's restricting access to those cameras, so that only the government can use them, which becomes crazy under these new conditions. That imposes an unnecessary bottleneck on information which can save lives, but only if it disseminates rapidly. But if the police and the government change from the major source of protection from crime to the major bottleneck in reporting it, that's a big difference. The safest way to deal with that kind of information is to make it widely available, but that requires a serious change in the power relationship between the police and the people. Decentralizing technologies cause economic transitions - cameras become cheap and ubiquitous - which then make social transitions necessary as well.

The witch-hunts of The Crucible were the last dying gasps of an old social order, going tyrannical to keep itself from falling apart. I think that's what's going on with these "police state" phenomena today.

One way I want to communicate this is with costume and set design - security cameras on streetlights in the background, futuristic SWAT-team thugs, etc. There's an African slave in the script, she has the kind of dialogue that made sense for an African slave in a play written during the 50s. Instead of changing her dialogue, I want to make her a hippie. Keep the tribal part, dump the African specifics as they just don't fit the world any more, but the idea of there's this order and there's this wild being who doesn't fit the order, and never can, who the order keeps as a slave, that's an important part of the picture, and I think making that character a hippie would be pretty interesting.

I also think there's a kind of simmering anger against the government going on right now. At the gym a lot of the music videos they play have kids rioting and setting things on fire. I want to kind of up the stakes of the scenario - like the scene where they arrest Giles Corey, it's pretty orderly in the script, but it could be a knock-down drag-out fight in this production. There could be tasers, nerve gas, cameraphones, all kinds of modern contrivances which just change or amplify the tone without rewriting a word of the original play.

I haven't figured out how to do this, though. It takes a lot of work to put on a play and it's not necessarily for novices.