Friday, November 26, 2010

The Old Frontier

The following post is part of an ongoing work in progress about actors as historians. Earlier posts below. Comments welcome at

Daniel Day-Lewis’s decision to make The Crucible in 1996 coincided with a new level of stability in his life. His previous film, In the Name of the Father (1993), had earned Academy Award nomination as Best Actor (he lost to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia),  and ratified his standing as one of the premier actors of his generation. He also solidified his standing on a high plateau by settling down by marrying screenwriter and director Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, who he met after shooting the move and married shortly thereafter. (The fast courtship and marriage followed a relatively long-term relationship with French actor Isabelle Adjani, with whom he had a son, and a series of appearance on gossip pages with figures that ranged from Julia Roberts to Madonna.)
The fact that a Hollywood version of The Crucible ever got made is surprising. It is, of course, a bright star in the firmament of American theater, and a staple of high school English classes. It also single-handedly turned the Salem witch-trials into a form of allegorical shorthand for McCarthyism in the 1950s and any form of social pressure through scapegoating ever after.  But even as one might expect some form of independent film production to surface sooner or later, a big-budget shoot on location in Massachusetts – on Hog Island in Ipswich, not far from where the original event took place in 1692 – would be very unlikely under any circumstances.
 Except for the fact that Miller’s son, Robert, was friendly with Joe Roth, then the head of 20th Century Fox.  As it was, it took years to get the film in the production pipeline. And it could very plausibly have been run aground when Roth left Fox for Disney. But the new management under Bill Mechanic left the project in place. There had been hopes that this prestige project – Arthur Miller himself adapted the screenplay, and the cast included highly regarded actors like Joan Allen and the legendary Paul Scofield, directed by Briton Nicholas Hytner – would generate Oscar, and thus box office, buzz. Neither materialized. But this remains a beautifully rendered, if austere, work of art, in which the work of the performers is greatly amplified by the beautiful sets, evocative costumes, and other high production values.
 The Crucible is a story that’s typically read one of two ways. The first, and perhaps primary, one is what prompted Arthur Miller to write it: as a warning about the dangers of social conformity and letting irrational fears – in particular a fear of Communism that dominated American public life at the time of the play’s premiere – govern everyday life. The second tends to see the story in terms more specific to its time and place: seventeenth century New England. Such an angle of vision leads one away from viewing it as a tale about American character generally, and more about a particular sub-species: Puritanism.  Ever since the seventeenth century, North American settlers, including some in New England, have pointedly contrasted themselves with what they considered the arrogant piety of these religious dissidents (some inside, others outside) the Church of England – and their secular heirs. In this telling, the Salem Witch trials are the logical, if not inevitable, outcome of a subculture in which religious fanaticism runs amok and consumes those who burn with self-righteousness.
Both of these views have cogency, of course. But I’m not particularly interested in tracing them here. In part, that’s because it’s been done so often. In part, too, it’s because I think the Puritans have gotten a bit of a bum rap, as if they were the only people who ever burned witches, intolerance was invented in New England, or the people who finally stood up the witch hunters and ended this tragic event, sometimes via their own martyrdom, were not themselves Puritans (of the very best kind). Instead, I see The Crucible through a different lens, one that comes into focus through the character of John Proctor, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. And that is to see it as the story of a frontiersman. 
Actually, there are some good historical reasons to do so. Of course Salem, Massachusetts is not typically seen as a frontier town; after all, it was founded in 1626, even before Boston, and thus was 66 years old when the witch trials took place. But if Salem could not plausibly been seen as a frontier, it was in fact quite close to one: the district of Maine, which would be part of Massachusetts until 1820. For most of the seventeenth century, the beaver and timber trade of northern New England was a major source of prosperity for Massachusetts. But the outbreak of King Philip’s War in Rhode Island in 1676, which spread northward and lingered until later in the decade, broke a relatively long stretch of peaceable relations with the region’s Indians, specifically the Abenaki peoples of northern New England. The outbreak of another war 1689 – popularly known as King William’s War, but known in the region as the Second Indian War – destabilized the region. This war has geopolitical origins, in that it was partially the result of the Glorious Revolution in England, which brought the Dutch-born William of Orange to the throne and tilted the nation against France, launching three-quarters of a century of imperial conflict that would culminate in what came to be known as the French and Indian War (the setting of another Daniel Day-Lewis movie, Last of the Mohicans).  But the war also had complex local dimensions in lingering hard feelings between the Abenaki and colonists. There was also a high degree of distrust among those colonial officials and military officers, some of whom had strong ties to the former governor, Sir Edmund Andros, who was overthrown when William came to power, and whom some settlers believed put imperial interests ahead of their own in his military conduct.  
The Indian wars of the late seventeenth century destroyed lives, livelihoods and homes, and created a significant number of refugees, some of them ending up in Essex county, where Salem is located.  The noted U.S. historian Mary Beth Norton has documented that a significant number of accused witches as well as their accusers have ties that can be traced to Maine in the 1670s and 80s.  Just how decisive a factor Indian war really was is open to debate. Actually, few events in U.S. history have been as variously explained than the witch trials. But it is certainly plausible to see frontier-related stresses as a factor with what went wrong in Salem in 1692.
      Actually, the ambiguities involved in actually using the term “Salem” points to another problem – and another way in which it can be viewed as a kind of frontier. People at the time made a distinction between the incorporated district of Salem Town, and the surrounding area known as the Farms (later Salem Village, and still later the town of Danvers). Residents of the Farms resented their civic obligations to the Town, and lobbied the General Court of Massachusetts for political autonomy as early as the 1670s. They would not get it until 1752, though they did gain the right to have their own church and minister. Yet this proved to be deeply divisive, and indeed, the outbreak of the witch trials was directly connected to the controversy over the ministry of Samuel Parris, whose daughter Betty and niece Abigail Williams were the first people to exhibit the ailments that would be attributed to witchcraft. (One of Parris’s predecessors, George Burroughs, who had lived on the Maine frontier and returned to Salem, would be among the 18 accused witches who were put to death.) The lack of clear political boundaries and a tendency to resolve personal conflicts by organized means fostered a kind of vigilante justice in which Farm residents resolved grievances by resorting to what amounted to vigilante justice, settling scores by making accusations based on spectral evidence. The decision on the part of trial judges to suspend normal rules for substantiating that evidence effectively allowed them to deflect attention and blame away from their own failures in the political and military upheaval of the late 17th century.
As far as the makers of The Crucible were concerned, this is all inside baseball. In the original script for the play, Miller has Abigail Williams threaten Betty Parris by saying “I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish the sun had never gone down!”   (The line also appears in the movie.) This (fictive) contextual information is important in establishing a basis for the core malignancy of Williams’s character. But it’s more in the spirit of background information than a proximate explanation for her behavior. The real Williams was a child in 1692; Miller her makes her a young woman whose jealousy over severed sexual relationship John Proctor leads her to accuse his wife Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft.  (The real Proctor’s brother-in-law had Maine ties, which may be one reason why she and her sister were accused of witchcraft.) The romantic triangle remains the core of the movie, with Winona Ryder as Williams, Day-Lewis as John Proctor, and Joan Allen as Elizabeth.
That said, the adaption of the play into a movie 43 years later resulted in a subtle shift in the story’s frame of reference. “In a sense, The Crucible is the first western, because the frontier was there and they were the first pioneers,” director Nicholas Hytner explained in 1996. “So there’s an austerity to the look that we tried to capture." It is perhaps inevitable that Miller, in adapting his work for a new medium, would literally open it up. For example, the opening and closing scenes of the play, which depict the girls’ participation in an occult ritual and the hanging of important characters respectively, take place offstage. In the movie, they are shot in exterior locations. But the most important element in establishing a frontier dimension for the film version is the portrayal of John Proctor.

Next: John Proctor as frontiersman.