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PREVIEW: Returning The Crucible to its Origins (Theatre Coup d’Etat)

A 19th-century engraving depicting an episode in the Salem Witch Trials. The artist has moved the trial from its original church setting to a 19th-century courtroom.

The basic narrative of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible is well-known: in colonial Massachusetts, a number of young women accuse other colonists of practicing witchcraft. Hundreds are imprisoned and put on trial; one dies during interrogation and 19 are executed by hanging. After the period covered in the play itself passes, the pall of fear passes and bitter remorse sets in.

Many theatregoers know that the The Crucible was written against a backdrop of fearmongering by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who stoked domestics fears about American communists and whose lack of actual evidence and disregard facts would not be laid open to the public for another year. They are less likely to know that the prosecutions took place in an environment where religion was far more than context: it was an integral part of the religious system. This element is at the forefront in Theatre Coup d’Etat’s new staging of The Crucible at Zion Lutheran Church in St. Paul.

A large proportion of the original English colonists who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 and who settled the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony (including Boston and Salem) were Puritans, a group of religious dissenters who believed that the Church of England had become corrupt and secularized. Many Parliamentarians during the English Civil Wars were Puritans; the Puritan movement gained significant traction when Oliver Cromwell led the Parliamentarians to victory, executing King Charles I and sending Charles II into exile. Many tenets of Puritan theology became law under the English Commonwealth; the theatres, for example, were closed due to their perceived moral failings.

This brief apex was eclipsed when the Commonwealth collapsed after Oliver Cromwell’s death, leading Parliament to recall Charles II in 1660 and recognize him as king. With Charles II, the theologies and practices of the Church of England were restored and reinforced in the British Isles, a primacy confirmed by law in 1662. Within a few years, almost Puritan ministers in the British Isles moved to New England, where they became embroiled in church-state tensions and theological controversies as Charles II and his successor James II moved to consolidate power and assert church control across the Atlantic. During the turmoil of the Glorious Revolution, many Puritans rallied to eject leaders who they perceived as heretical, exerting a church-state connection reinforced by the use of churches (the largest structures in most towns and villages) as public meeting houses, courtrooms, and places of worship.

The stakes of religious nonconformity or heresy were high – Anne Hutchinson, a religious dissenter in the 1630s, was driven out of the colony with her family – who were shortly thereafter scalped and killed by natives. At the time of the Salem Witch Trials, colonial Massachusetts was three years into King William’s War, a brutal conflict in which villages were burned; men, women, and children killed; and refugees sent fleeing on both sides. To be condemned by one’s community – especially its religious authorities – brought a very real threat of death even if one was only expelled.

The importance of this church-state connection and its heightening of the stakes was a central element in Theatre Coup d’Etat’s selecting Zion Lutheran. “The church has a traditional Protestant design that evokes the 1629 setting,” said Coup d’Etat’s Artistic Director James Stone. “During the trials, the powerful judges will speak directly from the pulpit with Abigail and the other young women seated behind them and casting accusations on the condemned and seeing spirits.”

In this case, the use of church pews for seating brings an additional twist. “The audience will be seated in the pews facing the pulpit,” said Stone. “Along with the actors portraying the mob that condemns the accused. This provocative positioning forces audience to examine their own role in perpetuating institutions and beliefs that oppress and vilify those without power.”

The Crucible plays at Zion Lutheran Church in Saint Paul from Dec. 2-19

Twin Cities Arts Reader