Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

Witch hunting then and now

June 14, 2018

Puritans in 17th century New England believed that Satan was real and ever present.  To doubt that the devil was a clear and present danger was an indication that you yourself were under the influence of the devil.

In 1692, in and around Salem, Massachusetts, many people, mostly women, were accused of being witches.  Nineteen were executed and six more died awaiting trial.

If you were accused of being a witch, the way to save your life was to confess your sin and accuse other people of being witches.

The great playwright, Arthur Miller, saw a parallel with the search for hidden Communists in his own time, and wrote The Curcible, which was staged in 1953, in order to bring this out.   I read this play as part of a monthly play-reading group hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The events of the play did not follow the exact historical record, but Miller did a good job of depicting the Puritan culture and attitudes, especially its pervasive sense of sin and guilt.

Possibly the central character, John Procter, like the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons, was more concerned with his individual integrity, like a 20th century person, and less with salvation a 17th century Puritan would have been.

Miller did not explicitly draw a parallel with events of his own time, but the parallel was there to see.  Intellectuals and other public figures accused of being Communists or former Communists were blacklisted if they refused to confess or name others, just like accused witches in 1692 Salem.

His play drew the ire of the government.  He was denied a passport to view the opening of the play in London in 1954.  When he applied for a passport renewal in 1956, he was subpoened to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee.  He readily told about his own past political activities, but refused to testify about anybody else.

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and a federal judge sentenced him to a fine and prison term, but his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1958.

The same syndrome of accusation, confession and new accusations, but on a larger and more lethal scale, operated in the Soviet purge trials in the 1930s and in the Spanish Inquisition.  There were many witch trials.  An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

In the 1990s, many Americans were caught up in a literal witch hunt.  Satanic cults were thought to be a real menace, and innocent people went to prison on false charges of abusing children in Satanic rituals.

Today the threat to basic civil liberties in the United States is greater than it was in the 1950s, although it doesn’t involve rituals of confession and naming names as in the Salem witch trials or the Congressional investigations of the 1950s.  In that sense, The Crucible is yesterday’s news.


What made the ‘angry young men’ so angry?

November 14, 2017

I read John Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, as part of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The play consists mainly of diatribes by the central character, Jimmy Porter, against virtually everything in 1950s British life.  He is especially abusive toward his long-suffering wife, Allison.   When she tells him she is pregnant, he says he hopes the baby will be born dead—which, it so happens, it is.   Porter shows no consideration for his loyal friend Cliff.

We in Walter’s play-reading group all thought Jimmy was despicable.  We saw him as a textbook case of an abusive husband.

Yet at the time theater audiences responded to his rage.  Look Back in Anger was one of the most successful plays of its season, and made Osborne’s reputation.

Osborne was one of a group of novelists and playwrights called the “angry young men.”

They were sons of working-class or lower-class parents. They were the beneficiaries of the new British welfare state.   They had economic and educational opportunities far above their parents’ generation.

Why weren’t they grateful?  What made them so angry?

A clue can be found in the two people to whom Jimmy Porter gives unreserved love and affection.   One is dying elderly lower-class woman who bequeathed Jimmy a “sweet stall,” where he can make a living by selling snacks to passers-by.  This spares him the indignity of working for a boss.

The old woman dies alone except for Jimmy, and he is the only one to attend her funeral.   His wife Allison thinks it strange he could care about such a marginal person.   “Jimmy seems to adore her principally because she’s been poor all her life,” the wife says, “and she’s frankly ignorant.”

The other is Jimmy’s own father, a veteran of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, who came home from the war a broken man and died within a year.   Jimmy says that he, at the age of 10, was the only one who cared enough about his father to sit at his bedside and listen to him in the last year of his life.

He says the family sent the father a monthly check, but all of them, including his mother, thought of him as a loser and an embarrassment, and were glad to see the last of him.   Some 15 or more years later, Jimmy still hasn’t forgiven them.


A play-goer’s notes for the Shaw Festival 2014

September 2, 2014


I spent Labor Day weekend at the annual Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, just across the Canadian border in Ontario, with members of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.   We left Friday and got back Monday.

As with the annual Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, the Shaw Festival consists of a repertory company putting on serious plays, but no longer limited to the plays of George Bernard Shaw and plays of the “Shaw era”.

The whole downtown of Niagara-on-the-Lake is devoted to shops, restaurants and hotels serving tourists, and, for many blocks around, all the homes are bed-and-breakfasts serving tourists.  They are beautiful homes with beautiful gardens, and are no doubt big money-makers for their owners, but the money spent is worth it.


themountaintop0_ORIGINALThe most memorable play I saw was The Mountaintop, which depicted the last night of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, before he was murdered by a white man.  The title is taken from his last speech, in which he said that he, like Moses, was not privileged to enter into the Promised Land, but saw what it was like from a mountaintop.

He was in Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers, whose slogan was, “I am a man.”  This is the theme of the play, that Martin Luther King was a man in a double meaning of that word—that he was a man, a person of dignity and worth, entitled to equal rights, but also that he was a man, subject to the human weaknesses to which all men are subject.

The play lasts for an hour and 40 minutes, and the play’s only two actors were on stage all that time—one playing Dr. King, the other playing Camae, an earthy hotel maid.  About 30 or so minutes of the play is devoted to the interplay of King and Camae.  In one part, she gets up on the bed and delivers her own parody civil rights speech.

Then it develops that she knows more about King than a stranger could know.  He suspects her of being an FBI agent, sent to entrap him into actions for which he could be blackmailed or discredited.  But the truth is stranger than that.

Camae is an angel (like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), sent to help prepare him for his coming death.

King doesn’t want to die.  He has plans he wants to accomplish.  In one scene, Camae arranges for him to make a long-distance telephone call to God.

“Hello, God?”
“You sound different from what I expected.”
“You sound like my grandmother.”
“I loved my grandmother.”
“Of course I love You more.”

He tells God how much he loves Him and has tried to do His will.  Then he slips into complaining about how unfair it is that he will not be allowed to complete his work.   Finally he reports with surprise that God hung up on him.

King is shown going through the stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, despair and acceptance.  Near the end of the play there is a photo montage showing events related to civil rights decade-by-decade after his death.  Wisely, there is no statement as to whether this represents a Promised Land or not.

The play strikes a difficult balance between comedy, tragedy and preaching, and avoids slipping into either silliness or offensiveness, which would have been easy to do.  This is due not only to the strong script written by Katori Hall, who as a girl lived in Memphis at the time Dr.King was shot.   It is also due to the strong performances by Kevin Hanchard and Alana Hibbert.