One Book, One Chicago Fall 2007
A Conversation with Martha Lavey
Mary Dempsey is Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. She was named Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine in 2006.
Martha Lavey has been the Steppenwolf Artistic Director since 1995. She is a recipient of the Sarah Siddons Award and an Alumni Merit Award from Northwestern University.
MD: We are thrilled to be joining forces with you this fall to bring attention to The Crucible through One Book, One Chicago and your production at Steppenwolf. The themes that Miller explores so wonderfully—the dangers of fear, the tension between personal conviction and societal norms, etc.—are timeless, and consistently important whether at the time of the founding of this country, or during the 1950s, or today in the 21st century.
ML: I spoke with Anna Shapiro, the director of our production of The Crucible and a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble, about how she, as director, has chosen to approach these characters as people living within a system that is weakening. The human actions in The Crucible are a product of the system in which the characters are operating.
These are people who made a break from the country of their origin in pursuit of religious freedom. Religion is a hugely animating force in their lives and they are surrounded by wilderness and the unknown. Abigail, the young girl who initiates the witch hunt of Salem, watched her parents be murdered by the indigenous people of the America onto whose land the Puritans migrated to make their new home. (In this sense, the Puritans were simultaneously a refugee population and an occupying force). Fear was real. The only possible refuge in this atmosphere of hardship was a deep, unwavering conviction in the religious principles and practices that motivated their exodus from the country of their birth. The settlement they created in Salem was infused at every level—legal, social, interpersonal—by the religiosity that gave them the bravery to sacrifice their lives and dare a new start.
But, as Anna points out, the rigidity of that system was exhausting itself. The young girls in The Crucible were, like young, vital people everywhere, in search of their own lives. They are in rebellion against the strictures of the Puritan ethic on social live. John Proctor, too, is in rebellion against the institution of the church, against a power that he perceives as having grown decadent and self-preserving. The system of religion has exhausted its contact with the people it was born to serve.
Anna’s take on the play—this interrogation into a social system which, authentic, useful, necessary in its original form—offers real insight into our current social and political moment. I would tender our response to the events of 9/11 as a valuable point of comparison. Our country was invaded, we were vulnerable. We felt the need to protect ourselves. We felt besieged by an enemy. And, like the Puritans of the 17th century Salem, we sought to make ourselves safe by exorcising this demonic force. Perhaps, however, like the denizens of Salem, our fear makes us susceptible to methods and means of security that no longer serve. Perhaps these strictures on our civil discourse and individual freedom have exhausted themselves and are now cannibalizing the freedoms they were intended to preserve. Again, in Anna’s astute view, we need not demonize the enforcers of civil order—either then or now. We are simply given, through the vehicle of this play, an opportunity to witness and to evaluate how fear, while a legitimate response to threat, might outlive its purpose in providing cohesion and tribal/national identity, and begin to quash the vitality of the freedoms and joy that animate all authentic life.
MD: The more you read and re-read The Crucible, what do you discover about the play and about Arthur Miller that you did not previously know or realize?
ML: I first read, and saw a production of the play, while in high school. At the time, I was thrilled by the story, intrigued by the drama of one man, John Proctor, fighting the forces of a repressive society, and, at the same time, struggling with the vulnerabilities and failures in his own character. As I re-read the play, these dramatic forces in the play continue to compel me. But I am continuously impressed by Arthur Miller’s profound insight into the core personal and social forces that will recur when and wherever people live in community. By making the play accurate and specific to 17th century Salem, Miller touches the truth of his characters’ lives—and the universality of the play emerges from those essential truths.
MD: The Crucible is the second play chosen as a One Book, One Chicago selection (the first was A Raisin in the Sun). It’s an important work, one that deserves to be read among the canon of great American literature. Where do you place The Crucible in the annals of American theater and within the context of American literature?
ML: The Crucible is a signature work of American dramatic literature. Its reach is huge: It is a play that is read and produced in schools and by professional theaters around the world. The reach of the play’s ideas—personal and political—has relevancy across time. In its ambition and scale, and the accomplishment of its playwrighting, it is regarded as one of the greatest of American plays.
MD: How is Steppenwolf’s current production a fresh take on the play?
ML: Steppenwolf is blessed to have a core group of artists—our ensemble—who have worked together repeatedly and for years. The community of our theater provides a rich, complex basis for a play about community. We have cast the play with a rich mix of both Caucasian and African American actors—our ensemble member James Meredith, an African American actor, plays John Proctor. While the Puritan citizen of 17th century Salem would not, in fact have been African American (with a Caucasian wife, Elizabeth, played in our production by our ensemble member Sally Murphy), our casting of these roles was guided by whom, among our artists, was best suited for the roles. The fact of having a multicultural case in our production amplifies the play’s universality.
MD: By choosing The Crucible for One Book, One Chicago, the Library is honoring not just the play but an influential, even iconic, literary figure in Arthur Miller. What can you say about Miller’s importance as a playwright of the 20th century?
ML: Arthur Miller stands with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams as one of the most influential and important American playwrights of the 20th century. Miller’s devoted concentration on the political and social forces that shape our lives, along with his astute understanding of the personal psychology that shapes and nuances character, is his enduring legacy. Arthur Miller spent his professional career and devoted his considerable artistry to investigating and explicating our American character. The Crucible is a signature work in that artistic project.