Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Lesson 12: The Play on Stage
Now you've got to grips with the background to the events of the play, it's time to look at some theatrical context. You probably thought you were done with history, but the play has a whole history of its own...
There were two popular theatre trends in 1950s America
The Crucible's first production ran on Broadway - the main street in New York's theatre district. Theatre performed on Broadway is typically considered the best theatre in America.
There were two popular trends on Broadway in the post-war era - musicals like Guys and Dolls (1950) and The King and I (1951), and dramas like A Streetcar Named Desire (1947).
Musicals were usually set in faraway places, with romance, comedy and a happy ending. They provided an escape from ordinary life.
Dramas typically focused on American families and communities, and their behaviour towards each other. Some were quite political, like The Crucible, whereas others focused on how people dealt with social conflict.
Many dramas were performed in a naturalistic style
Naturalism is a style of theatre that aims to make the action on stage seem realistic.
The style developed in the late 19th century. Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director, helped to develop naturalistic theatre. He thought that creating believable characters would help plays to seem more real.
To achieve this, he developed several new techniques for actors. For example, he encouraged performers to create detailed backstories for their characters to help them understand what motivated their actions.
Naturalism gained popularity during the first half of the 20th century. People were inspired by Stanislavski's techniques - in 1931, actor Lee Strasberg helped to found the Group Theatre in New York, which produced naturalistic theatre and trained actors using methods based on Stanislavski's ideas.
By the 1950s, naturalism was a main influence on American theatre.
There wasn't a specific set of theatre conventions in the 1950s
The theatre conventions of a certain period are the features of the style of staging, design and perfomance that were in use at that time.
Although naturalistic conventions were popular in the first half of the 20th century, American theatre also becamse more experimental. A wide variety of different theatre styles and conventions had developed and were being used by the 1950s.
This means that Miller didn't have a clear set of conventions to follow when he wrote The Crucible - he chose naturalistic conventions with particular intentions in mind.
So do we go with naturalistic or non-naturalistic conventions in our performance? If the performance is to be online or as part of a showcase we should still consider the original effects Miller was aiming for...
The first production of 'The Crucible' got mixed reviews
The Crucible was first performed in America in January 1953 at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway.
The initial production received a mixed response - it won several awards, but it had a relatively short run of performances.
The play's criticism of McCarthyism may have made people cautious about attending a performance.
The set and costume designs followed Miller's stage directions. The costumes reflected the style of clothes that the Puritans would have worn, and the set used plain, basic furniture.
However, the director also used some non-naturalistic conventions, like having the actors address their lines to the audience rather than to each other. Some critics thought this made the dialogue seem stilted. The actors also didn't move on stage when speaking their lines, which meant the production was criticised for being unemotional.
After the first performance received some negative reviews, the director left and Miller tried to rescue the remaining performances. He rewrote some sections and added a scene at the end of Act Two, but even then the play didn't really take off.
Act Two, Scene Two is not usually included in modern productions. In it, Proctor meets Abigail the night before Elizabeth's trial.
Different productions use different conventions
Between the 1950s and today, directors of the play have experimented with different theatre conventions.
In 1958, the Martinique Theatre in New York put on an in-the-round performance which may have helped the audience feel more involved in the action.
The production also introduced a character called 'the Reader' to read out Miller's background notes from Act One - this gave the audience more detailed information on the characters and the community in Salem.
A 2010 production at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in London staged the play outside at sunset, which emphasised how the mood of the play darkens as the action progresses. This increased the play's threatening atmosphere.
A 2016 Broadway production of the play left out any visual links to the 17th century. Separating the play from a specific time and place may have helped to emphasise the play's universal themes to the audience.
Theatrical context can affect production decisions
With our upcoming performance - what's our options?
Can we perform the play over Zoom?
What inspirations can we use from previous productions?
Is there ways to add in Miller's background notes?
How can we add in modern themes to disengage from a 17th Century backdrop?
What limitations do we now have and what possibilities are open to us?