Salempost 5: acting

The Crucible is also a play about acting. As the girls refine their performance of possession, we witness the horror of a community which cannot distance itself from what it sees, a community which has no category for great acting (“They’re all marvelous pretenders” Proctor says of the girls), a community which, perhaps, believes too blindly. In the first scene of the second act, there is a sequence in which Mary Warren is asked to prove she has been faking these routines in the court by pretending to feint. “Feint. Feint!” Rev. Parris commands her.

MARY: I . . . cannot feint now sir.
PROCTOR: Can you not pretend it?
MARY: I . . . I have no sense of it now, I . . .
DANFORTH: Why? What is lacking now?
MARY: I cannot tell sir, I . . .
DANFORTH: Might it be that we have no afflicting spirits loose, but in the court there were some?
MARY I never saw no spirits.
PARRIS: Then see no spirits now, and prove to us that you can feint by your own will, as you claim.
MARY (searches for the emotion of it): I . . . cannot do it.
PARRIS: Then you will confess, will you not? Attacking spirits made you feint!
MARY: No, sir, I . . .
PARRIS: Your Excellency, this is a trick to blind the court.
MARY: It’s not a trick! I . . . I used to feint because . . . I . . . I thought I saw spirits.
DANFORTH: Thought you saw them!
HATHORNE: How could you think you saw them unless you saw them?
MARY: I . . .I cannot tell how, but I did. I . . . heard the other girls screaming, and you Your Honor, you seemed to believe them and I . . . it were only sport in the beginning sir, but then he whole world cried spirits, spirits and I . . . I promise you, Mr. Danforth, I only thought I saw them but I did not.

Here is on of the most simple an eloquent descriptions of what happens during moments of powerful performance that I have ever read. I love the way it acknowledges the role the belief of the observers has in the geometric progression of force with which the thing proceeds. Miller reveals himself as a consummate student of the actor’s process. Absent any category for what the girls do, it is simple for the Puritans to ascribe the immense power the girls unleash to demonic forces. This is an old story for actors. Religious types through history and across cultures have condemned actors and acting out of the fear they feel in the face of it when it is done with courage and commitment, as the girls do it in The Crucible.

I am also brought to mind of the maenads, Dionysus’s maiden revelers who worked themselves into ecstatic trances in worship of the theatre God. The results of those adventures are documented in Euripides’s The Bacchae. It seems to me, Miller is also commenting on the furious energy of repressed female sexuality, released into a world which deeply fears it.