Salempost 10: reflection

“Whore!” screams Proctor, and he rushes to take down Abigail, who is shaking from a “chill wind” she says Mary has sent upon her. In the ensuing speech, after Willard has pulled him off her, Hale gets the answer: “I have known her!” screams Proctor. With this admission, Hale’s search is over. He suddenly understands the entire proceeding in a way he never could before. Standing in the midst of the courtroom chaos, images flash back before me of my visit to the Proctors: Elizabeth’s strange behavior whenever Abigail is mentioned, Proctor blanking on the adultery commandment, Mary Warren’s recounting of Abbey watching her make the poppit. Worse, I think back to my own arrival, and Abigail listening to what I say about the signs of witchcraft, and watching the drama of my effort with Tituba. It’s too much to say that Hale thinks he is to blame right then, but there begins a creeping sense of responsibility – and his new objective: save the innocent. This is his first objective in 2.1, he discovers it at the very end of the scene and it drives him through to the end of the play. And like all good objectives, he fails to achieve it.

Searching, searching. It is what I am doing in my life . It what Hale is doing in his. The actor and the character are enjoined. I want to know what God wants of me, how I may I best be of service to Him? This is precisely Hale’s mission too, but on different terms. I am full of portent, I live in the sense of something about to happen that will affect me and ones I love deeply. So does Hale. But his sense has more fear in it than mine, though we are both ride on the spiritual cusp of the unknown.

Also in 2.1 I witnessed some the worst actor behavior in performance ever. Suffice to say that there were private agendas and aesthetic vendettas being executed on stage in front of audiences against other actors and witnessed by the whole company. That the play didn’t come grinding to a halt and a fight break out between actors was miraculous. It took some stern lectures from Chaz to put an end to it all. The gossip around it backstage nearly became intolerable. I was not immune. But I finally had to let someone know that I wasn’t interested in passing judgment on others. Of course I do pass judgment on others, but only with my wife and closest friends, and not while the play is up and running. We make light of the different ways actors work. But these differences can manifest in antagonistic ways, and simmering conflicts over process can evolve into bizarre ad libs and warped staging in performance. It is my observation that older actors are particularly prone to this, as convinced and set in their ways as they are.

I had about five ten minutes between my 2.1 exit and my 2.2 entrance – less for the morning shows. I change shirts and return to the blue great coat, flipping my hair forward now so it cascades around my head down to the top of my chest, giving me an oddly effeminate air. Hale is changed when he enters the jail. I’ve already told you, friends, about my desire to have him arrive shattered. The compromise we have come to is a kind of end-of the-rope directness. The word “gibbet” is my cue, and for the forth time, I enter the wings, passing my wife in the greenroom as she covers herself in stage dirt for her final scene. Only Proctor and Hale are in all four scenes: the insider and the outsider. Jeb comes up behind me in the darkness, but there is no ass-slapping now. All is quiet focus and marshalling of resources.

I barge into an outburst of Parris’. Danforth nails me with an icy blue stare. Here begins a rapid fire exchange of tactics. He compliments me. I make a demand: pardon them. He bristles. I beg him. He lectures me. I am defeated, until – he wants Elizabeth here, to plead with her husband. A ray of light. I sooth him. He condescends to me. The straw breaks. I challenge him. He faces off with me. I release, shaming him, slamming him. He defies me. I scare him. He retreats, I heap it on – and there’s Elizabeth. He entreats me to speak with her, this woman covered in the shit of the jail, this woman who was so strong and proud three months ago. This woman who’s life, I think, I’ve ruined. I beg her. I plead with her. Nothing. Then Danforth goes to her and – surprise – she relents. Proctor comes, a bent and twisted piece of wreckage. Guantonimo Bay, I think. The jails of Bagdad. We leave the Proctors alone.

In the green room, Graham wants to talk about the scene. I don’t. Ceal sits as Rebecca in quiet contemplation. I am sure she is in Quaker worship. I sit near her in spiritual affinity. Something is either building in me or it isn’t. Either way I want to be still and open to its arrival if it comes.

“Proctor will confess!” shouts Hathorne and we gather offstage. A moment and we stream on, Danforth in the lead. I am transfixed by Proctor, this beaten man. Here begins another long passage of watching and listening for me. Some nights it is like a slow-motion wave of feeling, cresting with Proctor’s howl “Because it is my name!” and then tears spilling down my cheeks, choking me as I watch he and Rebecca clutch each other on their way to the gallows. Some nights, when Sooz and I are left on stage together alone for the final image of the play, my last line is a sobbing mess of snot and tears, and my collapse to the stage is pure and genuine exhaustion. But other nights the wave does not crest, the tears do not fall, and all is splendid pretence; the skill of sensitive dissembling all actors must make their peace with (indeed, there are some who feel this is better than the great emotional release, and I have shared the stage with them). Either way, one hopes the audience leaves feeling that they have not been taken by shysters, but rather taken by artists to someplace terrible and true, and haunting in its familiarity.

My emotional relationship to this final moment waned as the production went on. This is natural. The thing that reliably moves you to tears will grow common through repetition, no matter how skillfully it is brought to life. And yet there was a constant opening that happened to me in these final awful moments, even though it was not reliably manifest in tears, and its consistency was bred from the love of the actors I was on stage with more than the story being told. It was the look on Chris’s face, and Ceal’s that knocked the wind of out of me. It was the personal connections between these human beings that generated the feeling. The night before the final show, Chaz read a selection about community. There are two communities at work in those final moments: Salem’s and People’s Light’s. And the interplay between them makes something greater than the sum of its parts. That final show, I was a mess at the end.

But I was also led to this thought: that just as the emotion of a moment dims for an actor over time, so too the repetitive witness of horror leads to numbing in us all, and this has implications in our culture, in which horror is the stuff of mass entertainment, and our children are raised watching dramatized killings. Part of what was so poignant about The Crucible was inhabiting the innocence of these people, for whom a child who sleeps a lot may be in the Devil’s grasp. We are numb to horror now, and so there is barely a horror left that will move us to action, and along with horror, we have lost our wonder: of the earth, it’s creatures and of each other. Acting asks us to find that wonder again, to hold it and light it ablaze, and warm the weary who come to see it. Acting asks us to enchant an audience often resistant to enchantment.

We have banished mystery in favor of the comfort of logical answers and rational processes. We are slaves to the tyranny of judgment, in which God’s glorious grey is separated into clear and boring black and white by the tincture of intellectualism. This dry approach has crept into our creative lives as well, leading us to the error that we can understand a creative act before we enact it. Our minds trick us into comfort, but it is a false comfort, and the faithful cannot abide it. Because faith explores mystery, admits doubt, seeks wonder. Faith says there is something bigger than my brain, and I worship it.

During a talkback with a high school audience after the show, a young person asked: “How has this show affected you spiritually?” Somehow, over the course of the talkbacks, I became the One who answers the God questions, and on that day I surprised myself by saying the following: “As a Christian, I found this play deeply challenging”. As a Christian. The words just flew out of me, so many little birds bursting from the bush. I have been born again. He is mine, I claim Him, I am his Friend.

Sooz and I are out of costume and climbing back into the car. I drive now, the designated one, as she sips a beer or glass off wine. We speak of tragedy. A person in our extended artistic community was killed in a car crash coming home from seeing The Crucible. Neither Sooz or I knew her well, but I can’t stop thinking about possibly of being part of the last images she held inside, and about Caesar’s molecules. On the ides of March, in physics classrooms across the country, they talk about Caesar’s molecules. It is apparently a statistical certainty each time we inhale, we breath in a few of the molecules that Caesar exhaled just after saying “Et tu, Brute?”

The Pennsylvania countryside slips by under the warm spring night, and I inhale from an open window, trying to taste the molecules that left my dead comrade’s lungs in her last moment, trying to taste the ones that floated about Golgotha on a hot day in Palestine some 2,000 years ago, or the ones that left Burbage’s lips on the banks of the Thames, the first time he played the Dane. We are all One. Revival will return soon, and I have interviews with institutions which may result in us packing up our things and leaving this community behind us. But tonight, warm in the glow of a job well done, grateful to be alive with my wife by my side, I cannot fathom anywhere else I’d rather be.

Faith is being blindfolded and led to a diving board. “It’s nothing but pillows and mattresses below!” shout persuasive and familiar voices. “Jump!” I keep thinking I’ve arrived at the diving board. But then He leads me to a new one. And I don’t think I’ve jumped . . . yet. Or have I?