When “The Crucible” opens at the Walter Kerr Theatre in April, no one should expect anything like a conventional revival of Arthur Miller’s searing 1953 tragedy about hypocrisy, mass hysteria and the Salem witch trials.
The production, after all, is being directed by Ivo van Hove, the Belgian provocateur whose stripped-down, radical re-imagining of Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” was, to my mind, the stunner of the season thus far. That one, which closed Feb. 21, had already been a smash in London, so the stark staging arrived with validation from abroad.
But “The Crucible,” starring Ben Whishaw, Saoirse Ronan and Sophie Okonedo, is being newly staged for Broadway. To anyone who exclusively knows van Hove’s work from his relatively (for him) straightforward “View,” the prospect of a new “Crucible” should hold nothing but excitement.
To those of us who have followed his crazy-brilliant work at New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village since 1997, however, anticipation may come with just a pinch of apprehension. This wild and most often wondrous explorer — some say plunderer — of the hallowed and the classic has staged an enthralling and thoroughly demented expressionistic version of Eugene O’Neill’s “More Stately Mansions.” His “Hedda Gabler” was Ibsen with a deeply erratic modern attitude adjustment. More problematic was “A Streetcar Named Desire,” notoriously remembered for a Stanley who held a naked Blanche’s head underwater in a bathtub for a very long time.
I am beyond curious about this “Crucible.” And I delight in the possibilities that are sure to spring from this compelling iconoclast, head of Amsterdam’s leading repertory company, who has crashed through mainstream New York conservative sensibilities as no one in my memory has.
And yet, I worry. What if this “Crucible” is the only one that new theatergoers ever see? What if producers stop backing stylistically authentic stagings of modern classics because someone believes the real thing — what Miller, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter actually wanted — is old news?
How strange it feels to find myself becoming a purist — even the slightest bit of one. Outrage over deconstructed plays has always struck me as foolish. So what if Peter Sellars upended Chekhov and called it “A Seagull” instead of “The Seagull”? So what if, right now, a director in London calls the character Uncle Johnny instead of Uncle Vanya and has a trio of drunks sing Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”? Who is hurt if “Hamlet” is updated to ’40s noir or “Pygmalion” is set in a Vegas casino?
Come on, I always used to think. Nothing was permanently destroyed. The plays still exist for anyone who wants to stage them as written. Hasn’t opera kept reinventing itself as director’s theater without trampling on great music? On the other hand, shouldn’t the strict preservation of George Balanchine’s great work as a living art forever preclude dancers riffing on his uncompromising style?
This sounds like an ancient debate — the writer’s theater versus the director’s theater — but here it comes up again. Whose play is it, anyway? In a pop world of sampling and mash-up fashion, doesn’t the concept of intellectual property rights sound downright quaint? But still I worry. Will anyone remember the reasons these playwrights were important if no one protects them as primary-source artists?
In fact, American playwrights do have important protection, as long as they’re alive. For almost 100 years, they have had the invaluable Dramatists Guild, which, in its empowering Bill of Rights insists that no one “can make changes, alterations and/or omissions to your script — including the text, title and stage directions — without your consent. This is called ‘script approval.’ ” The guild also says that playwrights “have the right to approve the cast, director and designers. . . . This is called ‘artistic approval.’ ”
What really worries me is the death of so many giants of late 20th century drama. Shakespeare and Chekhov have had a running start in being remembered as themselves. Without estates that understand the how and the why of the ground-shaking styles and substance of Williams, Samuel Beckett, Pinter and Miller, people could forget the reasons for recent history’s singular legacies.
Obviously, the Miller estate has sensitively done its job by approving the van Hove innovations. Major artists must have the chance to stretch around major art and, despite potential damage, plays can die if isolated as sacred texts.
Although I always thought I welcomed new ideas, I still am furious about the cheesy special effects that British director Douglas Hodge used to muck up Pinter’s “Old Times” at the Roundabout Theatre last fall. There was Clive Owen, bringing in new audiences who came to see the (very good) star but could also have fallen in love with Pinter, who died in 2008. Instead this overanimated, high-concept spectacle of the lean and unnerving 1971 gem spelled out and betrayed a writer whose menace radiates from silence and things unsaid.
Now there is the bizarre dust-up between the Wooster Group and the Pinter estate about the avant-garde company’s inevitably deconstructed staging of his first play, 1957’s “The Room.” The details are in contention. It appears that the historic company believes it was granted the rights. But Samuel French Inc., U.S. licensing agent for his work, decreed the experimental production could only be done in Los Angeles. And here’s the weirdest part: Reviews were to be banned.
Critics bought tickets and reviewed anyway, as they should have. What struck me about reviews I read is the assumption that “The Room” was no good to begin with. As someone who saw the playwright’s own elegant and brutal staging at the Lincoln Center Festival’s landmark Pinter Festival in 2001, I know the play was an astoundingly mature blueprint for almost everything we have come to identify now as Pinteresque. Will “Room,” rarely performed, forever be known now as the unimportant play the Wooster Group wasn’t allowed to show us?
Miller had his own sticky run-in with the Wooster Group in 1984 when the playwright’s lawyers objected to the use of 20 minutes of “The Crucible” in its production “L.S.D. ( . . . Just the High Points . . . )” and closed the show. As Miller told The New York Times, he believed an abbreviation “abstracted the play,” but primarily objected on legal grounds.
“Maybe at some point in the future,” he said, “The play will become a kind of public classic. But I’m still around and I should have a say about how the play is done as long as I am.” But what’s a “public classic” anyway and isn’t it more than a legality when an individual vision becomes one?
Director Gregory Mosher, who put together a brilliant benefit that included smartly nontraditional casts for the Miller Foundation last month, tells me, “I think that if Miller blocked ‘L.S.D.’ without seeing it, that was probably a mistake. He might have liked it.”
Coincidentally, really, Mosher directed an unforgettable straightforward revival of “A View From the Bridge” starring Liev Schreiber in 2010. As he succinctly puts it, “There are brave new investigations of well-known plays that don’t resemble the original productions, but are still the play, maybe even more the play. Then there are productions that just glop up the play the way condiments glop up in a Big Mac.”
As for the Pinter-Wooster issue, Mosher doubts French is protecting a commercial run of the obscure play. He says, “Let ’em do it, and pay the royalties and bring on the critics. And then let’s move on to far more pressing problems, like how much a writer who isn’t Pinter struggles to make a living in the American theater.”
I understand. But, you know, I worry.