Justice Politics Psychology Sexual Politics Theatre

The #Metoo Crucible

“Stratford Festival decided to put on a sure-fire crowd-pleaser this year: “The Crucible”, one of the greatest, and certainly the most powerful, American drama.

“The Crucible” is about a group of young girls in a small town in Massachusetts in the 1690’s who are caught dancing naked in a woods.  Think about the cultural climate– puritanical New England.  The upstanding leaders of the devout community are beyond horrified, and this is immediately apparent to the girls so they connive to persuade the town elders that they were, in fact, bewitched.  Their deception is helped by a particular girl who seems to be having fits and hysterics and claims to see apparitions.

Who bewitched them?

They begin to name names, including upstanding members of the community.

One of the girls, named Abigail, was a handmaid to a couple, John and Elizabeth Proctor.  John had an affair with her, which Elizabeth knows about.  John and Elizabeth reconciled and evicted Abigail but are terrified that the community will find out about the affair and disgrace John.

Abigail is convinced that John really loves her.  What were the girls doing in the woods?  Abigail had persuaded Tituba, a black slave, to show them how to cast spells, so she could curse Elizabeth Proctor and win John back.  With the community in hysterics, and her own position in the community under threat, she seizes the opportunity to accuse Elizabeth of witchcraft.

When some in the community become suspicious of the girls’ motives, they too are named.  Eventually, 20 citizens are hanged, and one is “pressed” to death because he refused to enter a plea.  Yes, this really happened– the historical record is unmistakable.

Years later, the magistrates who condemned them would– astonishingly– come to the realization that they had been in error and issue an apology.  How often does that happen?

Arthur Miller wrote the play in 1952 and he clearly intended to draw a parallel between the Salem witch-hunts and the McCarthy communist witch-hunt that was taking place at that moment, and which had snared Miller himself.  Miller was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and admitted that he had been a communist at one time in his life.  That was not enough for them.  They demanded that he identify fellow-travelers.  He refused and was black-listed.

In the play, as in real life, a man named Giles Corey discovered that some of the accusers stood to benefit by acquiring the land of the accused (if convicted of witchcraft, a citizen’s possessions were forfeit).  He is then accused of witchcraft himself.  He refuses to plea because doing so would result in a conviction and the land he hoped to pass on to his sons would be forfeit.  He is sentenced to be “pressed”: placed under a board with the weight on it increased gradually with rocks.  He dies under the torment, mocking his accusers.

Do you see a problem with this play?  I don’t see a problem.  The play is historically accurate.  More importantly, it is psychologically accurate: I find the portrait of a community that is fearful and cowardly and not really virtuous in the sense that they all believe it of themselves to be quite convincing even today.  (Think of how we symbolically recycle, and conserve, and care for the environment, while doing absolutely nothing that will have any real impact on global warming.   Think of how women go on national television to tell the world how ashamed they are of having been sexually assaulted.)

But the #metoo movement saw a big problem.  You see, a credo of the #metoo movement is that girls are ALWAYS to be believed.  They never lie about abuse or rape or assault, even if it is assault by the devil himself, as in the case of Salem.  (I am not exaggerating: I heard three women on the CBC discussing the issue and they all insisted that women never lie about abuse and there is never any “collateral damage” (ie. innocent men accused).  Do women ever lie about rape?  Judge for yourself.

And the play makes it clear that the girls are sly, conniving, convincing liars, and that they are responsible the deaths of 20 innocent victims.

So the #metoo movement demands an adjustment.   And the Stratford Festival Theatre made it.  Here is their description of the play from their website:

His (John Proctor’s) refusal to take responsibility for his actions leads to an epidemic of fear and suspicion that engulfs the guilty and the innocent alike. Inspired by historical events but no less pertinent to our own times, this American classic stands as a timeless tragedy of abusive behaviour and its all-consuming consequences.

This is worse than a distortion of the play.  It is an obscenely malicious reversal of it’s meaning.  It is all John Proctor’s fault.  The girls are innocent.  Abigail was forced to lie because she was oppressed by the patriarchy.  They were justified in causing 19 innocent individuals to be hanged to death.

Abigail didn’t enjoy seeing those people hanged.  Not at all.

Or maybe the girls were telling the truth after all: maybe there really were witches.

No young woman or girl would ever lie about that.

General Music Theatre

Dear Evan Hansen

Evan Hansen is bullied at school, particularly by one Conner Murphy. When Evan, at the direction of his therapist, starts writing encouraging letters to himself, Conner finds one in a printer tray and, mocking Evan, takes it. When Conner commits suicide later, his parents find the letter and come to believe that Conner wrote it, to Evan. So he wasn’t such a bully after all. Conner’s hot sister, Zoe, is at first reluctant to believe it but Evan, invited to the Murphy house for dinner, eventually convinces her that her parent’s misunderstanding is true, that Conner really was a friend to Evan. He goes so far as to persuade his friend, Jared, to help him write fake emails to “prove” his story, and helps his friend Alana start a foundation to build a park in memory of Conner. And Evan clearly enjoys being the center of attention, all the while protesting that he doesn’t, really, seriously, not at all. A lot of “oh no– I can’t believe you noticed me. Oh my god, what am I going to do now! I’m so embarrassed.”

The important thing to understand about “Dear Evan Hansen” is, firstly, that Evan is a lying, self-pitying narcissist with whom we are expected to sympathize. He abuses the trust of the Murphy family. He is not so much clueless about the damage he is doing as so self-centred that he doesn’t care. The second is that Evan is obviously gay, though the musical doesn’t acknowledge it, and, in fact, pretends that he really has the hots for Zoe. He clearly talks gay, acts gay, and demonstrates almost no convincing heterosexual interest in Zoe. At one point, Conner’s parents even wonder if he and Conner had a sexual relationship, but this being 2018, that is treated as something not to be embarrassed about. His interest in Zoe is a device to make you feel sorry for him in spite of his self-pitying and his narcissism.

The low point in the trajectory of this story is when his mother blames herself for Evan’s incredibly damaging prevarications: because she didn’t give him enough attention. No heterosexual male relates to his mother this way. There is nothing attractive about this bumbling, self-centered, pathetic whiner. And Zoe is most attractive when she disbelieves him, and becomes progressively weak as a character when she subverts her instincts to provide a convenient plot point for Evan’s complete emasculation.

“Dear Evan Hansen” won six Tony awards.  I can only conclude that the judges were carried away by their enthusiasm for the very predictable message about bullying.  I didn’t find the music very distinguished, or the staging inventive, or the acting, in the Toronto version, all that moving.  The social media angle is fresh, but not particularly deep or provocative: it draws no conclusions about the nature of this massive, sudden explosion of notoriety via the internet.

For the real deal about teen angst, mutating sexual identify, and generational conflict, see the marvelous “Spring Awakening” instead, if you can.