After seeing Arthur Miller’s classic drama “The Crucible” at the Central Square Theater, I was hunting in my mind for an image which would summarize and elucidate its frenetic action when I found myself standing under a study, old Poplar tree in a local park.
A breeze suddenly swept through the park, not only swaying the tree’s long sturdy branches, but also setting every leaf on the Poplar shifting from its light to its dark side. I remember reading once that the stem of each Poplar leaf is so peculiarly attached to the main body of the leaf as to enable this unique and striking shiver or trembling in the wind.
William Bradford, fresh off the Mayflower, described Massachusetts in 1620 as “a hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men.” Not a promising prospect. And yet, Bradford tackled his fears head-on. After a reportedly terrible first winter, Bradford was elected governor of Plymouth Plantation, married his second wife in festivities that included the “wild men” as honored participants, and lived to finish his handwritten history of Massachusetts before dying at the ripe age of 68.
So, was William Bradford, a doughty Puritan, unduly rattled by the prospect of a “hideous and desolate wilderness” for no reason? An unstable personality? Sensitive nerves? Or did he and his fellow colonists simply enjoy the luck of escaping that once-a-century “wind” which blew through the colony of Salem, Massachusetts about 50 years later?
Whether it was blind luck that saved Plymouth from infamy or the all-seeing grace of a stern but compassionate Puritan god, “The Crucible” does not venture to answer. But it does put its audience directly under that sturdy Poplar to feel it shake and sway while every leaf above shows its two-sided nature as fast as one can say “abracadabra!” or any other deadly, quick-off-the-tongue spell.
By about the end of the 1600, Europeans were seeing and burning fewer and fewer witches. Good, solid evidence was becoming harder and harder to find. And, no doubt, more than a few deserving rascals got off with nothing more than a severe tongue-lashing.
Again, “The Crucible” is silent on the “Why?” Of this tragic disconnect between the old and new worlds of Europe and the America’s, especially British New England.
At first, it was only children, and more orphan children than those brought up in a respectable Salem household who felt, or claimed to feel, that peculiar wind that stirred Salem’s forest into a hideous brew of darkness and light. And then, there were those adults who could hardly be expected to know better, so loose were their lives, so perverse their standards.
And finally, but not least, there were those hardly human. Such as the slave Tituba, who had arrived some years ago as the property of the town’s minister when he moved to Salem from the island of Barbados — where heathen practices were routine.
Still, as slightly as these souls were valued, as slim were their chances of passing to heaven, they, the citizens of goodly Salem, were responsible, as covenanted Christians, to channel God’s all-seeing eye through themselves (who else?) and search out the least peccadillo in these benighted, mostly powerless, mostly womanly souls reported to have been seen or heard of or perhaps even scented DANCING in the forest. Then it was reported that they were dancing naked — then around a bonfire.
And wasn’t a bubbling cauldron spotted in the midst of the bonfire by a broken witness, babbling, barely intelligible, but, praise the Lord, yet strong enough to gasp out the truth of those evil companions who had plotted to betray her innocent soul! Soon every leaf on the communal soul-tree, those in the forest as well as those on the town green was vibrating with secrets to tell, some for present insurance, some for future insurance. And some — the very worst, just for the hell of it.
If only, it — whatever it was — had stayed in the forest, that “hideous and desolate wilderness” which William Bradford had spotted and taken the measure of as soon as he stepped off the Mayflower, and as governor of Plymouth colony made sure, with Godly guidance, that his flock didn’t stray!
Whatever or whoever loosened the curse, it was soon too big, too wild, for little Salem, and so neighboring experts, were called in to sleuth for and turn over bigger rocks to reveal even bigger secrets. And they came, clothed in sanctity, stalwart men with strong backs. And they found, as they looked around in horror that rocks, small to big, were turning over themselves all around.
So, these men, stalwart godly men, who were now swaying like thin branches, if you will, called on bigger men, those who made up the very trunk of the strongly rooted, stoutly barked, communal tree of Massachusetts to come and see and judge for themselves.
And you too can come and judge for yourselves, down on the very stage floor if you’re ‘big’ enough and bold enough to seat yourself down where the smell of sulfur is strongest and the very ground under you the weakest. You might rather choose mid-audience as the best place to wear a look of innocence. A look that says “I’m not from Salem. Only visiting from Boston. Just curious ….
(“The Crucible,” directed by Eric Tucker, is being performed by the Nora in association with Bedlam through October 20 at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts. For more information, call (617) 576-9278.)