When Arthur Miller Came to See What BU Did with The Crucible
A new play at the Huntington stirs memories of a 1962 CFA production
We will never be finished with the witches of Salem, it seems.
On February 8, the Huntington Theatre Company opens John Proctor is the Villain, by Kimberly Belflower, in which a present-day high school English class in Georgia explores Arthur Miller’s classic 1953 play, The Crucible.
Miller’s Tony Award–winning play about the 1692–93 Salem witch trials was prompted by the McCarthy era’s convulsions. Belflower’s play, in which the real lies, betrayals, and abuses are going on outside the classroom door, examines the late Miller’s work through the lens of #MeToo—and high school.
The Huntington was founded in 1982 as a theater-in-residence at BU, a relationship that continued until 2016. BU has a history with The Crucible that goes back much further, involving big names in the modern theater world.
In the spring of 1962, the School of Fine Arts Division of Theatre Arts (or as we now know it, the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre) produced The Crucible as its final show for the year—and Arthur Miller came up to see it. Why would a busy celebrity travel from his home in Connecticut to attend an undergraduate production of a play he had written almost a decade earlier? It had never been performed in Boston, a city just a short drive from the site of the witch trials of 1692. And no one had seen this version performed, not even its author.
“Broadway Director Premieres New Version of Miller Play,” announced the BU News on April 24, 1962. Well, not exactly a new version, but the original, unabridged script. That young Broadway director was Lloyd Richards, the first Black director of a drama on Broadway—Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. He would go on to stage most of August Wilson’s (Hon.’96) plays, many of which debuted at the Huntington, and would later lead the Yale School of Drama.
In 1962, Richards spent over a month working with the drama students at BU on this unique production, performed over three nights at what was then called the Boston University Theatre, at 264 Huntington Ave., now home to the Huntington Theatre Company. He stressed to his cast, “This is a new play; remember that. It’s never been done before.”
Miller had been deeply disappointed in the 1953 Broadway rendition of his play. Pressured by the director, Jed Harris, he had made radical cuts and alterations to his script. Although it won the 1953 Tony Award for best play, the show had a relatively short run on Broadway, and the critics were not kind.
Most saw the play as a transparent allegory of the McCarthy communist-hunting frenzy that was still going on and as a critique of those (especially the director Elia Kazan) who had named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Many in the theater world saw Miller as taking sides in this sensitive issue; others blamed him for surrendering his art to politics. While Miller was certainly prompted by the McCarthy hearings, he had tried to anchor his story in the language and characters of 1692 to portray the more universal tragedy of corruption and fear overtaking society.
The play was not staged in New York again until its revival in 1958, when it had a long successful run off Broadway. McCarthyism had faded by then, and the play could be seen for its enduring themes and characters, but Miller had his historical notes and commentary read aloud between scenes of the revival to clarify his intent. He felt the original script was “superior” to the published play and participated actively in the preparation for this “new version” at BU, which would return to the original script.
The new theater division chair, Harold Ehrensperger, met and corresponded with the producer Kermit Bloomgarden, who worked with Miller. A “play doctor” made a detailed comparison of the two scripts, original and published, and concluded that the changes made for Broadway, while justifiable one by one, “added up to a violation of the integrity of the work. The author’s original vision, and the architecture he constructed to embody this vision, had a truth, a wholeness and a rightness which transcended the pedestrian dictates of logic.”
Bloomgarden sent Richards this comparison, along with the original version marked up by Miller to tighten certain scenes. Richards told the New York Times, “Although the basic structure and many of the scenes are much like the published version…the third act is a complete change; the point of view is distinctly different. This earlier script is not so much a social tract based on the witch trials of Salem as it is a story of individuals trapped within themselves, and by their own acts.” This is the perspective he would bring to the student cast.
It is difficult to believe that the performances are by students, so total is their involvement and so spare their technique.
The third act of the original included a full scene in the forest, between John Proctor, the protagonist played by Robert Summers, and Abigail Williams, with whom he had committed adultery, played by Nanci Ferguson (CFA’62). Overall, the original script was substantially longer, the BU production clocking in at 3 hours and 18 minutes, according to a note by Richards made on the manuscript, now at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
“Arthur Miller ‘Impressed’ as Critics Laud ‘Crucible,’” proclaimed the BU News on May 15, 1962. “I am surprised,” Miller said, “I didn’t expect it to be so finished.”
Boston Record American critic Elliot Norton wrote, “It is difficult to believe that the performances are by students, so total is their involvement and so spare their technique.” He added that the performances were “sharply intelligent and deeply felt,” but the actors, being undergraduates, “were handicapped by the age differential between performers and characters.”
Handicapped or not, at least one of the student actors caught tremendous momentum from this episode. Faye Dunaway (CFA’62), in her autobiography, Looking for Gatsby, remembers well her senior year at BU: “The play that was to set me on the road was due to go into production in the spring…. I auditioned and was cast as Elizabeth Proctor.
“My role was that of a wife whose husband is in love with another woman, an agony I had witnessed through my father’s various liaisons.” She was thrilled when “Miller stopped by after one performance to say how much it had pleased him to see it this way.” Word had circulated in theater circles, and “a contingent from New York also came to see it…. Robert Whitehead, who was having a very successful run on Broadway with his production of A Man for All Seasons…was among those who came.” Just two weeks after graduation, Dunaway replaced one of the leads in A Man for All Seasons.
“The role [of Elizabeth Proctor] changed my life,” Dunaway recalls, “because I was able to work with Richards. He watched me through the long hours of rehearsals and saw where I took the performance on stage.” When Kazan asked Richards to suggest two students for the new Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, “mine was one of the names,” Dunaway wrote, a small irony considering that Kazan’s testimony before the HUAC had prompted Miller to write The Crucible.
In 1964, Dunaway would go on to perform in the original Broadway production of Miller’s After the Fall, directed by Kazan, with whom Miller had reconciled; soon after that, she would head to Hollywood to become one of the great actors of the 20th century, starring in the films Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Network, and many more.
Miller’s play is one of the most-staged plays by an American writer and continues to inspire widely varied interpretations and responses, as illustrated in Belflower’s play.
While the BU staging of Miller’s original script for The Crucible gained enthusiastic notice in the national press and launched at least one of its actors toward stardom, the experiment was never repeated. The three performances in the spring of 1962, by Boston University’s undergraduate drama students, remain the only times this “new version” of The Crucible has ever been seen on stage.
Unfortunately for those hoping to see the story come full circle, John Proctor Is the Villain is being performed not at what is now the Huntington Theatre on Huntington Avenue, but at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End.
Bonnie Costello is a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and a College of Arts & Sciences professor emerita of English.