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A Classic at Stake

Arthur Miller and director Nicholas Hytner stir up 'The Crucible,' bringing it to the big screen 40 years after it scorched a trail on Broadway.

December 08, 1996|John Clark | John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — On a recent fall day, playwright Arthur Miller and director Nicholas Hytner got together in a midtown Manhattan hotel room to discuss their film adaptation of Miller's play "The Crucible." Miller, of course, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "All My Sons," "Death of a Salesman" and "A View From the Bridge." Hytner is a theater, opera and film director whose productions include the musical "Miss Saigon" and both the stage and screen versions of "The Madness of King George." Both men speak the language of the theater, but whereas Miller, 81, is an avuncular New Yorker, Hytner, 40, is British and almost boyish. The two men complement each other.

"The Crucible," which is about the 17th century Salem witch trials, was first presented on Broadway in 1953. It was praised--and criticized--for being an indictment of McCarthyism, though in fact it's applicable to any group paranoia. Now, after 40 years, it has finally been made--with Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor; Joan Allen as his wife, Elizabeth; Winona Ryder as Proctor's spurned lover, Abigail Williams, who accuses Elizabeth and others of witchcraft; and Paul Scofield as Danforth, the hanging judge. The film opens Friday.

The Times: Who started the ball rolling?

Miller: I wrote the script five years ago. Fox bought it and then began trying on directors and getting next to nowhere because they couldn't really imagine a contemporary audience for this picture. Thank God they sent us Nick.

Hytner: Tom Rothman, who used to work at Goldwyn and therefore knew me when I did "The Madness of King George," arrived at Fox and sent this script to me. I couldn't believe it. The first thing was just seeing "The Crucible" screenplay by Arthur Miller--this is going to be OK. And then I remember thinking, I have no idea why nobody has made this film before, but if they haven't, I will. I remember you telling me later on that people had been nervous of the language. Quite honestly, the way they spoke was one of the first things that made me want to do it. In the hands of the right actors, language of the greatest complexity can sound colloquial and easy. So knowing that, it never occurred to me that that was a problem.

Miller: Unlike most good directors in this country, Nick has a long theatrical experience, so he knows the value of words and that if he sees some dialogue, it doesn't mean the picture is a failure. It's really stupid, because it's been disproved a thousand times.

Hytner: Language comes under attack from two entirely different quarters in the movies. Firstly, from a much-discussed dumbing down of the culture, which we don't have to talk about because everybody else does. But also there's this romantic notion that when the talkies were invented, this marked a terrible wrong direction for the art of movie-making. I don't believe that all movies should aspire to the convention of the silent movie. I don't believe that language is a method of communication of equal stature to other methods of communication. I think it is the method of communication.

Miller: I keep wondering how the average person is going to react to this whole thing. It should be clear because it's running on emotions all the time. It's not an intellectual argument that's hidden in there, thank God. I found it fascinating what happens to a story like this once it gets, so to speak, extroverted. There's an extroverted element in lighting up the place and putting a camera on, as opposed to sneaking on to a stage in semidarkness and saying these lines. What the picture manages to do is to keep its sense of privacy.

Hytner: Which you can do in film much more easily than you can onstage. It's in many ways easier to convey emotion on film because you don't have to convey. If it's there and it's there for real, the camera will find it. I think it's very private. I think the whole film is.

Miller: I guess I get disconcerted by the fact that there's all these thousands of people running around, trucks, horses, and all that noise you never see in the theater. In the theater it's all referred to with words, and this thing is actually there, and you get afraid that you'll end up with a lot of noisy stuff.

Hytner: But I'm in control of the noise in the movie. If you don't like the noise, you can just throw it in the bin.

The Times: One of the original criticisms of the play was that it was too shrill.

Hytner: I'll own up to one or two of the first cuts being too shrill. And we realized pretty quickly that there's a limit to the amount of female teenage screaming that the human ear can tolerate in a span of two hours. You can pull back on that. But I think people sense around them nowadays a terrifying shrillness. Over the last 10 years the level of public discourse has degenerated to the point where you feel that the world is being governed by the man who can shout the loudest.

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