Monday, September 21, 2015

The Crucible: Archive Materials

Diane Bell as Mary Warren, Kirk Willis as John Proctor
Cleveland Play House archives (CWRU)
In honor of the Cleveland Play House 100th Season, the Playwrights Unit has been asked to write short plays about the company’s history. As CPH’s 2015 production of The Crucible will be in performance when these sketches will be presented, I offered to cover the regional premiere of that play, which was produced at the Play House in 1954.

We were given access to company archives, which are kept at Case Western Reserve University, and their staff and the apprentices at CPH have been extremely helpful in locating and distributing specific items.

I have previously covered The Crucible in this blog, having read contemporary reviews of the CPH ’54 production, as well as Miller’s own inspiration for having written it. But there was much I had never seen, including photographic images of the actors, their costumes, and the scenic design.

Produced at the Euclid-77th Street Space, it was presented on a wide, open thrust stage, with little wing space. The set is a spare frame construction. The period costumes, inspired by the garb of 17th century Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay colony, do much of the work in placing this production in time and space.

The reviews for the CPH production were uniformly positive; when they were critical, it was generally in comparing this new play to Miller’s landmark Death of a Salesman.  A preview piece written by William F. McDermott for the Plain Dealer provided background which informed potential audiences this new work (it opened on Broadway in 1953) had elicited a wide range of opinion.

The Crucible at the Euclid-77th Street Theatre
Cleveland Play House archives (CWRU)
True, The Crucible had won the Tony Award for Best New Play. However, the producers did not decide to create a touring production. McDermott reported that the West German paper Der Tag found the work, “too narrow minded in clinging to historical fact,” and that in Miller’s characters he had created, “no one person which stirs our conscience.”

When the Munich-based paper Abend suggested this play is a “reliable image of what happens in the United States,” it even produced a defensive response from the playwright who countered, “In Salem they only hung [sic] sixteen persons, in Europe they had burned thousands.”

One of the great delights of looking into an archive like this are the pieces of personal correspondence which someone, at some time, decided it would be worth to save. There were some internal memos, and also personal messages of special interest or gratitude.

A thank you card from a Mrs. S. who lived on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights saw The Crucible with her husband in 1954 and offered a pair of observations which, taken together, will be familiar to anyone who has managed any theater company, anywhere:

“Neither of us can remember a more wonderful production.”
-- and also –
“I was annoyed to see so many empty seats.”

The Crucible at Cleveland Play House opens October 10, 2015.

The Plain Dealer, October 3, 1954
Cleveland Play House Archives, Case Western Reserve University

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