James Edmondson is directing Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” at Southern Oregon University opening this Friday, Feb. 26. The play is based on the witch trials that took place in Salem, Mass., in 1692. This is the centennial of Arthur Miller’s birth. Many productions of his plays are being produced internationally.
James Edmondson has been an actor and director with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since 1972, where he performed 60 roles including the title roles in “Richard II” and “King Lear.” He directed 30 productions for OSF, most recently, “Rabbit Hole,” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Edmondson has directed and acted for the American Conservatory Theatre and numerous other nationally known theaters.
I saw an early run-through of “The Crucible” and the production promises to be a compelling night of theater. I met with Edmondson in the Theatre Arts building on the SOU campus to discuss the play.
JE: It’s a great play. It gives you playable characters. Arthur Miller just writes a good scene. It’s difficult language, because it’s close to Shakespeare without iambic pentameter to give us guidance. It’s the vocabulary of that time; the syntax is of that time. There are a lot of intricate speeches that you have to skillfully lift and shape.
EH: Tell me about the environment of the play.
JE: The Puritans believed in witches. They were so much a part of their culture and in other parts of Europe. By that time, thousands of people had been named a witch and unjustly put to death. It was also financial: If you wanted a person’s land, you just had them called a witch. I think Miller was more interested in how a community takes a feverish event and turns it into a psychological looting of people’s lives.
Arthur Miller found, when he went to Salem, that the court records are very fragmented, very incomplete. He spent days trying to track down what happened. Eventually he found the he had to “warp history” to make a play.
It’s like portraying historical figures in Shakespeare. We do the research, but the fact is that, in the moment, we have to live inside Arthur Miller’s mind.
EH: Why did Miller choose to write “The Crucible” in 1953?
JE: It was all to do with the House Un-American Activities Committee. There was a fever in the country about naming Communists. The word “name” is in there 27 times. “I cannot give you names. These are my friends. I will not give you names.” “Name them. Name them.” It’s right out of that time. Miller was so driven to write it. His friends knew he was writing it. Some of them urged him not to do it. Later he was called up, and he refused to give names. It was an ugly event. And then it passed.
EH: Do you see any parallels between our time and Arthur Miller’s time?
JE: The idea of slandering someone is alive and well. There is something really icky in human nature: that we will find how to scapegoat a group. There will always be a group. Every generation and probably every culture has a “calling out a witch” element to it. We’re too eager to destroy.
There is a certain awareness of prejudice: That you just can’t be calling somebody something that will destroy them. I hope that we are sensitive to that now.