Richard Eyre
Richard Eyre
"The Crucible is always timely," says Richard Eyre. "It is a great fable and timely in the sense that the great Shakespeare plays somehow are if they are done well. They always speak to our age."

Of course, when Arthur Miller's now-classic drama about the notorious, 17th-century Salem witch trials premiered in 1953, the immediate connection was to the Communist witch hunts led by Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Director Eyre's riveting Broadway revival of the play at the Virginia Theater, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, resonates equally strongly with a contemporary audience. For example, recent government pronouncements asserting the righteousness of the War on Terrorism seem to paraphrase the declaration of Deputy Governor Danforth (Brian Murray) in The Crucible that "a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it." Eyre also points to a parallel between the Puritan society portrayed in the Miller work and the repressive Taliban, explaining that "fear of sexuality is the clockwork that motors the play."

Returning to the Shakespearean comparison, Eyre notes that, like the Bard's plays, The Crucible takes on an entire social fabric. "These plays give you, from top to bottom, a sense of the hierarchy of a society," he says, "the groupings, the social relationships, the family relationships. The tension, the premise, of most Shakespeare plays is: How does an individual relate to the society? That's Miller's premise as well."

The current revival of The Crucible is a result of several "rivers coming to flood at the same time," Eyre explains. For nearly a decade, through 1997, he was occupied full-time as director of the Royal National Theater in London. Since then, Sir Richard--he was knighted in 1997--has been working freelance in theater and opera, as well as in film. (He is the director of the current, triple-Oscar-nominated Iris starring Judi Dench). He had also been courted assiduously by producer David Richenthal to direct a show in New York. "I said I wanted to do The Crucible if we could get Liam," Eyre reports; coincidentally, Miller himself had independently expressed his desire for a production of the play to be done this year on Broadway and directed by Eyre.

In his recent book and television series Changing Stages, Eyre describes Miller and Tennessee Williams as the "Romulus and Remus" of post-war drama in the English language. "They made theater a very potent form," says Eyre. "They are political in the sense of both the small 'p' and big 'P.' They use language in incredibly muscular ways and have a great feeling for the expressive power of the theater. Working in that same area of naturalism on the edge of expressionism, they pushed the boundaries of theater and essentially set the template, I think, for the next 50 years of British and American theater. I feel very close to them." Eyre goes on to say that, when he started to read plays in the late '50s, he found the work of Miller and Williams much more affecting than that of such British writers as Osborne and Wesker, which he describes as "rather etiolated, bloodless."

During his tenure at the National, Eyre produced four of Miller's plays--including a staging of The Crucible by Howard Davies--which helped contribute to the huge upsurge of interest in the American playwright in London even before a similar phenomenon occurred in New York. Eyre himself, however, chose to direct plays by Williams because, prior to taking over the post at the National, he had done two regional productions each of The Crucible and Salesman. "But I always wanted to The Crucible here in New York because I felt that I could cast it here better than anywhere else on earth," he says.

A fraught moment from The Crucible(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A fraught moment from The Crucible
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Explaining his dream casting of Neeson in the role of John Proctor, Eyre describes the New York-based Irish actor as having "a feeling of being of the earth" and an aura of "unquenchable decency." Eyre previously directed Neeson as Oscar Wilde in David Hare's The Judas Kiss, both in the West End and on Broadway. "Liam is a very humane man and is also terribly good at playing a protagonist who is deeply, deeply flawed. In the first act, you think badly of [Proctor]. The scene with Abigail--she is just a sexy, young girl and he has a responsibility, but he says, 'We never touched.' It is just deplorable. In the second act, his defense is very equivocal and then, gradually, he turns into a figure of heroic decency. Liam is wonderful at charting that. And Laura [Linney, who plays Proctor's wife Elizabeth] has real moral authority. An actor can't fake that if they don't have it."

One of the thrilling aspects of seeing The Crucible on Broadway now is the rare opportunity it affords to witness as many as 16 people on stage interacting with each other in a single scene. "When you have a good cast like this, it is like being the conductor of an orchestra," says Eyre of his contribution to the show: "You are bringing up the wind section and holding back the percussion." Noting that every actor has to take responsibility for the storytelling, Eyre offers a sports analogy to illustrate how to keep the audience focused on the events unfolding on stage: "You have to be aware of where the ball is. You try to do this in such a way that the audience is unaware of it, but the whole time you are saying, 'Look there...there...there.'"

Miller, who had also been involved with casting decisions for this production, was present for the first few days of rehearsals. Eyre says that he had asked the playwright to return later in the process, after the actors had taken ownership of the play. But, three weeks into rehearsals, Miller's wife Inge Morath--who was also the production photographer--died. The playwright did, however, approve of the pitch of Eyre's production. "When we talked about it early on," Eyre recalls, "I remember Arthur saying, 'It's like a thundering train and, if you stand in front, you will just get run over by it."

Even those familiar with The Crucible will find themselves caught up it's inexorable sweep towards a tragic climax. "I guess the pitfall of doing the play is that it is about collective hysteria and yet, if the production is hysterical and generalized, it is sort of unwatchable," Eyre comments. "So it is rooted in the real. Every step of the way, you should be able to think: 'Now, if that hadn't happened, then everything would be fine.'" By way of example, he cites the moment at the end of the first act when the young girls of the town "name names" of those who have allegedly trafficked with the devil.

"Reverend Hale [played by John Benjamin Hickey] is the professional, and the first thing he should have done is cleared the room of all these ridiculous, hysterical amateurs who keep interfering," notes Eyre. "But he makes a fatal mistake, leaving these people who need to find a victim. The play offers all these 'if onlys.' And, of course, the greatest is in the fourth act: If only the woman who could never tell a lie had not told a lie. It's wonderful the way this play gives you the satisfaction of absolutely standard narrative twists within a very sophisticated content."