In 1953, the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy were already well into their notorious crusade against Communists and alleged Communists in American society, and playwright Arthur Miller knew that he might eventually come to their attention for more than the Pulitzer prize he won for Death of a Salesman in 1947 (they would catch up with him in 1956). He had already begun to think about the Salem witch trials of 1692 as a way of addressing what it means for a community, any community in any era, to disintegrate. The Puritans called this lapse into suspicion and betrayal “breaking charity,” and in Salem Village charity was certainly shattered when a group of young girls began to behave strangely and accuse their neighbors of bewitching them. Nineteen people would hang and a twentieth would die under torture, pressed to death by boulders, before the madness abated; then it faded as quickly as it had come into being, leaving behind the wreckage of farms and families. The playwright’s initial thoughts about Salem took on an added urgency when his friend Elia Kazan, the brilliant Greek-American director, decided to supply names to the committee in order to preserve his own Hollywood career. “Had I been of his generation,” Miller would later write, “he would have had to sacrifice me as well.”

The resulting play, The Crucible (Penguin Classics, $14, 143 pp.), opened to lukewarm reviews, but soon it would be regarded as a classic. The script deliberately alters some historical facts, but it is based on the author’s own research with the trial records in Salem and Boston, and it shows how profoundly Miller understood the combination of specific historical pressures and the perennial human motives that made this fractious town split apart. As a perennial favorite for amateur troupes, The Crucible has gained a reputation for slightly creaky earnestness, but a production this summer in London’s Old Vic theatre held audiences riveted for nearly four hours of harrowing tragedy. The young director, South African Yaël Farber, famously compels actors’ bodies to extremes of agility and endurance, but she also knows how to draw out their souls; under her daring guidance the English cast created a powerful ensemble piece that dispelled any idea of creakiness. Miller turned the gruff pronouncements of the Salem farmers into an elegant language, carefully stylized in order to suggest a remote place and time without sounding archaic (though lead actor Richard Armitage would note that some of his lines were a challenge to deliver credibly). Played in the round, the play’s concentrated plot took on all the inexorable focus of a Greek tragedy.

I had begun rereading The Crucible before I saw the London production in late June, and moved on to some of Miller’s other plays, as well as his beautifully written autobiography, Timebends: A Life (Grove Press, $18, 656 pp.), before seeing the production again in late July. Despite the hysteria of the proceedings it describes, the play is suffused with a quiet dignity, both in silent reading and in this memorable production. The Crucible may have been conceived at a particular, difficult moment in U.S. history, but it has no less urgency now. Fanaticism, panic, terror, and betrayal are as sadly familiar today as they were sixty years ago, but Miller also shows that heroism comes in many guises. Timebends was a great help toward understanding what Miller was thinking about at the time, and afterwards; his musings on the reasons for The Crucible’s timelessness are right on target. And of course the great love of his life was not the troubled, ambitious Marilyn Monroe (whose studio-imposed name contrasted so starkly with The Crucible’s obsession with naming and clearing names), but Inge Morath, the photographer he married in 1962.

Irving Finkel’s official title is Assistant Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum. In this capacity, he watches over, and studies, its vast collection of clay tablets from the Middle East, inscribed with the system of little wedges we call cuneiform script. Invented by the Sumerians, taken up by the Babylonians, continued by the Assyrians, cuneiform records include the code of Hammurabi (which Finkel suggests may be more of a symbolic creation than a functional set of laws), a boasting list of the atrocities committed by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II in his conquering tour of Syria, and a hitherto unknown version of the story of Noah’s Ark. This last is the subject of Finkel’s captivating tale of The Ark Before Noah (Anchor, $17.95, 432 pp.). Tracing the story back to its Sumerian origins, we learn that the original Ark was probably envisioned as a gigantic coracle—a circular transport boat that plied the rivers of Mesopotamia from remote antiquity until the dawn of the twentieth century, woven of reeds and coated with pitch. Finkel speculates about which animals might have been included, where Mount Ararat is really located, and teaches his readers enough about cuneiform to whet the appetite for more. He recommends cuneiform as part of everyone’s curriculum, and with such a teacher, the prospect sounds irresistible, no matter how nasty a customer Ashurnasirpal seems to have been.

Speaking of Noah’s Ark, in a year when the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard garnered widespread attention for the English translation of his massive autobiography, My Struggle, it is worth noting that the first of his works to appear in English was A Time for Everything (Archipelago, $20, 499 pp.), which begins in a Norwegian forest in the sixteenth century, but then shifts to the days just before the Flood, telling the story of Noah from the point of view of his neighbors. In these days of strange weather and global warming, Knausgaard’s imaginary Holy Land sounds all too real.

Another watery novella to come out in recent English translation is Giu-seppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s haunting The Professor and the Siren, newly reissued by NYRB Classics ($12.95, 104 pp.). Lampedusa is best known for The Leopard, his novel about Sicily just after Italian unification, with its famous line, “Everything has to change in order to remain the same.” Lampedusa’s family palace in Palermo was destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II; he knew that some things could also change irrevocably. The same combination of wistfulness and hardheadedness that gives The Leopard its charge also emerges in The Professor and the Siren, where the professor is almost certainly a version of Lampedusa himself. The siren, on the other hand, is a savage little creature who tears into raw fish with her sharp teeth.

For more Christmas Critics, click here

Ingrid D. Rowland is a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Global Gateway. Her latest book, cowritten with Noah Charney, is The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art (W. W. Norton & Company).

Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the December 5, 2014 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.