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In Israel, Imagining Arthur Miller’s ‘Crucible’ in a West Bank Settlement

A new production of the classic play feels painfully contemporary

Tal Kra-Oz
February 27, 2018
Gerard Alon, courtesy Cameri Theatre
Production still from 'The Crucible'Gerard Alon, courtesy Cameri Theatre
Gerard Alon, courtesy Cameri Theatre
Production still from 'The Crucible'Gerard Alon, courtesy Cameri Theatre

Sixty-five years after its New York premiere, a gripping new production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is playing to packed houses at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater, but the men who brought this version to the stage can’t seem to figure out what all the fuss is about. In the program notes, the play’s translators, Gilad Kimchi and Gur Koren (Kimchi also directed the production), apologize for not being able to find any connections between the witch hunts of 1690s Salem and the lives of contemporary Israeli audiences. “What do the links between law and religion have to do with us?” they ask. “The conflict between religion and belief? The relationship of money with power? A melting pot of people willing to kill one another because they fear their fellow man’s life will come at the expense of their own… Luckily, these are all light years away from our own lives.”

Kimchi and Koren are quick to show their bluff. The stage is flanked by concrete slabs that call to mind the separation barrier that crisscrosses the green line. Salem’s men all don skullcaps, and its women wear scarves and modest skirts—the latest in Samaria chic. Even the translation foregoes any vestiges of 17th-century colloquialisms, and the village becomes a yishuv, or settlement. Late in the play, the stage fills with pashkvils, the black-and-white broadsides common in Haredi neighborhoods, except that these posters warn of witchcraft, rather than of the perils of military service or short sleeves.

Eitan Blum, a theater critic for Haaretz, who had expected another tired period reenactment of the Miller warhorse, wrote that he went into “aesthetic shock” when he realized that he was not watching Puritans in colonial New England, but a far more familiar group, one that Miller himself, disillusioned and ailing, had called “an armed and rather desperate society at odds with its neighbors but also the world.”

The young women in the play—Abigail Williams, Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren—seemed instantly familiar to me. Like almost any former IDF soldier, I’d spent some weeks of my service doing guard duty in West Bank settlements. Every couple of nights, a teenager or two would invariably approach my post to shoot the breeze and help pass the graveyard shift. Thankfully, none went into hysterics or accused anyone of cavorting with the devil, but the frustrations of being young and restless in an insular, religious society were manifest.

Salem, of course, echoes the name of its biblical counterpart, Shalem, one of Jerusalem’s seventy monikers. By happy coincidence, Abigail Williams is brought to stunning life by a woman whose name echoes her own: Avigail Harari, one of the finest Israeli actors of her generation. Though Harari is no stranger to meaty roles—she’s starred as Anna Karenina, Juliet, the bride in Blood Wedding and is now in rehearsals to play Desdemona—she told me that playing Williams has been special.

“I’m quite young, I’m still a hatchling really, but I feel less and less connected to the innocence I used to have, to the fantasist I once was, to the girl who truly believed—who knew—that she was going to be the greatest actress in the world, who had that drive to go all the way,” Harari told Tablet in an interview. “I’ve lost that, but those are the things that drive Abigail in the play.” Williams, who leads the group of witchcraft accusers in the play, has “the spirit and the passion to burn everything down, because she’s a shahida for love, fooling older and wiser people with her totality. She’s an anarchist, kicking down ideologies and toppling over all the walls, whether you call them the separation fence, the Berlin wall, the Kotel. Puritanism was so strong, that the only outlet was to go into epileptic fits. And it excites me to play that, to touch that.”

It seems almost subversive to mount The Crucible here these days. If Salem’s justice system was hijacked by the powerful, and outlandish allegations were taken far too seriously, dangerously so, Israel has a weakened justice system under attack by the powerful. Very serious allegations, especially by women, are not taken seriously at all. Miller, so skillful in his depiction of moral panic and false allegations, wrote a play that should—and often does—offend our contemporary sensibilities. Like many classics, it deserves to be staged, but with care. When the most prominent fan of the phrase “witch hunt” is Donald Trump—hardly a paragon of the weak or disadvantaged—one cannot be too careful (for the record, the Cameri’s Crucible largely succeeds in avoiding the play’s gendered blind spots).

Harari was initially circumspect when I asked her about the politics of this production. “There’s a lot I can say about politics and society, but it’s difficult for me to do that without talking about art, because I’m an artist,” she said. “And I think that the job of an artist is to stimulate your own personal sub-conscious, to provoke it. That’s the place I want to be.”

“This production is an exercise in observation, of the place I live, of my surroundings, of the mechanics of politics,” Harari said. “In Israeli society, every sector has had the opportunity to both incite and be demonized in turn, to be hunter and hunted in a witch hunt. It’s happened to the left, to the right, to the religious, to the secular, to the IDF and to draft-dodgers. It doesn’t really matter who, because we get it, everyone is attacking everyone. But in this play, you see how it happens, what people’s motivations are, and it brings it to the here and now.”

This Crucible is another in a long line of successful Hebrew-language Arthur Miller productions. As the scholar Prof. Linda Ben Zevi has noted, Miller is one of the most popular playwrights in Israeli, bested only by Shakespeare and Ibsen. To be fair, Miller is also one of the most popular playwrights in the world, but he has enjoyed special status here, a beloved American uncle, if you will. All My Sons has long been a staple of the Israeli stage; its strong social realism striking a chord with a theatrical tradition prone to collectivist drama (being a part of the high school English curriculum for over four decades has also helped it secure its pride of place). In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller recounted attending a particularly memorable production of the play in Jerusalem in late 1976. Also in the audience were president Ephraim Katzir and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (the latter had just tendered his resignation, setting in motion the elections that would soon lead to the rise of Menachem Begin):

At the end of the play the applause seemed not to dispel an almost religious quality in the audience’s attention, and I asked Rabin why he thought this was so. “Because this is a problem in Israel—boys are out there day and night dying in planes and on the ground, and back here people are making a lot of money. So it might as well be an Israeli play.”

Similarly, if Willy Loman’s Jewishness has long been a matter of debate among Death of a Salesman’s American fans, Israeli audiences seem to have always taken it for granted. But to my knowledge, Avigail Harari has given us the first Jewish Abigail Williams, and her fellow players have given us the first Jewish John and Elizabeth Proctor, Reverend John Hale, and so forth. In so doing, they’ve launched The Crucible beyond Salem and its witch trials, beyond the Red Scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee, beyond Israel and the West Bank. “I think exploring it this way is interesting, because it raises questions and debates,” Harari said. “You can read the news on an app in your phone, but in theater you can find the humanity behind the news, you can see how the greatest villains are human, and that’s what’s interesting.”

At the very least, as Kimchi and Koren, the play’s translators, put it in their program note, “you’ll enjoy a powerful, dramatic tale that really happened, a long time ago and far away from here, and rejoice in us not being like that at all.”

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.