Reading Review: Two Plays – The Crucible by Arthur Miller and Invisible by Tena Štivičić

I’m not cross examining the plays… they are too different. I read them one after the other and thought I’d open a dialogue to discuss whether we should read more plays other than engaging with them in the form that they are written to be delivered in. Cue Christmas bestselling lists of playscripts…

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a play engaging with the witch trials that took place in Massachusetts and other regions of America in the 17th century. A town descends into hysteria over the discovery that there might be witches among their townsfolk. It serves as a comment on how quickly people can denounce each other and lose their lives or livelihood in the defence of others. Mob brutality, family, fear and faith challenges are the themes present here. It’s full of shouting and brash action, accusations and court room drama. Miller writes in a deliberated, heavy-set way, each character talks with the very depth of their being. I’m not asking for light moments in what is obviously a dark and cruel moment in American history, but the dynamic of the play is the descent of a train down a dark tunnel never to emerge.

Its plot moves fast and gets more harrowing by the moment. In attempt to assume control over directorial decisions on the play, Miller lumbers in reams of backstory behind each pivotal character, which would not appear on stage, but as a reading experience, is a load of sludge to walk through. Still, the moment of denouncing the accused witch and transformative scenes are tense, climactic and the definition of how to build and release character conflict within a drama.

Invisible by Tena Štivičić is a play that tracks the lives of numerous emigrant workers from various parts of Europe to England. It’s a snapshot-story where we are fed glimpses of the character’s hardships, relationships and actual hips shaking in a dance scene. It’s a stunning work of weaving character’s pathways and does well to keep scenes short and sharp. Themes of social struggle, love, family, race. It’s a blueprint play, where the reader is provided with no stage directions, no actions that could define a character, no visual quirks that tell us about their ticks, their physicality in situations… Why not?! The dialogue is swift, sharp, realistic, but could be even more streamlined by a movement of character. At one point a character punches another and the only thing indicating this in the text is character shouting ‘AH, YOU PUNCHED ME!’

Playwriting is a visual form. I don’t know if Štivičić is a director and would have mainly devised actions over these words in rehearsal, but as it stands in text, Invisible is just a bunch of people talking. Maybe that’s OK in book form. But I feel the book version of a play should make some attempt to hold the audience in the way the lay would on stage. Everything said on stage is moved through so quick you have to just hope the audience has caught what has been said and is following you. Having the book of the play allows you to hold the dialogue for as long as possible, BUT you then have the handicap of no visuals that are necessary to the playwriting form. So, maybe Štivičić’s Invisible works in the best written form of a play… or it’s the worst.

The Crucible is different. The play’s text can almost be read as a historical document which would drive me to boredom aloud but works on the page. However, Miller has some moments of incredible action that injects momentum into the character’s dialogue and suits to build and release their conflict. On page, these sections are some of his best writing, giving us stark, metaphoric movements which really stretch your imagination. This works best for me, I love visuals and knowing I can treat this play as a piece of writing and a performance simultaneously.

I’m an advocate of plays working both forms. The delivery of a play is unrivalled by any form of writing, you can make characters do anything. Within the text, the play should allow us further insight into the dialogue we want to hold onto for a little bit longer AND allow the audience in our minds to see everything as they would in the theatre. I don’t know if this is elitist, if anything this would make plays the most accessible they could be, but you can’t beat a theatrical show. I should probably go and see both plays and really cross reference how they work live too…

Arthur Miller, The Crucible, first published in 1953, Penguin Modern Classics.
Read/See When: You want something harrowing, something dark, explosive plot, something religiously challenging, something historical.
Don’t Read/See When: You want to relax, you want something light, you want something quiet.

Tena Štivičić, Invisible, 2011, Nick Hern Books.
Read/See When: You want social commentary, snapshot narrative, characters to follow.
Don’t Read/See When: You want something light, something visually dynamic (who knows!?!).

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