The other day I went to see Arthur Miller’s The Crucible put on by Soulpepper in Toronto’s Distillery District. It was phenomenal, incredible, stupendous. The sets were perfect in that they were subtle and fitting, the costumes seemed just right and the acting was amazing. There isn’t much more than that to say. When something is subpar, I can wax on forever about its flaws, but when I truly enjoy something, I find it hard to say anything. Not, I imagine, because there isn’t anything to be said, but because it just doesn’t seem to need saying. When something is done well, that generally appears seamless; you don’t sit pondering what makes it so good, you just take it for granted and become engrossed. Which is probably why it’s easier to criticize than to compliment. When something is done well, it is less noticeable, it’s simply as it should be; however, when it is done poorly, that’s what sticks out. This is probably why we’re quicker to notice (and punish) children when they misbehave, than to notice (and reward) children who behave properly.
But, life is more complicated than just good and bad, approval and disapproval. Not everything is all good and must be put on a pedestal, or all bad and to be put to shame. At least according to The Crucible. If something (or someone) is completely good or completely bad, that’s boring. It doesn’t seem worth talking about. It’s the tension between good and bad and the capacity for good and bad that make life (and people) interesting.
So, overall, the play was incredible, but there was one flaw that stuck out for me. I really didn’t like Abigail Williams. I understand that the character herself is not a likable person — we’re not supposed to like her. But I can’t figure out if I disliked her because the actress did such a good job playing her and I didn’t like her because I wasn’t supposed to or if it was because she really didn’t do a good job and that bothered me. I’m inclined to think the latter.
Abigail isn’t a nice person. She had an affair with John Proctor before the play began, and while he’s seen that it was wrong and put an end to it, she refuses to move on. She’s jealous of Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, and wants her dead, with hopes of taking her place. She uses the witch trials as an opportunity to have Elizabeth accused and hanged for her own corrupt, selfish purposes. She’s a controlling, manipulative liar who gains power through the messed up system created by the trials and leads all the other (previously powerless) teenage girls in accusing many innocent people of “consorting with the devil”. The thing about her, though, is that she’s a really awful character who I just love to hate. She’s deliciously bad and has few to no redeeming qualities.
But I didn’t really get that from the girl who played her. She didn’t really seem so conniving and cruel and malicious. She was just kind of annoying. And her affected innocence didn’t feel enough like affectation. Maybe she didn’t do such a bad job. Maybe the actress or the director had a different interpretation of Abigail’s character than I did. But, because the rest of the play was so good, this one flaw was not only more noticeable, but it also bothered me more and made more of an impact.
The opposite applies as well, goodness has more value when it’s put next to badness. This is illustrated with John Proctor’s character. The play ends with *spoiler alert* his hanging. He chooses to be hanged rather than sign his name to lies and perpetuate the brutal witch trials, which he knows to be senseless, unjust and unfounded in real factual evidence. If he was just a perfect person, if he were a noble, just, well-behaved man from the start of the play, his self-sacrifice in the end wouldn’t be all that spectacular. What else would he do? Rebecca Nurse, an extremely calm, sensible, moral character shares the same fate. But no one really notices. It’s expected of her.
What’s so outstanding about Proctor is that he isn’t perfect from the start but still does the right thing in the end. He’s a good person, but he’s done wrong. He has an incredible reputation, and is respected in his community (which is why his final decision to die honourably rather than live because of a self-preserving falsehood actually matters and helps his society). But seven months before the play even began, he had that affair with Abigail. As far as he’s concerned, that one mistake makes him a terrible person and it was an error in judgment from which he can never recover. He does the right thing in the end, but literally up until the moment that he does, he isn’t sure if he’s going to — partly because he feels that since he’s already done one wrong thing, there’s no point in losing his life to do the right thing. But then he realizes that goodness and badness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. He sees that he does have some goodness in him and he chooses to do the right thing, because having done wrong previously is no excuse to do wrong again.
The thing that makes him heroic, is that he has done bad but changes and does something good. That’s why he matters. That’s why he’s interesting. That’s why we love him. When something is all good or all bad, it’s boring — or at least boring to talk about. There isn’t necessarily much to say about a play that’s done perfectly or a man who behaves perfectly. But what really sticks out — whether in a bad way or in a good way — is when a play that’s superb has a flaw or when a not so ideal person does something truly noble. Because it’s the inconsistencies in life that are interesting and that really get people talking.
Of course, I’d rather a play that’s executed perfectly or a person who’s always good, but life’s more complicated than that and there’s good and bad in everything. And “there is nothing,” as Hamlet says (in Hamlet, act 2, scene II) “either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. So maybe what I’m really getting at with this, is what do you focus on? The awesomeness of the rest of the play or the less-than-awesomeness of how Abigail was portrayed? The fact that John Proctor cheated on his wife or that fact that he was able to repent, move past that and do good in the end?
I’d say, learn from Proctor and choose goodness. There’s badness in each of us and there’s badness in the world around us. But maybe we shouldn’t focus on that. Maybe we should focus on the good and — despite our own or other people’s bad choices — try to do the right thing.