the settling stone cold in the stomach

I saw The Crucible at The Old Vic this week. It was – wow.

I’d seen the film, a long time ago now, but it didn’t really stay with me at all (no, not even Daniel Day Lewis), but this might. Generally when I’m at theatre I can process things as they go along, my brain keeping up with my emotions – but not in this.
Apparently nothing makes me more angry and frustrated right now than watching people unable to get the system to hear them. And so watching John Proctor, with Corey and Nurse, trying to argue their case against Rev. Hale and the judges in the court but not getting anywhere – not being allowed to get anywhere – had me ready to punch the walls.

There was nowhere to go, no way to fight or argue, no place to channel the rage that rolls up against the rhetoric and religion of the court. The illogic of the court is so logical, their authority so certain, so unable to brook criticism lest the whole thing crumble that everything must burn instead…

Danforth: Now hear me, and beguile yourselves no more. I will not receive a single plea for pardon or postponement. Them that will not confess will hang. Twelve are already executed; the names of these seven are given out, and the village expects to see them die at dawn. Postponement, now, speaks a… a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now

(The Crucible, Act II, Scene 3)

It drove me mad. (And that, of course, is the point of really good art, because chances are that unless I am extremely unfortunate I am extremely unlikely to ever be in such a situation myself – it could happen, I know, but the odds are in my favour against it – and therefore, something like The Crucible is necessary for empathy-related reasons: this is where I get to experience that frustration and powerlessness).

But, oddly, it drove me mad less because of the politics – because of course The Crucible when it was written was about the politics of America in the 1950s more than it was about the religion of New England in the 1690s – than because of the religion. And not because I felt the play was getting it wrong or being unfair to Christianity – but because it felt like it was getting it right.

That refusal to admit questioning of the recognised authority, however well earned that position of authority might originally have been; that refusal to admit to having gotten it wrong, however well-intentioned the desire not to weaken the body you’re a member of; that suffocating sense of conformity – on the young women of Salem, who from the very start are left with little option but double-down on their accusations in order to survive, and on Proctor, the heir of the non-conformists who left England to escape the conformity and authority of the Church of England only to find it inescapable. It all just felt familiar.

It felt like watching people who are seeking to hold you accountable – because you want to be accountable – also reserving the right to be your judges, because they have that authority. It felt like trying to stand in front of the system and arguing that it is all so much more complicated than the system will allow, that people are richer and deeper that this, that the world isn’t static. None of this was about any particular situation. It touched no raw nerve endings. But somewhere, deep inside, I felt it, and instinctively responded against it. And now it’s lodged in.

Is this what religion is? Maybe in the end it is. I don’t think it’s what faith is – but I worry it’s what it can become.

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