Studio Theatre reexamines ‘The Crucible’ in world premiere ‘John Proctor is the Villain’

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 'John Proctor is the Villain' (Part 1)

Most of us have read Arthur Miller’s tale of the Salem Witch Trials in “The Crucible,” but what if the character who we thought was the hero is actually the villain in hindsight?

That’s the premise of Studio Theatre’s “John Proctor is the Villain” now through June 12.

“My play is interrogating power structures in a lot of different ways,” Playwright Kimberly Belflower told WTOP. “Canonical literature is this thing that like, who’s allowed to be included in the canon and why? Who gets to decide that? Who gets to teach it and pass it down? So canonical literature becomes this tool of power and this instrument of power.”

Set in present-day rural Georgia, the story unfolds at Helen County High School.

“It centers on this tight-knit friend group,” Bellflower said. “There’s a preacher’s daughter who’s learning to find her own voice after a breakup; there’s a hyper-achieving, ambitious, nerdy girl; … there’s a new girl who moved from Atlanta; [and the return of] one of their best friends who had disappeared a few months ago … her parents sent her to live with her aunt.”

These girls start a feminism club at the same time they’re reading “The Crucible.”

“The Junior Honors Lit Class is studying ‘The Crucible’ in the wake of #MeToo,” Belflower said. “As #MeToo starts to hit close to home for a lot of them, there are parallels the students start drawing with ‘The Crucible’ and it upends their understanding of how they’re being taught.”

Belflower read “The Crucible” in high school, but it was a different book that inspired her.

“I read a book by Stacy Schiff, who’s a feminist historian who wrote this nonfiction book about Salem, it’s called ‘The Witches: Salem, 1692,’ and it really changed my understanding of the realities of that time period and that moment in history,” Belflower said. “I learned a lot of things in terms of context of the girls’ lives and what they were dealing with.”

She finally decided to revisit “The Crucible” during the #MeToo revolution.

“When the #MeToo tidal wave hit … I remember one of the accused men called #MeToo a ‘witch hunt,’ I had this book on my mind and I thought, ‘That’s not what a witch hunt means,'” Belflower said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about that connection. I revisited ‘The Crucible’ like, ‘That’s the most famous piece of literature about the Salem Witch Trials, I should revisit that.'”

How is John Proctor presented in Miller’s original 1953 play?

“In the play, John Proctor is the tragic hero,” Belflower said. “He is the only person in this town speaking up against these false allegations, he ends up being hanged because he refuses to sign a false confession to being a witch. … Functioning as an allegory for McCarthyism … John Proctor is set up as the beacon for the audience to follow.”

Today, Belflower sees John Proctor in a new, villainous light.

“Upon re-reading it, John Proctor and Abigail Williams … had an affair,” Belflower said. “The play sets up Abigail as this conniving, seductive little harlot, John Proctor calls her terrible names, he’s angry at his wife for making him confess. … I was struck by the trauma that Abigail and the women in the play had endured. Their trauma wasn’t given any space.”

So, she began writing “John Proctor is the Villain” in 2018 during a societal awakening.

“In the past couple of years starting in 2020, our country has had this racial reckoning and is questioning a lot of other systems and is looking at, ‘Oh, our founding fathers did a lot of great things but also owned slaves.’ … Applying the same lens to literature: This thing was taught to me in this way, why was it taught to me in this way, and why did I just accept it?”

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 'John Proctor is the Villain' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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