Set design literally makes or breaks the world of a play. While the scenes of The Crucible all take place in 17th-century Salem, the physical pieces used to create colonial Massachusetts can be anything. The original set — designed by Boris Aronson — is a beautiful reality based on what you would imagine Salem at the time would look like. For the 2016 Broadway revival, Jan Versweyveld set the illustrious tale in a classroom. A chalkboard lines the back of the set, Betty’s bed is made from desks, victims sit in familiar wooden chairs as they are interrogated.
It is a bit of an update, one could say. Exchanging the woods for a school yard. The social setting for children today is drastically different than that of the 1690s. Abigail Williams would be in school instead of being a servant. It goes far beyond this, however; Versweyveld’s set speaks to far more than what could have been.
Propaganda is easily transmitted through schools. Always has been. In fact, one of the most famous examples of this (possibly — some say it isn’t propaganda, but it has the reputation as such) comes just a year before the first production of The Crucible. “Duck and Cover” is one of the most iconic visuals from the era. Propaganda or not, Versweyveld’s set harkens back to the culture of 1950s society — as well as today’s (and 2016’s, if you feel like being specific).
Authority figures in charge of children —teachers, priests, parents — are seen as the ones to curb chaos and promote rationality. But as we are shown in The Crucible, they can be perpetrators themselves. The fact that the 2016 revival is set in a classroom is a silent reminder of this — a truth of both the past and the present.
A play with as large a legacy as The Crucible guarantees that the audience enters the theatre with a previous understanding of the show. That understanding, however (at least in terms of the high school students in the audience, myself included), had been warped by our cultural understanding of the Cold War and how it is taught. Our cultural image of the Cold War and McCarthyism is a collection of beautifully designed anti-Soviet posters, James Bond-esque espionage, and theatrical interrogations on the television. So distanced are we from the reality of Cold War hysteria that many may fail to connect it to modern day parallels. Versweyveld’s set reminds us that no society — no matter the size, no matter the time period — is safe from hysteria or corruption.
(Image by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)