Instantly I am reminded of the stench I have yet to expunge, waiting for me back at home. But I start to think, also, how evocative smell is, and how much more it could be used, to powerful effect, in theatre. But this soil – it is a welcome smell. It is sweet, and grounded, and life giving. It forments hope. But yet it is also evocative of death, for it is the place where all living things must eventually go.
Before I begin to tell you my opinion on who was to blame, and my reasoning for saying so, I will give you a brief insight into the real point of Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible....
Thus, at the beginning of Western literary criticism, the controversy already exists. Is the artist or writer a technician, like a cook or an engineer, who designs and constructs a sort of machine that will elicit an aesthetic response from his audience? Or is he a virtuoso who above all else expresses himself and, because he gives voice to the deepest realities of his own personality, generates a response from his readers because they admit some profound identification with him? This antithesis endures throughout Western European history Scholasticism versus Humanism, Classicism versus Romanticism, Cubism versus Expressionism and survives to this day in the common judgment of our contemporary artists and writers. It is surprising how few critics have declared that the antithesis is unreal, that a work of literary or plastic art is at once constructive and expressive, and that it must in fact be both.
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Critical theories of literature in the Orient, however, have been more varied. There is an immense amount of highly technical, critical literature in India. Some works are recipe books, vast collections of tropes and stylistic devices; others are philosophical and general. In the best period of Indian literature, the cultural climax of Sanskrit ( 320-490), it is assumed by writers that expressive and constructive factors are twin aspects of one reality. The same could be said of the Chinese, whose literary manuals and books on prosody and rhetoric are, as with the West, relegated to the class of technical handbooks, while their literary criticism is concerned rather with subjective, expressive factors and so aligns itself with the pseudo-Longinuss sublime. In Japan, technical, stylistic elements are certainly important (Japanese discrimination in these matters is perhaps the most refined in the world), but both writer and reader above all seek qualities of subtlety and poignancy and look for intimations of profundity often so evanescent as to escape entirely the uninitiated reader.
In some literatures (notably classical Chinese, Old Norse, Old Irish), the language employed is quite different from that spoken or used in ordinary writing. This marks off the reading of literature as a special experience. In the Western tradition, it is only in comparatively modern times that literature has been written in the common speech of cultivated men. The Elizabethans did not talk like Shakespeare nor eighteenth-century people in the stately prose of Samuel Johnson or Edward Gibbon (the so-called Augustan plain style in literature became popular in the late seventeenth century and flourished throughout the eighteenth, but it was really a special form of rhetoric with antecedent models in Greek and Latin). The first person to write major works of literature in the ordinary English language of the educated man was Daniel Defoe (1660?-1731), and it is remarkable how little the language has changed since. (1719) is much more contemporary in tone than the elaborate prose of nineteenth-century writers like Thomas De Quincey or Walter Pater. (Defoes language is not, in fact, so very simple; simplicity is itself one form of artifice.)
Tom Morris’s production of The Crucible is on at Bristol Old Vic until the 7th November: book tickets . Caroline Steinbeis’s production of The Crucible is on at Manchester Royal Exchange until the 24th October: book tickets .
While The Crucible may still be an Everest for a director, Morris says, “now you know, inevitably, it’s a peak that’s been scaled many times before.”
Literature may be an art, but writing is a craft, and a craft must be learned. Talent, special ability in the arts, may appear at an early age; the special personality called genius may indeed be born, not made. But skill in matching intention and expression comes with practice. Naïve writers, naturals like the seventeenth-century English diarist Samuel Pepys, the late eighteenth-century French naïf Restif de la Bretonne, the twentieth-century American novelist Henry Miller, are all deservedly called stylists, although their styles are far removed from the deliberate, painstaking practice of a Flaubert or a Turgenev. They wrote spontaneously whatever came into their heads; but they wrote constantly, voluminously, and were, by their own standards, skilled practitioners.
Arthur Miller may have wanted his play to act as a “time-bomb under the bullshit of capitalism”; terrorists may continue to use real bombs to undermine the capitalist ideal; capitalism may even be its own time bomb, ticking inexorably towards cataclysm. But for now, at least, the American Dream lives on.
Elite literature continuously refreshes itself with materials drawn from the popular. Almost all poetic revivals, for instance, include in their programs a new appreciation of folk song, together with a demand for greater objectivity. On the other hand folk literature borrows themes and, very rarely, patterns from elite literature. Many of the English and Scottish ballads that date from the end of the Middle Ages and have been preserved by oral tradition share plots and even turns of phrase with written literature. A very large percentage of these ballads contain elements that are common to folk ballads from all over western Europe; central themes of folklore, indeed, are found all over the world. Whether these common elements are the result of diffusion is a matter for dispute. They do, however, represent great psychological constants, archetypes of experience common to the human species, and so these constants are used again and again by elite literature as it discovers them in folklore.
This development is relevant to the West because it spotlights the ever-increasing emphasis which has been laid on intensity of communication, a characteristic of Western poetry (and of literature generally) as it has evolved since the late nineteenth century. In the Far East all cultivated people were supposed to be able to write suitable occasional poetry, and so those qualities that distinguished a poem from the mass consequently came to be valued above all others. Similarly, as modern readers in the West struggle with a communication avalanche of words, they seek in literature those forms, ideas, values, vicarious experiences, and styles that transcend the verbiage to be had on every hand.
John is the former editor of, and current contributor to, musicOMH. He lives in Sheffield, in the shadow of the famous Crucible and Lyceum theatres, and also reviews in nearby Leeds and Manchester. John is also a huge fan of stand-up comedy, and can be often be found in one of Sheffield's comedy clubs, laughing like a madman.