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How Death of a Salesman and The Crucible are inspiring a slew of new feminist plays
"I'm going to make a play called Death of a Salesman 2: Willy Loman Sucks," playwright Eleanor Burgess recalls telling a friend. It was 2017 and she was fed up with how women were represented in much of American theatre. So, she started writing Wife of a Salesman, which envisions a meeting between Linda Loman and her husband Willy's unnamed mistress from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
"I wanted to open up that world," explains Burgess about her female-forward riff on the classic. "If we had a chance to hear from the women and it wasn't about the men in their lives, what would that sound like?" Wife of a Salesman debuted in 2022 with rolling premieres at Chicago's Writers Theatre and Milwaukee Rep.
Burgess isn't alone in her reimagining of Miller. Over the past few years, many women and nonbinary dramatists have penned new works in conversation with his plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible that center characters who were ignored, underwritten or misrepresented by the canonical American writer. It's telling that in 2022, when Death of a Salesman was receiving its sixth Broadway production since its 1949 premiere, Burgess' Wife of a Salesman and Barbara Cassidy's Mrs. Loman were also running on smaller stages, along with the Crucible-influenced Becky Nurse of Salem by Sarah Ruhl at Lincoln Center Theater. Now there are two more Crucible variations: Talene Monahan's The Good John Proctor, which played at Bedlam in the spring and is currently running in rep with Becky Nurse of Salem at Rhode Island's Trinity Rep, and Kimberly Belflower's John Proctor Is the Villain, which begins performances at Boston's Huntington in February 2024.
The timing of these plays is not coincidental. Just as Miller was fueled by McCarthyism and the elusiveness of the American dream, most of the playwrights interviewed cited Donald Trump's presidency as fodder, particularly his constant and inaccurate use of the term witch hunt.
"When Hillary Clinton was the nominee, the violence of the crowd wanting to lock her up was so disturbing for me," recalls Ruhl, whose Becky Nurse of Salem focuses on a modern-day descendent of Rebecca Nurse, the oldest woman to be hung for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. "It felt as though there was a kind of witch hunt around her."
Monahan, whose The Good John Proctor explores the events leading up to The Crucible from the perspective of the girls who make the accusations, believes that Miller's play is responsible for the shift in meaning of witch hunt and why it's often misused by powerful men. "I don't think that would be the case if The Crucible hadn't depicted this very compelling story of a good man falsely accused by a band of lying teenage girls," she says.
An actor as well as writer, Monahan aspired to be in The Crucible when she was starting out as a performer. But as she matured, she began to have a more critical take on Miller's view of those adolescent girls. "I discovered that the girls at the center of the trial in real life were much younger than they are in The Crucible," she says, noting that Abigail Williams—The Crucible's conniving mastermind—was only 11 years at the time. "That really reframed my understanding of what the events might have been."
Belflower was similarly shocked when she decided to reacquaint herself with The Crucible at the height of the #MeToo movement. "I couldn't believe that I was reading the same play I had read and loved in high school!" she says.
She also happened to be reading The Witches: Salem, 1692 by feminist historian Stacy Schiff at the time, which Monahan and Ruhl also consulted while working on their respective plays. The book emphasizes the youth of the girls, the trauma they endured as children and the unlikelihood of an affair between Abigail and Crucible protagonist John Proctor.
This new information inspired Belflower's John Proctor Is the Villain about contemporary teenagers dealing with accusations of sexual misconduct in their community. "What I'm trying to examine more than anything is cycles of power and how #MeToo didn't just come out of nowhere," she explains about the play, which was developed as a collaboration between three colleges and had its world premiere at DC's Studio Theatre in 2022.
While the high school students in Belflower's play are studying The Crucible, accusations of witchcraft and sexual assault aren't analogous. As Burgess notes, "Witches aren't real. At the Salem Witch Trials, they were hanging innocent people. Sexual misconduct is real, and people should be brought to justice for doing that."
With Wife of a Salesman, Burgess opted to respond to Death of a Salesman not The Crucible. But, like Ruhl, Belflower and Monahan, she was motivated by a desire to give the women in Miller's plays their due. Also loosely based on the stories of her own grandmothers, Burgess' play is "an encounter between a woman who has children and a woman who does not, and an opportunity for them to explore that space."
While Wife of a Salesman is a prequel of sorts to Death of a Salesman, Cassidy's Mrs. Loman, which had its world premiere at The Tank last year, is a sequel that starts the day of Willy Loman's funeral. "Death of a Salesman was always one of my favorite plays except that I hated the way that Linda and the women were portrayed and treated and spoken about," she explains. "I wanted to create a world for Linda as a critique of Salesman in some way."
In Mrs. Loman, Linda discovers her son Happy has sexually assaulted someone and she's unsure of what to do. "When you look at Salesman, the things Happy says [about women], they're not nice," says Cassidy. "It's not a far-fetched idea."
Although Cassidy's and Belflower's plays evoke different Miller classics, both feature characters grappling with how to respond when their family members are accused of sexual assault. And all the plays delve into feminist issues, especially gender dynamics and bodily autonomy, which are even more top of mind since Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022.
"I thought my play was about how things used to be. I didn't think I was writing a play about how things are," Burgess says about Wife of a Salesman, which unpacks the challenges related to abortion in pre-Roe times. "It was appalling to me how much more relevant the play became. We have a tendency to make feminist art that doesn't grapple with motherhood. But to me, there is no feminist art without dealing with motherhood and the female reproductive system."
The real-life events that inspired The Crucible involved motherhood, too, though Miller chose to de-emphasize that. "It's my understanding that one of the women in the town was grief-stricken over the loss of one of her children and wanted to talk to her dead child," says Ruhl about one victim who got caught up in the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials.
Rebecca Nurse, the real-life ancestor of Ruhl's fictional title character in Becky Nurse of Salem, was the town midwife—a dangerous job during such a superstitious era. If a woman or baby died in childbirth, the midwife could be blamed for the loss and possibly accused of witchcraft. "All of this grief and hope surrounding motherhood, so many children were stillborn," Ruhl says. "How do you not go crazy around that biological reality?"
While Ruhl and Monahan understand why Miller focused on John Proctor in The Crucible, they take issue with his choice. "That was his way in, which I don't fault him for," says Monahan. However, considering 17 of the 19 people hanged during the Salem Witch Trials were women, "it's just wild, given who actually suffered."
Miller's decision to seemingly concoct an affair between Proctor and Williams is even more problematic. "Miller came to that assumption on his own—that's not documented anywhere else," says Sheri Wilner, whose 2013 play Kingdom City depicts the cancellation of a production of The Crucible at a Midwestern high school. "The real Abigail was a scared child looking for affection. And girls have been taught that sometimes it's through sex or attractiveness or seduction that you get attention or affection." Ruhl calls the supposed romance "an act of historical imagination" and Sarah Tuft, whose play Abigail is currently in development, explains he got the idea from a transcript in which Williams said her fingers were burning when she grazed Proctor's hood. "How you could extrapolate that there's an affair there, I have no idea," Tuft says.
Women have been grappling with Miller's treatment of Williams for a while now. With her 2013 play Witch Hunt or, A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, Liz Duffy Adams told The Dramatist magazine that she "wanted to rescue Abigail from his unconsidered mid-century misogyny."
Of course, playwrights have long been known to take creative liberties with history for the sake of drama. The Crucible isn't a documentary after all. Unfortunately, it's frequently perceived as an accurate account of the Salem Witch Trials—a mistake that Belflower, Monahan, Ruhl and others are dismantling with their work.
"The Crucible has merged with actual history in a way that theatre and plays very rarely do," Monahan says. She credits its "ubiquity" with its prevalence in American high school curricula. Ruhl adds: "History is confusing…. It's susceptible to all kinds of manipulation and fantasy."
While The Crucible was a staple of the American high school theatre experience for decades, that's changing. Since the pandemic, it no longer appears on the Educational Theatre Association's list of top ten most produced plays in high schools.
None of the playwrights interviewed are asking for Miller to be canceled. In fact, they all express admiration for his talent and body of work. However, they would like to see women and nonbinary playwrights, perspectives and parts become better represented in the American theatre canon.
"It's a little like a betrayal," says Tuft. "I come to the altar, and I pray at your work. And you're telling me that's all I'm worth?" Their feelings compelled them to want to write Abigail in response. "I'm going to pay you the highest compliment by acknowledging your work's impact by correcting where it went wrong, while also upholding what we love about it."
Monahan agrees. "I think there's something about the ubiquity of Miller's plays—and the limits of his female characters—that make theatre artists hungry to reexplore these stories from different perspectives."
It's heartening that many of these new plays are now being taught or produced in schools alongside Miller's classics, giving students a more expansive and inclusive view of these stories. "I would be thrilled if they were reading my play in conversation with The Crucible, and also hoping that they would be able to question things," said Belflower. "I didn't question things nearly enough when I was young; I just accepted them."