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-Ian.

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SEND ASHCROFT A PENNY FOR HIS THOUGHTS Fri Mar 1,10:01 PM ET

By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK — “There is fear in the country because there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country! … You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it. … This is a sharp time now, a precise time — we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s good grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it. … Now draw yourselves up like men and help me, as you are bound by Heaven to do.”

That call to join the good and eliminate the evil is not from the president, or even from the current attorney general, who said two weeks ago that freedom is a gift from God — rather than a creation of brave men and women — which seems to mean in Ashcroft-think that we have no real right to challenge or debate God’s work. The words I quoted were spoken by the deputy governor of Massachusetts, the good Mr. William Bradford.

Bradford’s words, as fictionalized by Arthur Miller, will ring out over New York and the country next week as “The Crucible,” Miller’s play on the Salem witch trials of 1692, is revived 50 years after he wrote it in 1952.

When it was first produced, and in conventional wisdom since, it was seen as an attack on the House Un-American Activities Committee’s zealous communist hunts of the day. In fact, Miller, who would himself be questioned by Congress three years later, wrote at the time that he was forced to turn to history to discuss his own time: “The reason I think that I moved in that direction was that it was simply impossible any longer to discuss what was happening to us in contemporary terms. We were all going slightly crazy trying to be honest and trying to see straight and trying to be safe.”

It is clear now that the play, which received generally good reviews and ran for 197 performances on Broadway, is better than that. It stands now as an attack on conformity and on elevating one group — Christians, Muslims, or even Nazis and businessmen — by forcing others to declare total allegiance or be seen and punished as evil. A British scholar, Christopher Bigsby, wrote this of the work in 1995:

“What replaces the sense of natural community in ‘The Crucible’ … is a sense of participating in a ritual of conformity to a ruling orthodoxy and hence a purity of one’s religious principles is confirmed by collaborating, at least by proxy, in the punishment of those who reject them.

“In fact the play’s success now owes little to the political and social context in which it was written. It stands, instead, as the debiliatory power of guilt, the seductions of power. … It stands as testimony to the ease with which we betray those very values essential to our survival, but also the courage with which some men and women can challenge what seems to be a ruling orthodoxy.”

The play, which opens on March 7 at the Virginia Theater on West 52nd Street, with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in starring roles, is not about religion or ideology; it is about the power and corruptions of ideology, all ideologies. Good and ideas of good do evil on the stage. (I saw the production in preview last Friday night.)

“I note that you are rarely in the church on Sabbath day … 26 times in 17 months …” says a preacher to a man who answers that he prays at home.

“Your house is not a church; your theology must tell you that,” says the man with the power. “Mister, a Christian on Sabbath day must be in church.”

Then the man who prays at home can name only nine of the Ten Commandants — and that leads to his being hanged in the public square. So ends an important piece of American writing. We hear and see too much of this on all sides now, 310 years after Salem. I left the theater thinking I would send a penny to my attorney general, John Ashcroft (news – web sites). He should see this and think about it. Admission is $40. If 3,999 other Americans send him a penny, our high official can buy the cheapest seat in the house

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