October 10, 2009


It’s common now to come across the phrase “caution – spoilers ahead” in discussions of books and movies.  People want to avoid having their experience ruined  by reading a review that reveals the end, the surprise, the mystery, etc.  Personally, I don’t care.

Were people upset that they knew the ending of the Illiad when they heard it for the 100th time?  Everyone has favorite films or books that they see or read again and again.  The best works don’t depend on surprise.  That is, the suspense depends on the characters’ not knowing what’s ahead.  Some of them, Greek tragedies for example, assume that we already know the whole story.

I know it may be snobbish, but this is why I have no interest in reading mysteries – I can’t abide a book that depends for its appeal on hiding an aspect of the plot.  In a movie, it can be fun, and if it’s a good one, knowing the secret really doesn’t matter, but in a book, it’s just tedious for me.

Crucible – what makes a classic?

April 12, 2009


After reading John Demos’ new book, The Enemy Within, I finally went and read Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. It tells the story of the rising hysteria leading to the Salem Witch Trials in Puritan Massachusetts.  First performed during the 1950s when the McCarthy Red Scare was in full swing, it’s relevance to the politics of the time was obvious and it gave American popular culture the term “witch hunt”, as in political witch hunt. The play is immensely powerful and disturbing.

Reading the play now, although I was fully aware of its political connotations, I read it as a comment on the endlessly recurring situation of group hysteria, trampling of rights, triumph of fear over reason and the toll in death and ruin it takes, the ease with which we humans loose our footing in civilization and slip into mental barbarism. Thus a classic – eternally relevant, solidly of its time and of ours, always.

The edition I had contained a vast amount of critical material, including many reviews of the day, positive and negative.  It’s strange reading them – so many are battles over the validity of the play’s critique of McCarthy and the HUAC.  The funny thing is that some of the reviews seem to imply that if Arthur Miller’s politics could be discredited, if the reviewer could demonstrate that there really was a threat from Communism, that there really were Communist spies among us (obviously, there were some) then the play’s message was invalidated.  Witch trials were just irrelevant!

…But they come back, over and over again.