My high school senior English class acted out every play we read, as a rule. In the second semester, we read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I somehow made it to the end of the fourth act without being called on. It was a miracle. Iris, my best friend, was convinced it was because Ms. Harris liked me better than the other students. I secretly hoped so. Realistically though, I was pretty sure it was dumb luck. Of course, my luck had to run out eventually. Alex complained that I hadn’t read at all. He could be petty at times. Ms. Harris acknowledge the complaint and gave me the role of Elizabeth Proctor.
At first this seemed like another blessing. Up until this point in the play, Elizabeth had barely talked. Then I remembered who always played John Proctor.
John Mellinger, the stormy-eyed Zeus of Post Oak High School, had a monopoly on the role since his assignment at the beginning of the text. At first it was a John/John joke, but then he was mesmerizing, passionate, damaged, fearless- who knew he had it in him? A 20th century rich kid for whom the tortured John Proctor fit like a glove. It was a concentrated effort of will on my part not to wonder why. I would not find Mellinger intriguing. I’d hated him since Iris told me the terrible things he said to her the year before about her body and her worth. I had to hate him. No one was allowed to make my best friend feel like that. I hadn’t spoken to him since. But now I had to. It was in the script.
I sat for the beginning of the scene and read my cue over and over, barely listening to the actors on stage. I wondered if Iris noticed how uncharacteristically nervous I was to read. I hoped not. When my cue came, I walked to the front of the classroom. I could feel my breath catching, my hands raising to twirl my hair. I pushed them down, clasped them behind my back like I used to for debate. I read the five lines I had before John entered. I was determined to be a fearless Elizabeth.
Ms Harris read the narrator. “…[Proctor] Halts inside doorway, his eye caught by the sight of Elizabeth. The emotion flowing between them prevents anyone from speaking for an instant. Hale looks up stage. Proctor crosses down slowly toward Elizabeth, looks around, then Hale speaks.”
Hale, played by Shiraz, told the other characters to leave. Proctor and Elizabeth clasped hands, then released. It was too brief of a touch for a husband and wife, but I pulled away. I rubbed my thumbs over each other once they were back in my own possession. My hands were warm. I breathed in. I had to remember this was Mellinger, off limits. Also in the script, “…the emotion flowing between them…” I felt my chest tighten. I was worried about how to act that part. Mostly, I was worried that it wouldn’t be difficult for me. Every girl at Post Oak knew John Mellinger’s face like the back of her hand. In my first week at that high school, before I knew anyone by name, I drew him in my sketchbook, concentrating on his hair, the loose blonde curls. Andrew recognized it later, flipping through my sketchbook. He asked me why was I drawing John. I was drawing him because he was the obvious thing to look at, beauty like a black hole, sucking everyone in. I said I didn’t know. I used to get nervous when John looked at me. Now I felt the heat rise to my face and was glad my concealer covered blush. Maybe, while he was Proctor, it was alright to see him as beautiful again. Maybe, as Elizabeth, my breath could catch looking into his grey-blue eyes.
It did. “The emotion flowing between them,” I thought, and held his gaze. We progressed through the scene. Elizabeth tells Proctor that some of his friends had betrayed their integrity and confessed to witchcraft. The ones who hadn’t were dead. I relaxed a little bit. I concentrated on not letting my voice lilt, on having some hand motions for emphasis but returning them to clasped before I touched my hair. I focused on the acting. I loved the characters in the Crucible, and I got passionate describing Giles being pressed with rocks, refusing to indict himself. “They say he give them but two words. More weight, he says. And died.” I felt the admiration in my throat, the way the words felt rounder and lighter. I always got dizzy on stage. “Maybe this isn’t so bad,” I thought. I looked John in the eye steadily for several lines and the blush was gone.
Then we came to the part where Proctor talks to Elizabeth about whether or not he should confess.
Ms. Harris read, “…he takes her hand, pulls her down to bench, not looking at her…”
John hesitated before touching me. “Take her hand,” Ms. Harris prompted. She was used to doing this. He held my hand lightly and I quickly sat on the two chairs we had pushed together for a bench so he didn’t have to pull. He looked away, but didn’t let go. The script did not say to let go. I was controlling my breathing now but I didn’t want to admit it to myself. It was Mellinger’s hand. That was forbidden territory. If I was feeling anything, it was for Proctor. I had always had a crush on Proctor.
I skimmed ahead and a lump formed in my throat. The scene only became more intimate. My saving grace was simple. It wasn’t Mellinger I was clasping and calling good. It was Proctor, honest and true to his friends, who Arthur Miller wrote to be achingly, movingly human. John,
who loved and left a seventeen-year-old girl.
Suddenly I wondered how the play would sound if Abigail was the character Miller lavished lyricality on. Her tragic flaw was loving a man who would not love her back, and refusing to part from the one shred of power she had. She wasn’t graceful or rational or fair but she was a child and a character, a person who had no control over her own choices. For a moment, I wondered how Mellinger got to be the way he was. If the books I loved let men like Proctor redeem themselves, then who looked out for the Abigails, the crushed girls they left in their wake? I felt sick. I looked out at Iris and wished I could stop feeling John’s heartbeat in his hand.
Ariana Fletcher-Bai is a Junior majoring in Human Communication and minoring in Creative Writing. Her work is also forthcoming in the Trinity Review.