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 Strobe Light, Power Drill, Witch Hunt


 Reading THE CRUCIBLE with Christine Blasey Ford

                So MAYER

I am sixteen and walking through the streets with a HILTI drill and 4’ bit in my hands. I should be in lessons. Instead I am learning that with great power comes a great big red case, and a huge amount of anxiety. Will I drill through an electrical cable? Will the strobe fall on someone’s head? Will I short out the whole school?

Will I have the strength, patience and know-how to operate this monster?


Designed for high performance, durability and longer running time in drilling.

Automatic hole cleaning.

Hammer bits.

Drill faster.


I am leaning all 5’2” of myself into the drill. Concrete dust is swarfing from its helical bit as the motor roars through my skeleton. The wall comes towards me.

To the hilt.

One more time, and then we mount the bar.

We need to check it will hold the strobe light that will play over the end of Act III of The Crucible, the moment when the girls, led by Abigail, see a bird in the courtroom.

Abigail, with a weird, wild, chilling cry, screams up to the ceiling.

Abigail: You will not! Begone! Begone, I say!

Danforth: What is it, child? But Abigail, pointing with fear, is now raising up her frightened eyes, her awed face, toward the ceiling—the girls are doing the same—and now Hathorne, Hale, Putnam, Cheever, Herrick, and Danforth do the same. What’s there? He lowers his eyes from the ceiling, and now he is frightened; there is real tension in his voice. Child! She is transfixed—with all the girls, she is whimpering open-mouthed, agape at the ceiling. Girls! Why do you—?

        Mercy Lewispointing: It’s on the beam! Behind the rafters.

I hang from the bar: from the beam; imagining the beam of the strobe that will chop the scene into blinding jump cuts.

I am weighty and weightless for a few seconds, still buzzing with power.


I am forty and watching US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh respond to the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who put her personal and professional life on the line as her ‘civic duty,’ despite facing security threats in addition to the fear of flying and generalised anxiety caused by the assault in her adolescence. In response, Kavanaugh says that her determination to speak out ‘has destroyed my family and my good name.’

He will almost certainly still get the job, and power over every body in America.


‘Because it is my name’: John Proctor’s final defence in The Crucible. Douglas Rintoul, artistic director of the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, which staged Arthur Miller’s play in February 2017, calls its examination of allegation and trial ‘the perfect play for our post-truth times.’ 1

Introducing its ‘Why I Wrote’ feature on The Crucible in 1996 (around the time of the play’s film adaptation), the New Yorker noted that, in researching the Salem witch trials, ‘Miller understood the universal experience of being unable to believe that the state has lost its mind.’ 2 Twenty years later, it is evident that the American state has lost its mind once again: as prominent leftist commentator and documentarian Robert Reich wrote on Facebook about the secret FBI report on Brett Kavanaugh, ‘In less than a week, Trump, McConnell, and Kavanaugh have managed to make a mockery of the Senate, the FBI, and the Supreme Court.’ 3

Yet Miller’s play finds its analogy for the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities’ accusations of Communism not in the punitive and irrational actions of the colonial Puritan lawmakers who foreshadow the authors of the US constitution and its Supreme Court, but in the hysteria of teenage girls. The central story of the play is not about an individual accused by the state, nor about women accused of witchcraft (who made up the overwhelming majority of historical accusations), but about a man, John Proctor, who had extramarital sex with Abigail Williams, a seventeen year old orphan girl who had been working in his house.



An electric Michelangelo, I am lying on my back on a plank bridging two ladders of unequal heights. It is after the end of the school day, and I am alone with my physics textbook, science goggles, a screwdriver, and silence. The school theatre’s lighting system is illogical, and I am rewiring it so that the toggles on the lighting board control the lights in sequence.

No-one is more shocked (not literally) than me to find myself taking charge (literally) of wiring, of tools and plans and practicality. After all, I got a D in Craft, Design and Technology in year 9.

This is how the grading for the class worked: the CDT teacher asked you to give yourself a grade, then he gave you a grade. If you wanted to bargain up from his grade, you had to accompany him to the supplies cupboard for five minutes. So, after year 8, I settled for a failing grade.


Miller’s first stage direction for Abigail describes her as being ‘strikingly beautiful [with…] an endless capacity for dissembling.’ But John has, as he admits, had a sexual relationship with her, addressed in Act II, Scene 1, in what Rintoul calls ‘a delicate depiction of a husband and wife… overcoming adultery.’ When he tries to persuade her to drop the charges in Act 2, Scene II (published as an appendix, and not always staged) and she refuses, arguing that he will not admit to ‘fornication’ in court, he says ‘I will make you famous for the whore you are,’ throwing her to the ground and calling her a ‘mad, murderous bitch.’ 

Observe the double standard, which is not only in Miller’s imagining of the sexually repressed Puritans, but in the structure of his play. There is no mirroring delicacy in addressing what Abigail has had to overcome: being orphaned, being in service, being a sexual object for adult men (she refers to ‘lewd looks’ in the appendicised scene), being betrayed and abandoned after thinking she had a lover and protector. Being powerless other than in the self-destructive power given to her by the patriarchy’s fear of her sexuality.


Look, here: John Proctor is a girl. Elizabeth Proctor is a girl. Tituba is a girl. Reverend Parris is a girl. Governor Danforth is a girl. Abigail Williams is a girl. The director is a girl. The lighting board is run by a girl (as I thought of myself then).

Cherchez la femme and you find them almost everywhere (except teaching CDT), in a girls’ school, for which reason school plays are often limited to Daisy Pulls It Off. One vote in favour of The Crucible is that it has a good number of juicy speaking parts for teenage girls.

But when all the parts are girls. When John is a girl, and s/he gets to say: ‘Because it is my name.’

At no point during the production did we stop and reflect on the oddness of staging a play that makes teenage girls the fall guys for state persecution of leftists; that allegorises membership of the Communist party as extramarital sex with an orphaned teenage dependent. No, we were romanced both by the unleashing of hysteria, and by the chance to play heroically against it, as lawyers, governors and smallholders owning our names.

To be—at least nominally—in control of both, as co-director and lighting designer, was electrifying; literally and physically empowering, but also wiring me into a sense of cultural capital through our work, as girls, on a Great American Play. Defying our exclusion from the canon and culture by retelling it defiantly.


At first, the charges of witchcraft arise against Abigail and her friends, who have been playing at witchcraft in the forest with Tituba, a Barbadian woman enslaved to Abigail’s friend Betty’s father Reverend Parris. But the girls then turn the accusations against others in town, including Elizabeth Proctor, claiming that they have been cursed and possessed by these jealous wives.

And that is when we turned the strobe on.

στροβος means whirling, and beneath the light the girls playing the girls were whirling across the stage, shrieking that they could see the bird.

Thus Wikipedia: 4

Strobe lights usually use flashtubes with energy supplied from a capacitor, an energy storage device much like a battery, but capable of charging and releasing energy much faster… In a capacitor-based strobe light, the capacitor is charged up to around 300 V. Once the capacitor has been charged, a small amount of power is diverted into a trigger transformer, a small transformer with a high turns ratio. This generates the weak but high voltage spike required to ionize the xenon gas in a flash tube.

Many parallels could be drawn between the science of stroboscopic light and adolescence, particularly the repressed, flaring-up energy of teenage girls under patriarchy, ‘capable of charging and releasing energy much faster.’ Oh we definitely had ‘trigger transformer[s].’

Sitting in the lighting box, I turned on the timer for the strobe, which took five ticking minutes to heat up. Then—after John Proctor calls out to Elizabeth, who has perjured herself to protect her husband, that he confessed, and Abigail calls forth the bird—I lowered all the stage lights and brought up the strobe on three-second pulses.

Flash. Scream. The spectacle of girls at full tilt.

On the middle night of the week-long run, my sister came to see the play. She left after Act III, rigid with hysteria. Every night, there were a few people who had to leave, despite the strobe warning displayed prominently.

It wasn’t (and was: what an effective effect) the light. Shortly before the play opened, the headmaster at my sister’s school had been arrested—and was subsequently convicted—on thousands of counts of child pornography.


‘That neurotransmitter [norepinephrine and epinephrine] encodes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience then is kind of locked there whereas other details kind of drift.’

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford responded to a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein about her memories of the assault by Brett Kavanaugh from her professional expertise as a professor of psychology, contextualizing and contextualized by her personal experience as a survivor. Giving an articulate and accessible account of how traumatic memories are made, Ford highlights that they formed in flashes.

As if seen by strobe. Stress hormones flood the brain and ‘snap’ the most crucial details – only the details that could save your life. The details that enable you to read your attackers’ mood to determine their likely behaviour, so you can determine yours. ‘Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two,’ Ford said of her attackers.

Writing in the New York Times, Wesley Morris connects the ‘uproarious laughter’ to Kavanaugh’s mention of the film Animal House; his article ‘In 80s Movies, Boys Had it Made. Girls Were the Joke,’ is a searing indictment of 1980s teen movies; the films of my childhood are seen, at last, as a catalogue of violence against girls and women for, in Morris’ words, ‘the sexual amusement of their tormentors.’ 5 Each laugh a little spike of adrenaline that imprints, in flashes, on the brain.


Much like a HILTI drill, heterosexuality (or so I am told by the movies) involves being designed for high performance, durability and longer running time in drilling. It requires automatic hole cleaning and hammer bits to drill faster.

My role in this (I am told) is to be both the wall and the hole drilled slowly into it.

No, my role in this is to be the power supply to the drill.


My role is to beautiful and in parts, so I can be assembled or dissembled. My role—I am told—is always dissembling, but I know that it is me who is being taken to pieces.


Miller depicts beautiful, dissembling Abigail as both witch and accuser of witches: as a seductress, a liar, a manipulator, an opportunist. A bitch, a bunny-boiler, a (three years later) Lolita. Abigail is the template for dozens of subsequent female characters in American cinema, literature and political culture who are drawn as ‘honeytrapping’ ‘unsuspecting’ men and then turning on them. In The Crucible, witchcraft is, finally and inescapably, an inherent aspect of adolescent femininity; aligned with that aspect which is considered to be the all of adolescent femininity, sexuality.

Shortly before the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s criminal behaviour that saw #MeToo adopted by the women in the film industry from Tarana Burke’s 2006 activist campaign, Donald Trump referred to media criticism of his policies and actions as a ‘witch hunt.’ I’ve lost count of the number of cismale public figures who have referred, without irony, to #MeToo as a ‘witch hunt,’ 6 but let’s name some names anyway: Henry Cavill, Michael Haneke, Liam Neeson, Sean Penn, Jann Wenner… And also celebrate those of the feminist writers who have pushed back men’s adoption of the phrase: Mahalia Chang for Elle; 7 Caitlin Flanagan for The Atlantic; 8 Nika Kabiri for Huffington Post. 9

As Kabira notes, ‘No one is literally equating sexual assailants to witches. It’s an analogy, not a direct comparison. But even in an analogy, the components should match up. And in this case they don’t.’ Nor do they match in Miller’s canonical, still widely-taught and staged Great American Play, where the historical persecution of women and gender non-conforming people for their gender (and often for their class, ethnicity, sexuality and/or ability) is reversed to become a tragedy about a straight white cismale stoically martyring himself, caught between (in Miller’s view) a frigid wife and a voracious ‘dissembling’ teenage girl.


Miller’s choice of analogy was undoubtedly influenced by (and somewhat inverts) Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour, famously filmed by William Wyler in 1961 (having first been filmed by the same director, in 1936, as These Three, with its lesbian content straightened out). Set in a girls’ boarding school, it considers the destructive impact of a whisper campaign against her teachers by one privileged girl, who claims she witnessed a sexual interaction between them.

The subsequent court case pushes one teacher, Martha, to reveal that she has realised she was in love with the other, Karen. Martha kills herself, and Karen leaves her fiancé. Based on an incident that took place in an Edinburgh school in 1810, transposed from old world to new, Hellman’s play missed out on the Pulitzer Prize for Drama because one judge refused to see it on the grounds that its content was scandalous; proving the play’s point that no-one likes to look at the insurrectionary things girls do together, the whispered things that Miller hurries off stage after Act I in order to focus on the fall of Man.


One of those whispered things is, of course, adolescent female sexuality—but self-focused. Miller titillates the viewer with the possibility of what the girls might have got up to, naked in the woods together. What he doesn’t explore at all, however, is the potent(ial) alliance between young white serving women such as Abigail, and black enslaved women such as Tituba. In Miller’s reading, they are not (and could not be) co-conspirators but confabulists, a folie à deux of dissembling. They are in allegiance but are not allies.

As Lou Cornum notes in their article for New Inquiry about the recent resurgence of white cisfemale witches in Anglophone culture:

The current trend in witch infatuation marks an alliance foreclosed. In the early days of America, when accusations of witchcraft were leveled at Indians, Black people, and settlers who strayed from the strict disciplining needed to create a cohesive sovereignty of one dominant nation, it was because witches were a threat. The [white] representations of witches that dominate contemporary American cultural consciousness… betray the role witches could have played in undoing the nation. 10

If Abigail is the play’s central spectacle, its lightning rod of beauty and power, then Tituba is—has to be read as—its structuring absence, both the ‘alliance foreclosed’ and the most significant narrative perspective unexplored. She is offstage for all of Act II, and her reappearance at the start of Act IV, leaving the prison freed by having ‘confessed,’ is merely staged to present a contrast to Proctor’s ‘tragic’ refusal to protect himself. A few lines after Tituba’s exit, Proctor tells the upright prosecutor Danforth: ‘You will not use me! I am no Sarah Good or Tituba. I am John Proctor.’ Because, after all, it is his name.

In deliberate contrast to Proctor, Tituba’s only substantial speech, in Act I, is a catalogue of betrayal, mirroring the ‘naming of names’ required by HUAC—and she recedes thereafter as Abigail, echoing her, takes centre stage. The stage direction describes Tituba as speaking ‘in a fury,’ reproducing the stereotype of the angry Black woman without interrogating why she is furious. Why she might be terrified, why she might ‘confess.’

In her New York Times article looking back to the significance of Anita Hill, written following Dr. Ford’s testimony at the Kavanaugh hearings, Kimberlé Crenshaw notes that,

Black women are vulnerable not only because of racial bias against them, but also because of stereotypes—that they expect less nurturing, they are more willing, no one will believe them. This is what marks them as prey to men of all races. Long before Anita Hill’s poised testimony, black women knew all too well the many ways in which the mere facts of their race and gender identities made them targets. 11

She goes on to argue that ‘black women [should be recognised] in their rightful place at the center of the fight against sexual predation on and off the job,’ in order to end the power of stereotypes such as the subservient Tituba. Maryse Condé’s Grand Prix-winning novel 1986 I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem gives Tituba the narrative voice, recognising her rightful place at the centre of the fight against colonial heteropatriarchy; in the novel, she meets and assists a pregnant, imprisoned Hester Prynne before later planning a plantation revolt.

Without Anita Hill, Dr. Ford’s testimony could never have been heard—and yet it has been more audible because, unlike Hill, she is white.


Miller’s closing note on the aftermath of the trials says nothing about Tituba; Condé invents in that absence. It does note that ‘The legend has it that Abigail turned up later as a prostitute in Boston.’ Men become history. White women become legend. Black women are erased.

The Crucible’s gendered and raced allegory fails under the stroboscopic light of #MeToo, and of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about how American dominance culture legitimates entitled cismen to act towards girls, women and gender non-conforming people. To hold them down, silence them, threaten them with rape, rape them. To try and deprive them of their power, and then call the exercise of their agency both witchcraft and a witch hunt.

We can no longer maintain the fiction that a man’s name is worth more than a woman’s life, sanity and agency. And yet it keeps flashing up, strobing insistently, and insisting that this story is about a single person.

It is not. It’s about a system that maintains the structures—law, faith, history—that place a man’s name before a woman’s life, his word before hers, again and again.


The strobe depends on the iron bar, which hangs from brackets driven into the holes made by the HILTI drill. The wire runs, taped, to the sockets for the stage lights, operated from the board. My hand hovers over the toggles, as in a dream. Time to reveal the yellow bird for what it is: (our acting-out of) the status quo’s fear of insurgence. Of our power, which is so much more than sexual.

Gravity, electricity, money; power flows through the system as I turn the dial, warming up the light.



Douglas Rintoul, ‘The Crucible: The Perfect Play for our Post-Truth Times’
The Guardian


Arthur Miller, ‘Why I Wrote The Crucible’
The New Yorker


Robert Reich


“Strobe Lights”
 —vis-á-vis, Wikipedia


Wesley Morris, ‘In ‘80s Comedies, Boys Had it Made’
The New York Times


Josephine Livingstone, ‘Donald Trump and the Witch’
The New Republic


Mahalia Chang, ‘Catherine Deneuve Slams Time’s Up and #MeToo Movements as a “Witch-Hunt” against Men’ Elle Australia


Caitlin Flanagan, ‘To Hell with the Witch-Hunt Debate’
The Atlantic


Nika Kabiri, ‘Why #MeToo Can Never Become a Witch Hunt’ Huffington Post


Lou Cornum, ‘White Magic’
The New Inquiry


Kimberlé Crenshaw, ‘We Still Haven’t Learned from Anita Hill’s Testimony’
The New York Times

So MAYER is a writer, bookseller, and activist. Their most recent publications are <jacked a kaddish> (Litmus Publishing, 2018), Tender Questions (with Preti Taneja, Peninsula Press, 2018), and they have work in At the Pond (Daunt Books, 2019), The White Review 25, Trans Love (Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2019) and On Relationships (3 of Cups, 2019). They work at Burley Fisher Books and with queer feminist film curation collective Club des Femmes.


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