Dancing in the synagogue, waiting at the well

Michael Church

  • Timebends: A Life by Arthur Miller
    Methuen, 614 pp, £17.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 413 41480 9
  • Vivien Leigh: The Life of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker
    Weidenfeld, 342 pp, £12.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 297 79118 4

Pursuing the truth about the McCarthyite witch-hunt via 17th-century Salem, Arthur Miller was one day transfixed by an etching in a library. It had been made by an eyewitness of the original trials, and showed a bearded judge with arms upraised in horror as he watched a covey of girls screaming and clawing at invisible tormentors. This bore Miller back to a scene he had witnessed at the age of four, while under the tutelage of his great-grandfather in the 114th Street Synagogue. Told at first not to look, he heard ecstatic singing, and squinting through his fingers saw 15 old men dancing in a circle with prayer shawls over their heads. The playwright instantly saw the connection: ‘the moral intensity of the Jews and the clan’s defensiveness against pollution from outside the ranks’. Salem, he realised, was his own inheritance, and he felt strangely at home.

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