There is so much hype and hogwash in the gallons of ink spilled over multimedia one can easily forget that all that’s really there — so far — is potential. Nothing on CD-ROM has quite the power of the best work in other mediums: the itchy sweep of a Scorsese movie, the narrative acumen of a Jane Smiley novel, the detailed funk of an R. Crumb drawing, the despairing wit of a Chrissie Hynde song. In multimedia there are games and reference databases and lessons for the kiddies, but there is so little story or character to make one care. The games, particularly, seem dead ends: bewitching candy for the intellect or index finger but a famine for the soul. Myst sells hundreds of thousands, and it is such an empty planet.
These mildly distressed thoughts are prompted by The Crucible, one of the richest CD-ROMs I’ve come across, yet one fully beholden to live theater. Multimedia’s greatest utility, at this moment in time, before anyone has properly figured out what to do with it, lies in the shoring up of preexisting stuff. Like CD-ROMs based on Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the diaries of H.R. Haldeman, The Crucible deepens one’s understanding even as it stifles the immediacy of the work itself.
At its simplest level, the disc presents the text of Arthur Miller’s intense 1953 four-act drama, which is both a historic re-creation of the 1692 Salem witch trials and a metaphorical jeremiad against the McCarthy era. Aimed partly at the educational market, The Crucible CD-ROM one-ups Cliffs Notes handily, linking the text to word definitions and sidebars. There are also video scenes of a rehearsal from London’s Young Vic Youth Theatre.
The disc has merit beyond the classroom, though. It’s an engrossing plunge into the social history of both the 17th century and the 1950s — and into the passionate details of dramaturgy. A click of the mouse takes you to excerpts from 1486’s Malleus maleficarum (a popular field guide to witches), to a detailed history of the House Un-American Activities Committee, to pro and con reviews and analyses of the play, to a glimpse of the actual 1692 testimony of chief witch accuser Abigail Williams.
And there’s Arthur Miller himself, hardheaded, softhearted, still a wayward Brooklyn egghead steaming at the idiocies of man (as he was in his 1956 appearance before HUAC, footage of which is included here). The producers of this disc have rounded up stars to testify to his genius: There’s written text from John Malkovich, Richard Dreyfuss, and Vanessa Redgrave, and some very moving video from Dustin Hoffman (taken from the 1990 documentary The Bottom Line). But it’s the 79-year-old Miller, in nearly an hour’s worth of interview shot specifically for this project, who puts the strands into caustic perspective and who slyly admits he sat down to write The Crucible in 1952 to ”heat up the atmosphere a little more.”
The only thing you won’t find here, sadly, is the experience of the play. Only a few scenes are performed by the Young Vic actors, and they’re awkwardly interleaved with pages of text. Such a shame; it’s like a testimonial dinner to which the guest of honor wasn’t invited. Even if room had been found on the disc for a fully digitized version of the play, would it have been as effective as seeing The Crucible in the flesh? Of course not. To work as multimedia, The Crucible would have to be completely reinvented. It is honored and understood here, but it is never transfigured. B+