Kimberly Belflower on the origins of John Proctor is the Villain

In September 2021, Studio’s Literary Director Adrien-Alice Hansel spoke with Kimberly Belflower about the origins of her play John Proctor is the Villain. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation; join us at the theatre to see how these many sources came together.

Adrien-Alice Hansel: How did you come to write John Proctor is the Villain?

Kimberly Belflower: I finished grad school in the spring of 2017; that summer I read The Witches by Stacy Schiff, which really blew my brain open about this historical period that’s taught in a very specific way and greatly misunderstood. I got really obsessed with it. That’s kind of how most of my plays start—by getting really obsessed with a book. So I was obsessed with it, but I didn’t really carry it out of that summer. It was just a perfect book. 

And then that fall, I was staying at my family’s farm in North Carolina. I wasn’t raised in North Carolina, but it’s a very similar landscape to where I’m from in Georgia. And there I was, living in my parents’ barn, when the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke. And then, every day, every week, more and more and more allegations against more and more and more men. I became obsessed with reading every single thing—like to the point where I would make myself nauseous just reading all the details. A lot of stuff was also being written about Woody Allen, I think he was one of the first accused men to call it a witch hunt, and something in my brain went on. I thought about The Witches that I’d read the past summer, and because I’m a theatre person, I thought I should reread The Crucible because that’s like the most famous play about the Salem Witch Trials and witch hunts.

I hadn’t read The Crucible since high school, and I reread it in my family barn and...I was just shocked by how much was there that I didn’t realize was there when I encountered it as a teenager—just how blatant some of it is. 

Lots has been written about Arthur Miller and his life and the way that he treated women and, like, even that aside, taking a real look at John Proctor’s role in The Crucible...I felt crazy.  I thought, “God, what else did I miss? Geez.” I was talking to my dad and said out loud: “And that’s crazy, because John Proctor is the villain.” I heard myself say that and I was like: “Oh.” 

At the time, I was in the process of interviewing for this commission with the Farm Theater in New York with a totally different play. But in my interview, the Artistic Director Padraic Lillis asked me what else I was working on, and I talked about reading The Crucible, and he said, “Well I want to commission that play; that’s the play we want.” With that program, you develop work with different colleges, so part of writing this play was talking to people who had just left high school, and I got to see three undergrad productions as a part of my writing process.

It was just this perfect alchemy. I felt like I could not write or talk about anything else other than #MeToo, what was going on in the world, being back home, and it kind of all came together. 

ALH: Do you want to say anything about The Crucible? The space it holds in English classes or the American Theatre? 

KB: I mean, I always make sure to say that I don’t think The Crucible is a bad play. Arthur Miller is a really fucking great writer. The play is less about me being “down with The Crucible” and more about being interested in the way that The Crucible is being simplified and then passed on—because that’s what the lesson plans are and that’s what the curriculum is. #MeToo pushed people to really look at which systems we’re handing down, systems that we get trapped in and don’t know how to imagine things outside of—The Crucible seems emblematic of that to me.

Also, I love Abigail. She’s painted as such an easy villain, but—and I’m just quoting my own play at this point—but she literally says, “I saw my parents’ heads get split open on the pillow next to me.” All the John Proctor stuff is outside of that. This is a woman, a young woman, who’s deeply traumatized, wounded in so many ways, living with cousins, and just got fired from her job. I just really love her, and all the young women in that play. 

I got mad on their behalf that they’re not the ones who get analyzed more. And I think that there are flaws in the writing around how John Proctor is portrayed—he’s the hero, he’s the “beacon of integrity,” as people say in the play. But that’s really a question of is how the play is taught more than how it’s directed. I think you can produce The Crucible in a way that makes clear what is going on here.