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How does the physical setting of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible affect the audience’s enjoyment and understanding of the work? One might answer that question in several ways, including the following:
- The fact that the play takes place in 17th-century New England is significant. Americans often think of New England as the place of their country’s origin – the place where “the Pilgrims” first landed and began to establish the civilization of which the United States is the direct descendent. Thus, American audiences will almost inevitably be interested in a place (and time) associated with the founding of the nation.
- By setting the play in Salem in 1697, Miller immediately alludes to one of the most famous (and most unfortunate) episodes in all of American history: the Salem witch trials. This specific setting is, therefore, highly symbolic. By setting the play in Salem, Miller reminds us that almost from the very beginning of our country there have been episodes of great injustice. The play is “about” 17th-century Salem, but is also about any place where people were persecuted unfairly. By setting the play in New England, Miller enhances the audience’s understanding of the play’s events, because most Americans are somewhat familiar with (or have at least heard of) the Salem witch trials.
- The very first stage direction of the play reads as follows:
A small upper bedroom in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris, Salem, Massachusetts, in the spring of the year 1692.
There is a narrow window at the left.
This particular setting is significant in a number of ways. The fact that the bedroom is “small” already implies a sense of confinement and narrowness – a sense reinforced by the literally “narrow” window. Presumably Parris is dressed in a way that would distinguish him as a clergyman, so that the setting of the play already suggests the key role that religion will play in this work. We are in a private house at this point, but later the play will branch out to public places, thus symbolizing the interaction between private and public in this work and the impact of public values on private lives.
- The fact that the bedroom is upstairs suggests another dimension of the public/private theme. The bedroom is the place where Parris can have (and keep) some privacy, whereas downstairs his neighbors and congregants are gathering. As long as he can stay upstairs, he can have some control over his life; when he goes downstairs, the opportunities for control greatly lessen. Once again, then, an aspect of the setting helps highlight the contrast between private and public, which is a major theme of the play.
- Not long after Parris begins to speak, he mentions “the forest,” a place that symbolizes mystery, ambiguity, intrigue, and possibly evil. One of the great ironies of the play is that while evil is sometimes explicitly associated with the forest, most of the real evil in the play takes place in town, a location that is supposedly “civilized.” Even more ironically, much of the evil in the play occurs in a courtroom – a place that should ideally be associated with justice and virtue.
In all these ways, then, Miller uses setting to add to the audience’s enjoyment of the artistry of the play and also to their understanding of its meanings.
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