Study Guide

The Crucible

by Arthur Miller

The Crucible Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Drama)

Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Historically inclined critics have charged that Arthur Miller did not wholly succeed in capturing the specifics of the era in which the play is set, and that its somewhat mechanical construction led to alterations that take away from the horror of the events at Salem, denying them their full force. Especially, Miller’s decision to raise the age of Abigail Williams from eleven to seventeen and to invent a historically unfounded affair with John Proctor has been condemned for proffering an easy, traditional motive for her denouncing of Elizabeth Proctor and others, thus detracting from the difficult question of why a barely pubescent girl should become a lethal accuser. On the other hand, there is Miller’s defense of his creation in his foreword to the printed edition of the play: He has not written history “in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian.”

The timing of the first performance of The Crucible, January of 1953, more than indicates that the play should be read as an allegory on the then-ongoing “witch-hunt” of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his allies against alleged Communist infiltrators in crucial segments of American society. At the end of the play, members of a contemporary audience shouted “Bravo!” in recognition of exactly this parallel. Indeed, almost all of act 4, with its pointed emphasis on Proctor’s testimony, and key scenes in act 3 play on this then-contemporary theme. Dragged before a court that relies on the collection of names of what today would be called “sympathizers,” Proctor realizes how dangerously the paranoid fears of the masses can be exploited by such characters as Abigail. Her clever psychological game proves as effective in swaying opinion in the play as did McCarthy’s radio speeches about “infiltration” in the United States of the 1950’s. Just as the McCarthyites led Americans to fear a Russian sneak attack, so Hale and Danforth frighten Salem by stressing the craftiness of the Devil, who fooled even God “until an hour before [he] fell.” Thus, even people who appear to lead good Christian lives can be in secret collaboration with the “Old Boy,” and concrete reality becomes merely a tool for skillful dissemblers.

The distrust of the masses which The Crucible presents is even stronger in Miller’s 1950 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s En folkefiende (pb. 1882; An Enemy of the People, 1890). Central to Ibsen’s play is the idea (voiced by the ambiguous protagonist) that, faced with the immoral “compact majority” of a deluded mob, “the worst enemy to truth and freedom is the majority”—an idea exploited by Nazi filmmaker Hans Steinhoff in his screen version of the play, Ein Volksfeind (pr. 1937). In Miller’s version, the hero merely insists that “the majority is never right until it does right.” Thus, a more democratic attitude is expressed toward the dangers of an excited mob that has yet to learn to behave like human beings—a learning experience that closely resembles that through which the “theocracy” is broken in The Crucible.

Not all critics are happy with Miller’s use of the Salem setting. He did, however, have famous precedents: Presenting a topical point in a “historical” play has resulted in such masterpieces as William Shakespeare’s Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596), and abstract form—used masterfully, for example, in Max Frisch’s Andorra (pr., pb. 1961; English translation, 1963)—is not the only form in which contemporary political concerns can be addressed.