The Crucible Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

The Crucible's Relevance to Modern Society

A scene from the 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company tour depicting Betty (Caroline Milmoe) and Abigail (Jenifer Landor) Published by Gale Cengage

The theater critic Robert A. Martin wrote in Modern Drama that The Crucible "has endured beyond the immediate events of its own time. If it was originally seen as a political allegory, it is presently seen by contemporary audiences almost entirely as a distinguished American play by an equally distinguished American playwright." His comments are misleading because they imply that a play cannot be "distinguished" if it is also political. What Martin seems to be assuming is firstly that a play must, in some sense, be "timeless" in order to be "distinguished," and secondly, that a political play is, by its nature, only relevant within a limited historical and social context. I would argue that Miller's play is highly political, but that while it draws much of its impetus from a given historical situation—Joseph McCarthy's war against communist Americans—it also raises political questions which are valid in a range of social, cultural, and historical contexts.

The relevance of Miller's themes to modern audiences has been emphasized by the 1996 film production of The Crucible, directed by Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) and adapted by Miller himself. In his introduction to the published edition of that screenplay, Miller commented, "as we prepared to shoot the movie, we were struck time and again by its alarming topicality: it spoke directly about the bigotry of religious fundamentalists across the globe, about communities torn apart by accusations of child abuse, about the rigid intellectual orthodoxies of college campuses—there is no shortage of contemporary Salems ready to cry witchcraft. But the film's political agenda is not specific. The Crucible has outlived Joe McCarthy, and has acquired a universal urgency shared only by stories that tap primal truths." One of these areas— the topic of child abuse—particularly shows that Miller is keen to both root his writing in contemporary issues and at the same time challenge audiences by raising general questions about society, religion, and law.

Miller made many changes, mainly structural, to his play text when he adapted it for film. But the changes he made to one scene in particular also suggest his concern to make the screenplay topical. In an episode which is not in the original play, Ruth Putnam accuses Jacobs of having sent his spirit into her room and says that it laid on top of her and pressed down on her: "He come through my window. . . . And then he lay down upon me. . . . I could not take breath—his body crush heavy upon me. And he say in my ear, 'Ruth Putnam, I will have your life if you testify against me in court.'" Jacobs, taking her accusation more literally than it is intended, replies bemusedly, "Why, Your Honor, I must have these slicks to walk with, how may I come through a window."

The episode has undertones of child abuse— the accusation recalls recent cases in the U.S. and Britain where allegations of abuse have been made against members of a community which have later seemed to have heen untrue. The play contains other elements which parallel these cases, particularly the scenes of collective hysteria, the speed with which gossip and rumors spread, and the inability of people to stop accusations once they have started. Miller's concern in supplying these topical references is not to suggest that such child abuse does not occur, but rather to point to the circumstances in a society from which these false claims might arise.

The society which is portrayed in The Crucible is one in which there is almost no outlet for creativity or imagination. Given this deficit, it is hardly surprising that the young women who gather in the woods to dance have strong imaginations which, when given any...

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The Crucible: A Structural View

The Crucible is too often spoken of as one of Arthur Miller's less successful plays. Its relative merits as compared with Death of a Salesman need not be argued here, but unquestionably the calumny that has been heaped upon it by well-meaning critics is little deserved—the play, however short it may fall of being the great American drama, is nevertheless a thoroughly successful, provocative, and stimulating theater piece. When competently performed, it can provide a deeply moving experience for the theater-goer.

The criticism of George Jean Nathan is perhaps typical. Nathan levels four principal charges at the play, [The Theatre in the Fifties (New York, 1953), pp. 105-109.] charges that in one form or another have been brought against it again and again by other critics. Nathan at least speaks from the advantageous position of having seen the play performed in New York, but too often it appears that wild charges are being flung at the play by critics who have never seen it staged—who have tried, perhaps inexpertly, to capture its full effectiveness from the printed page. This is a hazardous procedure at best, and in the case of The Crucible it has led to some gross distortions of what the play says and what it does. Let us examine each of Nathans' four charges and attempt to measure the validity of each.

In the first place, Nathan maintains that the power of the play is all "internal," that it is not communicated to an audience. If we take this criticism to imply that the action occurs within the mind and soul of the protagonist, then of course the statement that the play's power is internal is accurate, but that this in any sense damns the play is belied by the large number of plays throughout dramatic literature that have their action so centered and that are regarded as masterpieces. Most of the plays of Racine can be cited at once in support of this contention, together with selected plays of Euripides Shakespeare, and Goethe, to name but a few. That The Crucible does not communicate this power to an audience is an allegation regarding which empirical evidence is lacking, but the long lines at the box offices of most theaters that have produced it since it "failed" on Broadway constitute, at least in part, a refutation of the charge. At one recent production of which the writer has firsthand knowledge, all previous attendance records were broken, and experienced theater-goers among the audience testified that they had enjoyed one of the rare and memorable theatrical experiences of their lives. This hardly describes a play that fails to communicate its power to the audience, whatever the quality of the production may have been.

The second charge brought by Nathan against The Crucible, and one that is almost universally pressed by those who are dissatisfied with the play, is that it suffers from poor character development. To this charge even the most vehement of its supporters must, in all justice, admit some truth. Elizabeth Proctor is a Puritan housewife, an honest woman, and a bit straight-laced; beyond this we know little of her. John Proctor is an upright and honest farmer confronted by a challenge to his honesty; more can and will be said of the struggles within his soul, but the fact remains that the multi-faceted fascination of a Hamlet, an Oedipus, or even of a Willy Loman is indeed lacking. Danforth, on the other hand, is an all-too-recognizable human being: not at all the embodiment of all that is evil, but a conflicting mass of selfish motives and well-intentioned desires to maintain the status quo; not the devil incarnate, but a man convinced that a "good" end (maintaining the theocracy in colonial Massachusetts) can justify the most dubious means—in this case, the suborning of witnesses, the twisting of evidence, and the prostitution of justice. Reverend Hale, too, is a well developed and many-faceted character, a man who arrives upon the scene confident of his power to exorcise the Devil in whatever form he may appear, and who by the end of the play can challenge every value for which a hero ever died: "Life is God's most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it."

Still, it must be admitted that the principal power of The Crucible does not lie in its character development. The characters are entirely adequate for the purposes for which Miller designed them, and no immutable law requires that every play depend upon characterization for its success, but certainly there is some justice in suggesting that The Crucible exhibits only a moderate degree of character development.

Nathan's next point of criticism is one that was heard from many of the New York critics at the time of the play's original production, but that has ceased to have much potency since the McCarthy era has passed into history. It was loudly proclaimed in 1953 that The Crucible was essentially propagandistic, that it struck too hard at an isolated phenomenon, and that thus it was at best a play of the immediate times and not for all time. The thirteen years that have passed since this charge was leveled, and the continued success of the play both in this country and abroad in the interim, drain from the assertion all of the efficacy that it may once have appeared to have. From the short view inescapably adopted by critics themselves caught up in the hysteria of McCarthyism, the play may well have seemed to push too hard the obvious parallels between witch-hunting in the Salem of 1692 and "witch-hunting'' in the Washington and New York of 1952. If so, then we have simply one more reason to be grateful for the passing of this era, for unquestionably the play no longer depends upon such parallels. A whole generation of theater-goers has grown up in these intervening years to whom the name McCarthy is one vaguely remembered from newspaper accounts of the last decade, and who nevertheless find in The Crucible a powerful indictment of bigotry, narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, and violation of due process of law, from whatever source these evils may spring. Unquestionably, if the play were tied inextricably to its alleged connection with a political phenomenon now buried (a connection that Miller denied all along), it would even today not have a very meaningful effect upon its audiences. And yet it does.

The fourth charge against the play, and the one brought by the more serious and insightful of the critics dealing with The Crucible, is at the same time the most challenging of the four. For Nathan, together with a host...

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Review of The Crucible

Arthur Miller has written another powerful play, The Crucible, it is called, and it opened at the Martin Beck last evening in an equally powerful performance. Riffling back the pages of American history, he has written the drama of the witch trials and hangings in Salem in 1692. Neither Mr. Miller nor his audiences are unaware of certain similarities between the perversions of justice then and today.

But Mr. Miller is not pleading a cause in dramatic form. For The Crucible, despite its current implications, is a self-contained play about a terrible period in American history. Silly accusations of witchcraft by some mischievous girls in Puritan dress gradually take possession of Salem. Before the play is...

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