Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama)
The Crucible is a play about a man’s refusal to lie in order to satisfy phony claims enforced by the establishment; it portrays mass paranoia and the struggle to maintain human dignity in the face of a universe bereft of reason and order. The play’s attitude to the specific topic of witchcraft, however, is thoroughly naturalistic. Characters are motivated by rational economic concerns, jealousy, or a juvenile passion for the forbidden; even the religious zeal of Parris has its deeper roots in the minister’s wish that he could continue to “preach nothin’ but golden candlesticks until he had them.”
In this climate, The Crucible focuses on how man can deal with a fierce authority which demands that he perform immoral acts in order to maintain a hypocritical status quo. The “theocracy” of the Puritan settlement will not allow any cracks to appear in the facade of traditional religion behind which the powerful guard their position of advantage. In the key scene of Proctor’s confrontation with Deputy Governor Danforth, the playwright shows that, like the Roman Catholic inquisitors of Giordano Bruno and Galileo, Danforth has an inkling that to reverse the court’s judgment would be to open the door to broader implications, since “the entire contention of the state in these trials is that the voice of Heaven is speaking through the children.” Repeatedly, Danforth asks Proctor, “There lurks nowhere in your heart . . . any desire to undermine this court?” By an ironic twist, however, the undermining is done by Danforth himself, when he violates due process by ordering the summary arrest of certain petitioners or by depriving Proctor and Mary of all legal counsel.
In the final scene in jail, Proctor achieves heroic stature when he decides that his life is worth less than his duty to the truth. His claim to personal happiness is less important than the truth that the whole community—and history—needs, and he overcomes his previous, somewhat contrived flaw (adulterous lust). Because of Proctor’s act, Arthur Miller implies in an epilogue to the printed play entitled “Echoes down the Corridor,” “the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.”