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Various aspects of the atmosphere and mood of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible are established almost as soon as the play begins. Take, for example, the following passage:
PARRIS: I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you; why were she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish comin’ from her mouth…
ABIGAIL: She always sings her Barbados songs and we dance.
PARRIS: I cannot blink what I saw, Abigail-for my enemies will not blink it. And I thought I saw a….someone naked running through the trees!
ABIGAIL: No one was naked! You mistake yourself, Uncle!
PARRIS: I saw it! Now tell me true, Abigail. Now my ministry’s at stake; my ministry and perhaps your cousin’s life…..whatever abomination you have done, give me all of it now, for I dare not be taken unaware when I go before them down there.
How do the atmosphere and mood established in passages such as this one contribute to the enjoyment and understanding of the audience? One might answer that question in several ways, including the following:
- The name “Tituba” sounds radically different from the names we would expect in a play about seventeenth-century New England. Likewise, the fact that Tituba is from “Barbados” already suggests that she is black. Thus this passage already suggests a certain multicultural emphasis. The fact that Tituba sings “Barbados songs” to which white girls dance helps create an atmosphere and mood that seem exotic and that would have troubled many white New Englanders of the time.
- Tituba’s other behavior already sounds unusual and thus helps create an atmosphereof mystery and a mood of suspense – traits that often cause enjoyment to audiences partly because they frustrate and delay understanding. Mystery and suspense “keep us guessing” and thus keep us interested and intrigued.
- Parris’s references to his “enemies” suggest an atmosphere and mood of danger, another aspect of the play likely to increase the audience’s enjoyment. Humans tend to have a natural curiosity about other people in danger, partly because such situations are exciting and fascinating. This passage, then, increases the audience’s enjoyment, but it also increases their understanding by explaining an important aspect of the play and an important source of Paris’s motives and behavior.
- This passage creates more mystery and suspense by referring to the possibility that someone was running naked through woods near seventeenth-century Salem. Is this claim accurate? If it is, how might one explain such behavior? If it is not, how could a sane person possibly have imagined such a sight? Which of the two characters, if either, will be proven right? This passage not only creates an atmosphere of mystery and a mood of suspense (enjoyable in themselves), but it also contributes to audience understanding by alerting us to crucial issues in the play: what is truth? Are perceptions reliable? Can characters be counted on to speak the truth, even if they know it? If we pay attention to such matters, we are likely to have a better understanding of the play than if we do not.
Something extra: This play invites attention from the perspectives both of traditional historical criticism (which seeks to place works in their “true” historical contexts) and also from the perspective of “new historicist” criticism, which suggests the difficulties of ever finding reliable historical “truth.”
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