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Arthur Miller's allegory about the 1950s McCarthy-era "witch hunts" -- the search by certain anti-communist officials for potential subversives in American politics, government and in the entertainment industry -- uses the real-life Salem witch trials of 1692 to draw parallels between these two shameful episodes in American history (noting, of course, that "America" did not yet exist in the late-17th century). Because The Crucible takes place in 1692, and because it depicts real life events, Miller was careful to provide stage directions, mannerisms and dialogue reflective of that particular time and place. In his "overture" to the play intended to establish the environment in which the action takes place, Miller noted that "No one can really know what their lives were like," but enough is known to allow for a close approximation of the values and beliefs of those depicted in The Crucible. Miller emphasizes that this was a community that lived by a strict code of conduct that eschewed most of what other less pious communities would consider as entertainment, including the reading of fictional works of literature. Similarly, the playwright notes in his overture describing the setting of his play:
"Their creed forbade anything resembling a theater or 'vain enjoyment.' They did not celebrate Christmas, and a holiday from work meant only that they must concentrate even more upon prayer."
While the Puritans depicted in The Crucible lived a pious existence that eschewed many forms of entertainment, Miller also notes that this was a community in which people interacted on a regular and largely friendly basis, adding:
"When a new farmhouse was built, friends assembled to “raise the roof,” and there would be special foods cooked and probably some potent cider passed around. There was a good supply of ne’er-do-wells in Salem, who dallied at the shovelboard in Bridget Bishop’s tavern. Probably more than the creed, hard work kept the morals of the place from spoiling, for the people were forced to fight the land like heroes for every grain of corn, and no man had very much time for fooling around."
Most significantly, Miller also delves into the more personal aspects of the culture of 17th century Salem -- aspects that held grave consequences for the developments that would arise in the year depicted and lead directly to the deaths-by-hanging of 20 citizens of that community accused of practicing witchcraft. This was a tight-knit community in which everybody knew what was going on in everybody else's home, and few resisted the temptation to pry into the affairs of others. As Miller ominously suggests:
"This predilection for minding other people’s business was timehonored among the people of Salem, and it undoubtedly created many of the sus-picions which were to feed the coming madness."
From it's start, The Crucible presents a community steeped in paranoia regarding accusations of sorcery. One of the play's less-admirable characters, Reverend Parris, is frantically attempting to ascertain the cause of his daughter's mysterious illness and links it to the highly-suspicious activities he had recently witnessed involving the young girl, his niece and his housekeeper, a slave from Barbados named Tituba. The niece, Abigail, will prove instrumental in stoking the flames of suspicion that lead to the village's descent into a form of collective madness through her false accusations of witch craft directed against others. In further establishing the atmosphere in which his play will take place, Miller delves deeper still into the more deleterious characteristics of this community and its values and beliefs. Abigail's efforts at exacting vengeance against Goody Proctor because of the latter's anger at discovering the young woman's affair with her husband, John Proctor, among the village's more respected, "upstanding" citizens, is sufficient to provide the spark needed to set off the metaphorical explosion that results in the witch trials and executions. The paranoia was the ingredient needed to inflame tensions that were simmering just below the surface and that had nothing whatsoever to do with the occult. Paranoia over witch craft enabled individuals to strike out at enemies the antipathy towards whom had its origins in mundane disputes, such as over real estate:
"Long-held hatreds of neighbors could now be openly expressed, and vengeance taken, despite the Bible’s charitable injunctions. Land-lust which had been expressed before by constant bickering over boundaries and deeds, could now be elevated to the arena of morality; one could cry witch against one’s neighbor and feel perfectly justified in the bargain. Old scores could be settled on a plane of heavenly combat between Lucifer and the Lord; suspicions and the envy of the miserable toward the happy could and did burst out in the general revenge."
Miller's "overture" reflects his research and insights into the values and beliefs held by those depicted in his play and, as noted, allows for his comparison with the period in which he was writing, and during which he himself would become suspect.
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