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How much one learns from Arthur Miller's play The Crucible and the period in which it is set is dependent upon how closely one studies the playwright's notes preceding the play's opening as well as his descriptions of the main characters as they are introduced. In Miller's "Note on Historical Accuracy," he wrote, "I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history." The Crucible, as we know from Miller's own comments, is an allegory; it is the playwright's eminently successful attempt at drawing a parallel between what he viewed as one of the worst periods in history -- the Salem witch trials and subsequent executions of some 20 innocent people -- and what he similarly viewed, contemporaneous with the writing of this play, as another such sorry chapter in human, and specifically, in American history: the anti-communist "witch hunts" that ruined numerous lives, almost including his own. What we learn from The Crucible, in other words, is the extreme dangers that accompany paranoia and intolerance grounded in ignorance, both of which happen to be basic human traits against which we must vigilantly guard.
With respect to what we learn about the period in which The Crucible is set, the Massachusetts provinces and, specifically, the towns founded and occupied by Puritans, in the late-17th century (the trials occurred in 1692), is limited but informative nonetheless. Again, referencing Miller's comments preceding the opening of Act I of his play:
"No one can really know what their lives were like. They had no novelists - and would not have permitted anyone to read a novel if one were handy. Their creed forbade anything re-sembling 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. Which is not to say that nothing broke into this strict and somber way of life."
The Puritan culture that spawned the witch trials, Miller is suggesting, was inherently capable of producing the horrific events that are at the center of his play. The Reverend Parris, an unlikable and extremely paranoid individual, described in the overture to Act I as an individual who "cut a villainous path, and [about whom] there is very little good to be said," is further described as believing that he was being persecuted wherever he went. Most importantly, however, is the hypocrisy Miller detected in the Puritans about whom he wrote, noting the irony of a people who arrived in North America having fled persecution for their faith would, in turn, prove equally as intolerant of and vindictive toward those they encountered in the New World. Again, to quote Miller,
". . .they carried about an air of innate resistance, even of persecution. Their fathers had, of course, been persecuted in England. So now they and their church found it necessary to deny any other sect its freedom; lest their New Jerusalem be defiled and corrupted by wrong ways and deceitful ideas."
The Puritans, Miller argued, were the instruments of their own doom because of the exceedingly narrow and self-righteous prism through which they viewed others, especially the indigenous population already occupying this land.
To return to the parallels Miller was intentionally drawing between the 1692 witch trials and the McCarthyism sweeping the nation with the dawn of the Cold War, what the playwright wanted us to learn about that time centuries ago was that, culturally, it wasn't too far removed from the America in which he was living.
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