The Crucible's Relevance to Modern Society

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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...

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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 kind of outlet, take their imaginative stories to extremes and begin to believe—in one scene, for instance—that a large bird is indeed hovering in the roof of the courtroom. We know that their stories are fabrications, yet we can also appreciate that, to some extent, they believe what they are saying. The boundaries between fact and fiction are easily blurred when there are so few opportunities for expression. It is unclear at the beginning of the play as to the extent to which Betty Parris' s illness is feigned. So too in the scene of Ruth's accusation in the film, the viewer's perception of Ruth's words lies within a grey area between an overactive imagination and a reality in which actual physical abuse may have occurred. This situation is similar to instances of mass delusion which are commonly identified in the behavior of religious cult members.

Director Hytner pointed to one possible cause of this collective delusion in his introduction: female adolescent hysteria. As he explained, "we worked from the premise that the source of the girls' destructive energy is their emergent sexuality, so the entire opening [with the girls ritually dancing around a fire] is designed to uncork the bottle of desire."

If we connect this emergent (and repressed) desire both to the excessively strict behavioral codes of Puritan religion in the seventeenth century and to the excessive demands of communities with extreme religious views, then the power of Miller's topical references to raise issues beyond their immediate setting becomes clearer. The Crucible is an indictment of society's attitudes towards religion and sexuality, I would argue, rather than an attempt to make a point about specific events in recent history.

In Miller's treatment of the character of Abigail, the distinction between individual malice and community disease is explained. The girl's behavior indicates her mischievous enjoyment of the power that accusations against others bring. But the events her allegations set into motion go beyond mere mischief, suggesting that the community of Salem has embedded in its fabric elements of social corruption, moral disease, or unresolved and repressed feelings of anger and hostility; Abigail's actions should be seen as a sign rather than a cause of these feelings. Because of her parents' brutal murder, she is without adults to whom she is close. Reverend Parris cares for her material needs but there is no evidence that they are emotionally close. Her adulterous relationship with John Proctor and her alleged fate as a prostitute in Boston might be seen as a craving for affection which, in the absence of family love, manifests itself in physical desire. Her apparent belief in witchcraft may have similar roots—in a need to find an alternative to the strict and, it seems, loveless Puritanism of her uncle, which attracts her to precisely the things—black magic, physical expression, and sexual conjuring— which the religion of her community forbids.

This commentary on collective guilt and responsibility adds further weight to Miller's critique of societies which do not maintain a balance between individual liberty and social organization. In his prose insert before the beginning of Act One in the original play text, Miller notes that the aim of a theocracy such as that found in Salem is to "keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies. It was forged for a necessary purpose and accomplished that purpose. But all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition. . . . Evidently the time came in New England when the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organized. The witchhunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.''

What Miller seems to be suggesting in both his play and screenplay is that examples of collective hysteria which lead to false accusations by a body of people who know those accusations to be untrue are not just examples of malicious slander but may also reveal deep-seated neuroses about sexual boundaries and individual freedoms caused by an excessive focus on prohibition and social acceptance. Where these fears cannot be expressed, and must instead be repressed, a perversion of normal social relations may occur. In the case of the Salem Witch Trials, Miller depicts this perversion in the form of extreme, and seemingly random, accusations against the ordinary people of a community. John Proctor sums up the suddenness and ease with which this corruption could be exposed when he cries out,"I'll tell you what's walking Salem—vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!"

But this is a criticism which could be made of any society; Miller's point is a timeless one, moving beyond the details of the Salem witch-hunts, and also beyond the topical allusions to cases of collective child abuse with which communities in the later twentieth century have become so involved. Whatever the historical context, both the play and film ask audiences to look inwards to the perversions, fears, and guilt which dominate their social and political life. In this sense, The Crucible is both timeless and deeply political.

Source: Joanne Woolway, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Woolway is an educator affiliated with Oriel College in Oxford, England.

The Crucible: A Structural View

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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 of other critics, attacks the basic structure of the play itself, claiming that it "draws up its big guns" too early in the play, and that by the end of the courtroom scene there is nowhere to go but down. This charge, indeed, gets at the very heart of the matter, and if it can be sustained it largely negates further argument regarding any relative merits that the play might exhibit I submit, however, that the charge cannot be sustained—that, indeed, the critics adopting such an approach reveal a faulty knowledge of the play's structure and an inaccurate reading of its meaning. Indeed, Miller appears to me to have done a masterful job of sustaining a central action that by its very nature is "internal" and thus not conducive to easy dramatic development, and of sustaining this central action straight through to its logical conclusion at the end of the play.

The term "central action" is being used here in what I take to be its Aristotelian sense one central objective that provides the play's plot structure with a beginning, a middle, and an end; when the objective is attained, the play is over. This central action may be described in the case of The Crucible as "to find John Proctor's soul,'' where the term"soul" is understood to mean Proctor's integrity, his sense of self-respect, what he himself variously calls his "honesty" and (finally) his "name." Proctor lost his soul, in this sense of the term, when he committed the crime of lechery with Abigail, and thus as the play opens there is wanted only a significant triggering incident to start Proctor actively on the search that will lead ultimately to his death. That this search for Proctor's soul will lead through the vagaries of a witch-hunt, a travesty of justice, and a clear choice between death and life without honor is simply the given circumstance of the play—no more germane to defining its central action than is the fact that Oedipus' search for the killer of Laius will lead through horror and incest to self-immolation. Thinking in these terms, then, it is possible to trace the development of this central action in a straight-forward and rather elementary manner.

The structure of the play can conveniently be analyzed in terms of the familiar elements of the well-made play. The initial scenes involving Parris, Abigail, the Putnams, and the other girls serve quite satisfactorily the demands of simple exposition, and pave the way smoothly for the entrance of John Proctor. We learn quickly and yet naturally that a group of girls under Abby's leadership have conjured the Devil and that now at least two of them have experienced hysterical reactions that are being widely interpreted in terms of witchcraft. We also learn, upon Proctor's entrance, of the sexual attraction that still exists between him and Abby, and of the consummation of this attraction that has left John feeling that he has lost his soul. The inciting incident then occurs when Abby assures John that the girls' hysteria has "naught to do with witchcraft," a bit of knowledge that is very shortly to try John's honesty and lead him inevitably to his death.

The rising action of the play continues, then, through the arrival of Hale, Abby's denunciation of certain of the Puritan women (taking her cue from Tituba's success) in order to remove any taint of guilt from herself, and eventually, in the next scene, to the accusation of witchcraft being directed at Elizabeth Proctor. The significant point here, however, is that the rising action continues through the bulk of the courtroom scene, as horror piles upon horror, accusation upon accusation, and complication upon complication, until the action reaches not a climax but a turning point when Elizabeth, who purportedly cannot tell a lie, does lie in a misguided attempt to save her husband. This act on her part constitutes a turning point because, from that moment on, Proctor's doom is sealed; no device short of a totally unsatisfactory deus ex machina can save him from his inevitable fate. The central action of the play is not yet completed however; Proctor has not yet found his soul, and even moderately skillful playing of the play's final scene can demonstrate quite clearly that this struggle goes on right up to the moment at which Proctor rips up his confession and chooses death rather than dishonor. Thus, this prison scene does not, as some critics have charged, constitute some sort of extended denouement that cannot possibly live up in intensity to the excitement of the courtroom scene, but rather the scene is, in technical terms, the falling action of the play, moving inevitably from the turning point to the climax.

This structural significance of the prison scene may be observed in a careful reading of the play, but it is more readily apparent in a competent production. Thus, it is the business of the actor playing Proctor to convey to the audience the fact that signing the confession and then refusing to hand it over to Danforth is not, as has so often been charged, a delaying action and an anti-climactic complication on Miller's part, but rather a continuing and agonizing search on Proctor's part for his honesty—for the course of action that will be truest to his own honor and will recover for him his lost soul. In a dilemma for which there is no simple solution, Proctor first sees the efficacy of Hale's argument, that once life is gone there is no further or higher meaning. Feeling that his honesty has long since been compromised anyway, Proctor seriously feels a greater sense of dishonor is appearing to "go like a saint,'' as Rebecca and the others do, than in frankly facing up to his own dishonesty and saving his life. On the strength of this argument, he signs the confession. Yet, as Proctor stands there looking at his name on the paper (and here the way in which the actor works with this property becomes all-important), we have a visual, tangible stage metaphor for the struggle that is going on within him. Proctor, unable fully to express the significance of his own plight, cries out:

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

The audience must see that this cry for his "name" is still the same search that has been at the heart of the entire play, and that here it has reached not some kind of anti-climax, but rather the climactic moment of the play.

But in stating outright that his confession is a lie (and this is the first moment at which he says so in so many words), Proctor triggers in Danforth the one reaction that seals his own doom. For Danforth, however narrow-minded and bigoted he may be, does indeed believe in the fundamental fact of witchcraft, and he cannot allow a confession that is frankly and openly a lie:

Is that document a lie? If it is a lie I will not accept it! What say you? I will not deal in lies, Mister! . . . You will give me your honest confession in my hand, or I cannot keep you from the rope. What way do you go, Mister?

Thus stretched to the utmost on the rack of his dilemma, Proctor makes the decision that costs him his life but restores to him his soul: he tears up the confession. The denouement following this climactic moment consumes not a whole scene as has frequently been charged, but a mere twelve lines. Proctor is led out to die, and Elizabeth speaks the epitaph that once again, finally, sums up the central action and significance of the play: "He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!"

Thus, a close structural view of The Crucible reveals that this fourth charge against it is also an unfair and inaccurate one. The play, however it may appear in the reading, does not, in performance, rise to a climax in the courtroom scene that cannot be equalled. Certainly the tension of the courtroom scene is great; certainly the prison scene, if poorly performed, could be a letdown. But in a competent performance the inevitable movement from the turning point toward a climax, technically called the "falling action" but certainly involving no falling interest or intensity, continues through the prison scene to that moment at which Proctor rips up his confession, after which a quick denouement brings us to a satisfactory, and at the same time stunning, conclusion.

The play is certainly not one of the great plays of all time. Still, it has been maligned unduly by a series of critics who apparently were either too close to their critical trees to see the theatrical forest or were relying on an inadequate understanding of the play's structure. That this structure is not immediately apparent to the reader, but rather must be brought out in performance, may suggest some degree of weakness in Miller's dramaturgy, but is certainly not a damning weakness in itself. Plays are, after all, written to be performed on a stage, and the ultimate test of their success is their effectiveness under production conditions. The Crucible stands up very well to this test.

Source: Phillip G. Hill, "The Crucible: A Structural View," in Modern Drama, Vol. 10, no. 3, December, 1967, pp. 312-17.

Review of The Crucible

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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 over good people of pious nature and responsible temper are condemning other good people to the gallows.

Having a sure instinct for dramatic form, Mr. Miller goes bluntly to essential situations. John Proctor and his wife, farm people, are the central characters of the play. At first the idea that Goodie Proctor is a witch is only an absurd rumor. But The Crucible carries the Proctors through the whole ordeal—first vague suspicion, then the arrest, the implacable, highly wrought trial in the church vestry, the final opportunity for John Proctor to save his neck by confessing to something he knows is a lie, and finally the baleful roll of the drums at the foot of the gallows.

Although The Crucible is a powerful drama, it stands second to Death of a Salesman as a work of art. Mr. Miller has had more trouble with this one, perhaps because he is too conscious of its implications. The literary style is cruder. The early motivation is muffled in the uproar of the opening scene, and the theme does not develop with the simple eloquence of Death of a Salesman.

It may be that Mr Miller has tried to pack too much inside his drama, and that he has permitted himself to be concerned more with the techmque of the witch hunt than with its humanity. For all its power generated on the surface, The Crucible is most moving in the simple, quiet scenes between John Proctor and his wife. By the standards of Death of a Salesman there is too much excitement and not enough emotion in The Crucible. . . .

After the experience of Death of a Salesman we probably expect Mr. Miller to write a masterpiece every time. The Crucible is not of that stature and it lacks that universality. On a lower level of dramatic history with considerable pertinence for today, it is a powerful play and a genuine contribution to the season.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, in a review of The Crucible (1953) in On Stage Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp 344-45. As drama critic for the New York Times from 1925 to 1960, Atkinson was one of the most influential reviewers in America.


Critical Overview