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The Crucible's Relevance to Modern Society

(Drama for Students)

A scene from the 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company tour depicting Betty (Caroline Milmoe) and Abigail (Jenifer Landor) Published by Gale Cengage

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 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...

(The entire section is 4,742 words.)