What does "sources of varying reliability" mean in "The Crucible", and why might it pose a problem for historians?

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Arthur Miller’s observation about varying reliability is relevant both to drama and history. He made cautionary observations in the “Note on the Historical Accuracy of this Play.” The idea that all sources are inherently unreliable in some way is fundamental to the discipline of history; that is one reason that historians always use multiple sources for whatever historical feature they are researching. Over-reliance on any one source will cause a distorted or biased image, and most historians want to avoid that.

For dramatists writing about historical events that actually happened, there is much more flexibility. They are not attempting to convey reality but are creatively interpreting the event. It is challenging to avoid putting words that they did not speak into people’s mouths, especially if they are still alive and could contest the words.

In Miller’s case with The Crucible, the people had been dead for 200 or more years, as the trial occurred in 1692. He says in the “Note” that he hopes the reader will learn about “the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.” Presumably, that chapter was the time of the trials, but there is room for interpretation.

Regarding actual persons and sources, Reverend John Hale did attend the trials and later revised his attitude toward them. Ten years later he published A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, which became a standard source.

In addition, Miller’s play opened in January 1953, by which time the HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee) hearings had been operating since April 1952 and already labeled a “witch hunt.” In this respect, the “sources” can also be thought of as the people who testified at the hearings and named names, often to avoid blacklisting, other persecution, or even criminal charges. Miller can be considered to be cautioning his reader or viewer about the reliability of their testimonies. (Miller publicly separated his play from the hearings, but most Americans saw them as virtually synonymous.)

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The problem with history is that it is written from a person's recollection or understanding of what happened. Most of history exists as a result of interpreting a primary source and constructing a "history" of what was stated.

For Miller, and his play The Crucible, historical accuracy is an issue. Though stating that the play was based upon "sources of varying reliability," Miller admits that there are flaws and errors which exist in any historical recollection or, so-called, factually based documentation. True history can only be written and defined by those who have lived it--not through a person's interpretation of the primary source.

That being said, Miller's admittance that there are issues within the historical understanding of what happened during the Salem Witch Trials, he is telling readers not to regard the play as a historical fact. Miller, in preparation for writing his play, certainly researched what historians stated happened. But, in order to state that his play is "not a history," but relies upon historical events.

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