A context of fear
|The Salem Girls in The Crucible (The Old Vic, London, 2014)|
Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in the 1950s, in a climate of fear, during the Cold War, when communist infiltration of US culture was considered a pathology, a virus that could kill their politics and their nation.
Writers and intellectuals gravitated to communism during the 1930s Depression, either hoping its precepts could lead to social reform or as a way to protest America’s isolationism, specifically the nation’s neutrality in the Spanish War. In the 50s, in a period of right-wing paranoia, they became Senator McCarthy’s scapegoats. They were considered Un-American. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) turned its attention to writers and actors who were supposedly seen as a threat to the republic. Those who in the 1930s had embraced radical politics were now to be made to pay.
In January 1952 Elia Kazan, Miller’s friend and film director, was summoned by the Committee. Although at first he refused to name names, he changed his mind, confessing what he had done and said to Miller, who then left Kazan’s house and drove directly to Salem, Massachusetts to research what would become The Crucible.
|Arthur Miller (1915 -2005)|
Arthur Miller was the son of an immigrant father and a mother , born in America but from a family who came from the same Polish town. Beginning in a building on the Lower East Side of New York, they worked their way to wealth, moving to an extensive and expensive apartment at the top of Central Park. They were the embodiment of the American Dream until the Wall Street Crash of 1929 stripped them of their money and they downsized to a small frame house in Brooklyn. The lesson that Miller learnt early was that it could all go away. Capitalism seemed a failure, a disappointing lie, and 17-year-old Arthur was introduced to Marxism by a fellow student in 1932. He worked in a car parts warehouse for two years to pay for his University studies and in those years, though he never became a member of the party, he wrote a long letter to his mother explaining why communism was the only answer. He also wrote to the President of the United States complaining of his policy toward Spain during the Civil War. That letter was passed to the FBI and became the first of over 600 pages that would eventually constitute Miller’s file.
Witchcraft in Salem
The main source for Miller’s The Crucible was The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion Starkey, which was based on the documents of the 1692 trials in Salem. They recorded that, as a result of some amateur dabbling in the supernatural by a group of adolescent girls the jails were filled with men and women accused of witchcraft and twenty people were hanged.
The girls were joined by a West Indian slave, Tituba, with her spells and beliefs. Probably more serious was the intervention of Mrs Putnam, seven of whose children had died on the night of their births, and who sent her surviving daughter to Tituba’s gatherings to call back their spirits to name their murderers.
Then Betty Parris, the daughter of the minister, started to behave as a child possessed, lying in a trance and sometimes crawling around like an animal with her cousin, Abigail Williams. Their behaviour was probably what we would call now psychosomatic but in 17th century Salem, the explanation was that the children were indeed possessed by the Devil.
In court a hysteria seized the girls as they discovered their power in naming innocent people as accomplices of the Devil. There was of course no refuting their accusations because the only witnesses to the witchcraft were the children themselves. Anyone sceptical either about witchcraft or the truth of the accusations was liable to the same fate and it is not surprising to learn that so many confessed to the sin of trafficking with the Devil when the only alternative was to be hanged.
|Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor in The Crucible 1996 film adaptation|
In naming people, the girls were probably projecting their own guilt on to the innocent. One such innocent was Elizabeth Proctor, who was accused by her former maid, Abigail Williams. Miller was particularly impressed by the testimony he read on the trial records: when confronted by Elizabeth Proctor in court Abigail stretched her hand and cried out that her fingers were burning.
Elizabeth’s husband, John Proctor, becomes the central character in Miller’s play, The Crucible. After his wife, his friends and then he himself have to face the girls’ false accusations, he goes through an ordeal by conscience, finally accepting his own death rather than make a false confession.
In a sense, The Crucible has the structure of a classical tragedy, with John Proctor as its tragic hero. Honest, upright, and blunt-spoken, Proctor is a good man, but one with a secret, fatal flaw: his lust for Abigail Williams.
A crucible is a container in which metals are heated to extract the pure element from dross or impurities. In the play John Proctor is tested in a life threatening ordeal and his death at the end rather than betrayal of his conscience shows us that he too has come through the fire to be purified.
The Crucible at the theatre
The Crucible is one of the most widely and frequently staged plays for its timeless resonance with deeply felt themes. In recent years movie stars like Richard Armitage (The Old Vic, London, 2014) or Ben Whishaw (Broadway, New York, 2016) have played acclaimed John Proctors in very successful stagings.
The Crucible at The Old Vic 2014
Worksheet - The Crucible Questionnaire
The Crucible at the cinema
The Crucible also had a movie adaptation directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Daniel Day Lewis as John Proctor and Wynona Ryder as Abigail Williams in 1996.
1) Arthur Miller, The Crucible,Preface and Introduction, Heinemann 1992
2) Arthur Miller, The Crucible, The Old Vic London, Theatre Program Book, 2014