I should have posted this or something like it months ago, but for some reason, despite many notes, some additional reading and two or three drafts, I just never completed even one. Now, with one day left until I see The Crucible on Screen (technology intact, I hope) and with probably a third of Richard Armitage world already in the know, I’m in that odd position of not having seen the stage or screen version, but I’ve read so many fan and professional reviews, analyses, interviews, I’ve viewed isolated scenes, snippets, photos, gifs. How do I go back to that time before I knew anything about this current production? I already know that the staging of this production, while true to the original text and setting, differs from the play as I knew it.
But here goes. I recall speculating on so many aspects of the play when I learned that Yaël Farber was directing. Would she spin it around as she did with Mies Julie, which I did see – it blew me away, made me see the play differently ( another play I disliked) and left me wrung out? Would Farber’s Crucible have a slightly, or even more obvious feminist slant? Would she set it in South Africa or some fictional location. Would the headscarves the women wore ( we saw some stills early on from rehearsals) mean something? Would the deleted scene be included? What accents would be used?
This is a little like seeing any of Richard Armitage’s newer work, because we get so much before the actual release, i.e. BOTFA and Into the Storm. It’s never really a clean viewing – that first one.
Now, some of those questions are answered – I think. So, here’s something of what I would have said about The Crucible before I knew anything.
First, I would tell you that while I love much of Arthur Miller’s work, The Crucible, maybe next to After the Fall, is my least favorite of his well-known plays. I would then concede that I’ve never seen it performed, though after the announcement last spring, I re-read it, watched the film and listened to an Audible performance with some well-known actors including Richard Dreyfuss as Reverend Hale. Disliking the play doesn’t make examining it less worthwhile.
I studied literature in high school, college and graduate school. I I know, as do many readers and film-goers and theater audiences that even works we don’t like, for whatever reason, can be appreciated and vigorously discussed. We may see the brilliance, but still hate it and slog through it. ( My first thoughts here are The Glass Menagerie, Spoon River Anthology Waiting for Godot and The Great Gatsby).
- I think in analyzing the play, putting too much emphasis on the McCarthy/Communist Hunt connection diminishes it.
- I would say that dissing the plot because of historical or religious inaccuracy, is a matter of taste. To me, in this particular case, the playwright’s missteps in the history or his possible errors in depicting the precise pulse of the community are unimportant. ( But show me civil war or ancient historical fiction that gets it wrong, and I become outraged.) I take Miller’s depiction of the community mores, ethical, political, religious, personal – at face value.
- Don’t ignore the smaller story. The personal relationships. How they play out is the heart of this play. They explain everything about what these characters do and the decisions they make. (Though, some decisions are difficult to explain).
- And then, when it’s over, make your own analogies to other events, past or present, and assess what you’ve learned.
1. Enough Already About McCarthy
On one level, as Arthur Miller and zillions have told us, The Crucible is meant to be an allegory of the McCarthy witch hunts against suspected communists. It is. It is. It’s all there – not just false accusations that ruin lives, not just the fear by citizens that if they spoke out against the proceedings, or failed to cooperate their lives would be ruined, but as Miller noted in several essays and interviews, what the inquisitors wanted – what McCarthy and his followers needed and what Danforth and Hathorne want, are admissions and names. An accused or a witness could get off the hook by making an admission – true or false, and giving the administration/judiciary/inquisitors a few names of others. Most went along – those who were weakest and most afraid, and/or those who had something to gain by ruining one, or a group people. Fear prompted witnesses who had no affiliation or even curiosity into Communism, but confessed to attending meetings and named names of those they “saw” at meetings. Malice on the other side of the bench may have been at work – some have suggested there was a strong element of anti-semitism that benefited by McCarthy’s hearings as well as the earlier round HCUA especially against the mostly liberal Jewish occupied film industry, but that’s a complicated and long case to make.
And of course, John Proctor represents one of a number in history, who refused to lie or implicate others to save his life.
I don’t know recall if there was an Abigail Williams figure who started it all for HUAC, but Joseph McCarthy and those like him were surely Hathorne and Danforth – they grew in stature, they wanted names, they used intimidation, a few dissenters were punished. They had reputations and agendas. I’m sure there’s a Parris in there somewhere who started off by protecting himself.
The government did this. Citizens who knew better refused to speak up. The Malicious made use of the situation. Targets lied to save themselves. Some didn’t. In the end, it was all so wrong: it ceased.
And that’s about as much time as the “McCarthy” allegory deserves in discussing The Crucible.
Arthur Miller said, and others, including Yaël Farber and Richard Armitage have agreed, that the text and message of the play will always be relevant and have and will extend to other tyrannical situations, and some not so tyrannical situations) So the play’s timeliness overall, survives McCarthyism. ( See point 4).
2. Take or Leave the History, but be Aware of the Overall Dynamic.
The author’s notes/stage directions, which are sometimes read in performance by a narrator ( but not in our Crucible) cautions that the play is not intended to be historically accurate, and he offers his own view that Puritan religion in America and that the people of Salem believed in the Devil. Earlier, he lets us know that the climate is changing, and citizens all over New England, and like John Proctor, are beginning to question the absolute authority of government. Miller’s stage direction before the entrance of Reverend Hale is itself, a short essay on history’s use of the devil, the diabolical for politics. There is the “moral” right set up by government or other authority. Those who disagree and oppose, are deemed diabolical. Good vs. Evil, but all turned around. ( see point 4)
3. Don’t Ignore the Personal Story
The plays themes are generated by and acted out through a marriage.
Pious community pillar, the wife, Elizabeth Proctor is married to not as pious, but respected, sensible, John Proctor. An ordinary farmer. Proctor, denied his wife’s bed and marital rights on account of his wife’s illness, has sex with his housemaid, Abigail Williams. ( Once? I think so). Guilt and loathing make him confess to his wife, who promptly fires Abigail. Proctor spends 7 months trying to win forgiveness from his wife and put the marriage together.
I have an issue with Elizabeth. If she can’t forgive, if her husband’s adultery has forever clouded her judgment of him, I can understand. Yet, I feel she only pretends to forgive. Seven months after the fact, and Miller shows us her coldness and suspicion in Act II. John Proctor can never undo his adultery, so will this state of marital affairs continue indefinitely? She lets him into her bed, we know, but is there any warmth of passion left on her side? I don’t see it in Act II.
I don’t see it when Proctor is willing to lose his reputation by publicly confessing to lechery in order to free his wife. What I do see is this man’s willingness to give up his good reputation to save his wife from hanging – to save her, and because, it was his initial sin that put her there. It’s a bold and tortured move on his part, because from the beginning of the play, through notes and Proctor’s own words, it is clear that his good reputation is of great import to him. To admit to lechery with “the whore,”Abigail, may not get him the gallows, but his good name would now be lost.
I have made a bell of my honor! I have rung the doom of my good name—you will believe me, Mr. Danforth! My wife is innocent, except she knew a whore when she saw one!
And then, Elizabeth lies to the court. Elizabeth lies to the court, denying that Proctor engaged in lechery with Abigail. Elizabeth, who, as far as we know has never told a lie in her life. Elizabeth, who just days before, discussed with her husband that he will publicly expose Abigail as a fraud. Based on what John and Elizabeth knew of the proceedings to date, it makes no sense to me that either of them could believe that Proctor’s revelation of Abigail’s unwitnessed admission to him in Parris’s house (ACT I) would be worthy of belief, without some motive for Abigail to make up a story -like wanting John Proctor for her own.
And this should have been doubly evident once Elizabeth was arrested on Abigail’s charges.
Elizabeth does lie/deny- many think to save John Proctor from the stocks for his lechery- but what was she thinking when she told that lie? How dense is she, because Danforth already put the lechery plot out there? With all at stake, and with her knowing that Abigail wants her out of the way, that one lie, makes me doubt Elizabeth’s motives. There are other hints in the text to suggest that John’s tryst with Abigail was not so secret. “Yes” might have saved her.
And I feel this way all the way through the play to the end, when she can save her husband from the gallows by begging him to permit the posting of the confession, and she doesn’t.
I know this is not how Yaël Farber directed it. I know from descriptions of John and Elizabeth’s long, in jail conversation, I know from that kiss I saw and read about. But it’s always been how I’ve read the play.
Which brings me to John Proctor’s own questionable, fatal, final choice. He’s already a sinner. He once, was already willing to lose his good name to save his wife. His confession of sin was rejected, though. His wife’s lie saved his good name.
His wife has a reprieve due to pregnancy, but neither she nor Proctor is sure then that once she gives birth she won’t also be forced to confess or hang. Why is he willing to let her swing in the breeze after he’s gone – so to speak? (The audience has an idea that the hunt is about to end because of the dialogue among Hathorne, Danforth et. al about the mood of the people and events in towns elsewhere.) The audience knows, maybe Elizabeth also knows – she’s been out and about – but does John Proctor know whether she’s still in jeopardy? Where is his honor and responsibility to his family when he chooses death over protecting and providing for his family?
In what way and to whom did John Proctor redeem his name by going to the gallows? In my view, and it has always been thus, it wasn’t the posting of the false confession alone that moved Proctor towards death. It wasn’t his belief in G-d and church. It wasn’t what the community would think of him and his good name. It was how the dead would view his reputation. It was the Rebecca Nurses and the Giles Coreys who refused to lie. And perhaps, it was also Elizabeth, who, by refusing to convince him otherwise, left the decision to him, to me, tacitly letting him know he was on his own – and knowing what would be the result.
I just never get it. I never see his action as a brave and affirmative, proactive choice. I always see it as defeat.
And then there’s Abigail. I’ve always read Abigail as one of the villains of the piece along with the authoritative figures of Danforth and Hathorne, and to a lesser extent, Putnam. Abigail’s character and malicious motivations are made clear in Act I, and for me, nothing changes as the play continues. I don’t know how I’ll feel after tomorrow, but based on what I’ve read about Farber’s version, I don’t think my opinion will change.
I get it, and Miller’s stage notes hint at it, that she and the other low bred girls have no options in life, and not much of a future. What other chance would these girls have for the populace to part before them like the red sea for the Jews? But for me, that may explain, but doesn’t excuse, murder. Moreover, as Miller wrote it, or as I interpreted it, I’m not convinced that Proctor seduced Abigail and it wasn’t the other way around. Why? Because her lines to Proctor in Act I about her feeling his heat, lead me to entertain the possibility that she didn’t start out that pure with him. Furthermore, I have a difficult time believing that one, first, sexual encounter with a frustrated, Puritan husband, “awakened” her, though I concede that she saw a relationship with him, sex or no sex, as way to gain security and respectability – if she could get Elizabeth out of the way.
One of my issues with the play has been the community’s willingness to believe Abigail and cohort’s accusations and theatrics, as they are described by Elizabeth and then Mary Warren in Act II and we see them in Act III. I can accept that the community believed that witches existed and that Satan may use them as his instruments. What I have trouble with is that these girls, as Miller portrayed them, were believed by reasonable folk, even though it’s history. I repeatedly find myself shaking my head as I read this play. Like Proctor, I wonder, in words or substance, “how can you be so blind?”
I always find myself shaking my head when I read Act III.
I could go on – there are other conversations, more dialogue, there are more characters to question about and chew over. But this is the heart of it to me.
The easy part of the play to understand is the result of resistance against unbridled and irrational authority – the danger in staying silent.
The hard part for me is figuring out John and Elizabeth.
4. The Political/Social Themes in The Crucible are Timeless
Of course they are. There will always be “legitimate Authority,” grabbing unbridled power to put down dissenters by fear, intimidation, coercion, wheedling, punishment – all to a grosser or lesser degree. And there will always be those who stay silent or actively go along for personal motives or just out of fear and self-preservation. There will always be those who will give names. And those who refuse.
And on an even lower plane, there will always be bullies – but they don’t last forever.
So, by this time tomorrow, I’ll see what else there is to see.