Author: Arthur Miller
I wanted to take a different approach on my reviews of literary offerings so I’m going with Arthur Miller’s vehement statement against McCarthyism in the dramatised for of the Salem Witch Trials, another period of human bullshit being accepted.
Strange and disturbing affairs are afoot in Salem, Massachusetts where the town becomes subject to the fever of witchcraft and paranoia. The daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris is deeply concerned for the well-being of his ten-year old sprog Betty after the previous night where he eye-spied his baby girl cavorting in a pagan ritual out in the woods with her cousin Abigail Williams, their slave from Barbados Tituba as well as several other girls who are Abigail’s friends.
When another couple, Thomas and Ann Putnam, arrives at the Parris homestead, they admit that they had previously consulted Tituba, hoping the woman could conjure up the spirits of their seven dead children. They wanted to uncover why all seven died so soon after childbirth. To the Reverend’s horror, the Putnams admit that Tituba consorts with the dead via her native religion. The Putnams’s only living daughter, Ruth, is now struck by a similar ailment as Betty Parris, and this obviously has the Putnams up in arms.
When the minister and the Putnams are out of young Betty’s room, Abigail threatens to harm her other friends in the room with her if they breathe a word concerning what they did in the forest with Tituba.
John Proctor, a well-liked and trusted man comes to see what is wrong with Betty. He confronts Abigail, who says that Betty is only pretending to be ill or possessed by evil spirits. As Proctor and Abigail have this conversation, it becomes clear that the two of them had an affair while Abigail worked in the Proctor household and Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, was ill. Abigail attempts to seduce Proctor back into her arms again, but he staunchly denies her, emphasizing that their relationship is over- COCKLBLOCK.. Abigail curses Elizabeth for his ‘wild’ behaviour, and swears that she and John will be back together someday.
Reverend Parris and the Putnams return, and soon, the Reverend Hale arrives at the Parris home. Hale is a famed witch expert from a nearby town. Suddenly, in front of Reverend Hale, Abigail changes her story and begins to suggest that Tituba did indeed call on Old Scratch. Tituba, shocked at this accusation, vehemently denies it. But when Reverend Parris and his colleague Reverend Hale interrogate Tituba, the woman confesses under duress to witchcraft, and points the finger at several other women as “witches” in the village, including Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. While Tituba and Abigail are accusing women in the town, several other young girls, including Mary Warren (who is employed in the Proctor household) follow Abigail’s lead and begin accusing other women as well.
And as the old saying goes, it all goes downhill from here because what follows is a heck of a hurricane of emotion, betrayal, tragedy and defiance to the bitter end.
Miller, like anybody in their gourd during the 50’s was shocked and disgusted by how Joseph McCarthy managed to turn what was strictly a political affair (Capitalism vs. Communism) into an outrageous moral separatist school of thought. The ‘American’ Capitalists were considered the good, God-fearing sort while the ‘Un-American’ Communists were the work of the devil and were imbued with mystical powers that could turn Capitalists on their neighbours and had to be destroyed. See where I’m going with this?
“The Crucible” is incredibly blatant in its message but it is so powerful and poignant that to call it obvious would be one of the most ultimate compliments. Miller wanted people to see McCarthy’s words and ways for what they were- absolutely insane drivel that was akin to the social/mental fever that shook America back during the Witch Panic which resulted in one of the greatest waste of human lives in history. Abigail stands for Congressman McCarthy while John Proctor, armed with his strength and knowledge of the truth, is Miller flipping the bird at his idiocy. Abigail is trying to spread this infectious means of thought among the townspeople that every woman in town, including Elizabeth is a witch, but Proctor knows these claims are false and have no bearing. When Elizabeth is hauled off to prison, Proctor takes it upon himself to save her by confessing that he in fact is a witch and that his wife is innocent. He saves his honey-bunny at the cost of his own freedom, but he never sacrifices his inner dignity. When he is brought before the magistrates to sign a piece of paper as ‘evidence’ of his collusion with the Devil, he rips it up and says that he will not sign a document that is nothing but a lie. He hangs, and he loses his life, but he saves Elizabeth’s and causes Abigail’s near-sighted and incredibly ridiculous plans to blow up in her face marvellously. At the end of the play, all of the townspeople are left empty when Proctor is sentenced to death- there is no victory or savage vindication felt- what has all of this death truly amounted to? Absolutely NOTHING. Politics is a complicated business that weaves itself through our society on a regular basis, but one thing it should never be should be a dictatorship of what is morally right and what is morally wrong. When this type of element is introduced into a science, it becomes a blind faith and that is the last thing we humans should do given our nature as a whole.
Said Miller to McCarthy
This is no doubt one of my favourite plays ever written, not just because of the message contained within that never loses its relevance despite it’s initial political response, not just because of its interesting characters, but how the theme of human nature is constantly on show. When we want something, when we are faced with adversity, we will do anything we can to obtain a sense of achievement and validation even if it costs us something valuable because we do it for the greater good. Are our aims always honourable by other standards? No, but to us, it feels right. Perhaps the most provocative aspect of the play comes from it’s very name. Mr. Miller originally called the play “Those Familiar Spirits”, before officially naming it “The Crucible”. The word “crucible” is may be defined in one or two distinct ways; the first comes from the container that sits atop a bunsen burner in which metals or other substances are subjected to high temperatures to test their strength. Chemistry fans rejoice! Each character in the play is metaphorically a metal subjected to excessive heat of the situations they find themselves in. Characters who harbour decent moral standards prevail in the face of physical death, such as John Proctor because he quite simply refuses to melt no matter how infernal the circumstances are. Secondly, “crucible” refers to the and adjective for an extreme, colossal challenge in which characters are placed in an inescapable situation and forced through conflict for better or worse.
I recommend “The Crucible” to both the reader and the dramatist. It is packed to the brim with uncompromising power, conviction and potency that it will make you look at the world and those who govern it with new eyes. Could there be another Witch Hunt on the horizon? If we keep going the way the community does in this play, count on it.