In what ways is Arthur Miller's The Crucible a comment upon modern society?
Arthur Asher Miller is one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century, whose plays have had resonance not only in America, but all over the world. This renown as a playwright of depth and insight has increased over his career, and he has been described as “a moralist, a playwright of ideas, or a social dramatist.” (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, 1). Miller’s work has been firmly placed in the category of ‘social plays’, both by drama critics, social commentators and by the man himself.
For example, the original edition of A View From the Bridge (Miller, A., New York: Viking, 1955, pp.1-18), an essay entitled ‘On Social Plays’ appeared as a preface to the original one-act version of this play (later expanded by Miller into a two-act version, which is the one commonly performed on the stage today). In this essay, Miller discusses how his understanding and use of dramatic structure has been strongly influenced by his knowledge of classical Greek drama: “A Greek living in the classical period would be bewildered by the dichotomy implied in the very term ‘social play’.
Especially for the Greek, a drama created for public performance had to be ‘social’. A play to him was by definition a dramatic consideration of the way men ought to live…But for him [the ancient Greek] these means [of personal psychology and character] were means to a larger end, and the end was what we isolate today as social. That is, the relations of man as a social animal, rather than his definition as a separated entity, were the dramatic goal.” (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, 51).
Miller makes clear that the category of ‘social plays’ would have been alien to Greeks living in classical society of 5th century Athens particularly, where drama – and tragedy especially - flourished with plays that have in many instances formed the mould for western drama: The Oresteia, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Electra and The Bacchai, to name a few of those which have survived intact. If Miller himself views the category of ‘social play’ as slightly suspect, then it is necessary to ask how Miller came to have such a profound reputation a dramatist with a social conscience; one who wrote about and commented on the times in which he lived, and one whose plays still seem to have relevance for future generations.
In order to answer this question, it is instructive to briefly consider Miller’s career a writer for the stage. Miller was born in 1915, in New York City, and started his playwriting career in 1936, aged 21, by writing No Villain in only six days, during the spring holidays. In 1950, three years before the first production of The Crucible, another screenplay of Miller’s, The Hook, about corruption in the unions on the waterfronts of Brooklyn failed to reach production because Hollywood film-makers were being pressurised by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC). In 1953, The Crucible opened at the Martin Beck Theater in New York City, in January, and was published on April 1st. The play won the Antoinette Perry Award and the Donaldson Award (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, xi-xiv), both prestigious.
However, Miller’s play did not open to wide acclaim: “On opening night, January 22, 1953, I knew that the atmosphere would be pretty hostile. The coldness of the crowd was not a surprise; Broadway audiences were not famous for loving history lessons, which is what they made of the play.” (Miller, A., 1996). Moreover, many prominent critics of the time were slow to recognise either its literary achievement, or its relevance as a comment on the contemporary climate of fear being created by Senator Joe McCarthy. It is interesting to note that when The Crucible was performed a few years later in the early sixties, critics responded with the praise that it so justly deserved; the climate of fear had dissipated and the play could be judged without any of the complications of the political climate of the early to mid fifties. (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, xxxiii)
The play only ran for 197 performances on Broadway after opening, (as a comparison, Death of a Salesman, which has less of a potential for political allegory, ran for 742 performances). Miller himself was denied a passport in 1954 to travel to Brussels for the premiere of the play, and was forced to stand before HUAAC, on the charge of contempt of Congress in 1956 (though he was not imprisoned; the sentence was later quashed) for refusing to name the names (or “call witch”, as it is termed in the play itself) of Communist sympathisers. (Bigsby, C., (ed), 1997, 3). Indeed, so controversial were many of Miller’s plays at the time, and none more so than The Crucible, that it took until the late nineties for Hollywood to produce a film version of the play; something which Hollywood studios were loath to do in the fifties and sixties.
Moreover, the only film version of the play produced in the interim did not take place on American soil, so incendiary was The Crucible considered to be at the time. Instead, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a French film adaptation, of Miller said that it: “blamed the tragedy on the rich landowners conspiring to persecute the poor. (In truth, most of those who were hanged in Salem were people of substance, and two or three were very large landowners.)” (Miller, A., 1996). Sartre, often known at that time to hold Marxist sympathies, rewrote the play with less emphasis on its supernatural aspect, and more on its potential as political allegory. The Crucible clearly has manifold interpretations, shown by the fact that it now regularly plays around the globe, and has often been played in South America, especially at times of political unrest. (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, 464-465). In which case, I shall now investigate further the political climate surrounding the performance of The Crucible.
How could a play set in the 17th century, in a remote part of heavily forested Massachusetts, in a village called Salem that was scarcely 40 years old (overture in Miller, A., 1956, Act I) become so politically contentious? The play is set when a feverish and hysterical fear of diabolic activity, at first set in motion by a fake charge of devilry, but soon propelled forward by its own momentum and the petty jealousies of villagers, overcomes a small village community with the suspicion that many members were consorting with the Devil. As a result, roughly thirty nine people were tried and condemned to death on the charge of witchcraft. Miller had been interested in this historical period before he began to write The Crucible: “I had read about the witchcraft trials in college, but it was not until I read a book published in 1867 - a two-volume, thousand-page study by Charles W. Upham, who was then the mayor of Salem - that I knew I had to write about the period.” (Miller, A., 1996).
Miller easily connected the events of the time with those of the early years of American history, less than a century after the Puritan fathers had arrived on the eastern shores of America on the Mayflower: “The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding ages of common experiences in the fifties: the old friend of a blacklisted person crossing the street to avoid being seen talking to him; the overnight conversions of former leftists into born-again patriots; and so on.... Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.” (Miller, A., 1996).
Miller obviously found the Salem witch-hunts an emotive chapter in American history, though for more reasons than a sense of outrage at the demonisation of innocent members of society. He also had a personal investment in the play, made clear by his association with the main character of John Proctor, an innocent hanged on the charge of witch-craft: “I had not approached the witchcraft out of nowhere or from purely social and political considerations. My own marriage of twelve years was teetering and I knew more than I wished to know about where the blame lay. That John Proctor the sinner might overturn his paralyzing personal guilt and become the most forthright voice against the madness around him was a reassurance to me, and, I suppose, an inspiration: it demonstrated that a clear moral outcry could still spring even from an ambiguously unblemished soul…
I sensed that I had at last found something of myself in it, and a play began to accumulate around this man. (Miller, A., 1996). However, it was not until the literal ‘crucible’ (a pot for melting base metals so they may become refined and purified) of the political events of the fifties, which was increasingly one of a climate of fear, created by Senator Joe McCarthy, that he found it necessary to write The Crucible as it stands today; Miller “could not have written The Crucible at any other time, a statement that reflects his reaction both to the McCarthy era and to the creative process by which he finds his way to that thematic center of a play.” (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, xxxii). I shall now move onto discussion of the political climate of fear of America contemporary to Miller’s writing of The Crucible.
For many critics, The Crucible is a straight-forward political allegory of the actions of Senator Joe McCarthy in fifties America. The Crucible is a well-plotted, linguistically-rich play, but an obvious political allegory, nonetheless. It would be foolish to deny that Miller had an obvious political intention in writing The Crucible when he did – as we have seen, it would have been impossible for him to write a play about such a subject at any other time. It will be helpful to examine the era in question, that of fifties America, in order to assess the impact of the play for modern audiences contemporary to the first productions of The Crucible.
In the early fifties, a political movement, initiated by Senator Joe McCarthy, a conservative Republican, after which it is called ‘McCarthyism’, began. This movement was anti-Communist, and initially had the aim of discovering Communist sympathisers in positions of power in American society and government, in order to oust them from these roles. Of course, McCarthy’s aims were not entirely ungrounded in fact; many countries at this time were experimenting with Communist governments, and America felt that its capitalism, that is, its very way of life, was under threat: “From being our wartime ally, the Soviet Union rapidly became an expanding empire.
In 1949, Mao Zedong took power in China. Western Europe also seemed ready to become Red - especially Italy, where the Communist Party was the largest outside Russia, and was growing… McCarthy… boiled it all down to what anyone could understand: we had "lost China" and would soon lose Europe as well, because the State Department - staffed, of course, under Democratic Presidents - was full of treasonous pro-Soviet intellectuals. It was as simple as that.” (Miller, A., 1996). The initial aim of McCarthy, that of protecting national security interests, soon degenerated into a witch-hunt of any people who were suspected of being liberal or left-leaning, or any who had been associated with the New Deal, a recent Roosevelt initiative (called by McCarthy “20 years of treason”).
Joe McCarthy, with the help of HUAAC, over which he presided, didn’t confine his targets to those who held political power, but instead started to investigate people in domestic positions of power, such as those in teaching, and those in the entertainment industry, which is where Miller was directly affected: “The Red hunt…was becoming the dominating fixation of the American psyche. It reached Hollywood when the studios, after first resisting, agreed to submit artists' names to the House Committee for "clearing" before employing them. This unleashed a veritable holy terror among actors, directors, and others, from Party members to those who had had the merest brush with a front organization.” (Miller, A., 1996).
Thus, McCarthy began a grab for domestic power by attempting to oust anybody in a high-profile position whom he suspected of being at all left-leaning. Miller would later go onto suggest that McCarthy and his friends were jealous of the power artists such as him could command: “The overwhelmingly significant truth, I thought, as I still do, was the artist-hating brutality of the Committee and its envy of its victims’ power to attract public attention and to make big money at it besides.” (Miller, A., 1987, 242). The President at the time, Truman, “was outraged at the allegation of widespread Communist infiltration of the government and called the charge of "coddling Communists" a red herring dragged in by the Republicans to bring down the Democrats.
But such was the gathering power of raw belief in the great Soviet plot that Truman soon felt it necessary to institute loyalty boards of his own.” (Miller, A., 1996). What’s more, McCarthy was very effective at whipping up popular hysteria amongst the American public, thus creating a climate of suspicion and fear, in which it became impossible to accuse the accusers without fear of suspicion falling on oneself: “With amazing speed McCarthy was convincing a lot of not unintelligent people that he incredible was really true, and that, say, General of the Army George Catlett Marshall was a Communist sympathizer, or that Senator Millard E. Tydings of Maryland was a buddy of Earl Browder, head of the American Communist Party. (A photo of both of them standing happily together would only much later be proved to have been a fake manufactured by Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s right-hand bandido.)” (Miller, Arthur, 1989, 5).
It is clear how close the parallel is between the events of Salem in the 17th century, and that of McCarthy’s modern day witch-hunt. Both were fuelled by a groundless fear, and both resulted in innocent people losing their lives because of the intense suspicion and fear of others in their community. Furthermore, both McCarthy and Judge Hathorne and Deputy-Governor Danforth manage to create a situation whereby those accusing are themselves beyond accusation: “Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers?” (Miller, A., 1956, Act II ) as John Proctor asks in defiance of those authorities who turn anybody who denies their charges into a figure of suspicion.
The play therefore is a comment upon the society contemporary to the first productions of The Crucible, as I hope I have shown thus far. However, as I aim now to show, The Crucible is far more complex play; we have already seen that Miller himself had a personal interesting writing about a man, who though consumed with guilt because of an earlier wrongful action, is yet able to act rightly in the midst of morally ambiguous circumstances. In which case, the play has more layers than that of political allegory alone.
We have seen that The Crucible comments upon the political situation contemporary to Miller’s time of writing the play, in so far as it holds up a literal example of witch-hunting, to be paralleled against the Red Hunting of Senator Joe McCarthy. However, the play’s fundamental theme is not of a simple criticism of the actions of men such as Danforth and Hathorne, or Senator Joe McCarthy, important though Miller considered this, especially in a time when criticism itself was suspect. These two historical circumstances are both manifestations of a more fundamental, and on-going problem: “The Salem tragedy, which is about to begin in these pages, developed from a paradox.
It is a paradox in whose grip we still live, and there is no prospect yet that we will discover its resolution. Simply, it was this: for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies….But all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space.” (overture in Miller, A., 1956, Act I). The play’s concern is with the timeless issue: how is man to create the best possible society in which to live? (Here we see why Miller’s plays are often categorised as “social plays”).
The villagers of Salem, as shown in The Crucible, have already proposed one possible answer to this question by setting up a theocracy. It is the business of the play to examine the workings of this theocracy, and to see how far it fails its more unfortunate members, however as Miller warns us: “It is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.” (overture in Miller, A., 1956, Act I). Miller could not have known that The Crucible would have considerable import for today’s modern society, when many western nations increasingly have to deal with terrorists (or freedom-fighters?) who take the law into their own hands: “It cannot be overlooked that The Crucible is applicable to any situation that allows the accuser to be always holy, as it also is to any conflict between the individual and authority.” (Huftel, 1965,133).
However, the play is not merely about repression of individual freedoms in the name of a theocratic state. It is also about the very human tendency to take revenge in whatever form available: “Long-held hatreds of neighbours could now be openly expressed, and vengeance taken, despite the Bible’s charitable injunctions. Land-lust which had been expressed before by constant bickering over boundaries and deeds, could now be elevated to the arena of morality; one could cry witch against one’s neighbour and feel perfectly justified in the bargain.” (overture in Miller, A., 1956, Act I). It is a nexus of jealousies that affect, and eventually overcome, many of the protagonists of the play.
For example, Reverend Parris is jealous of his reputation (often termed in the play as one’s “name”, so important also to John Proctor) in common with all of the characters in such a close-knit community. He is therefore very frightened about the charge of witch-craft in his household, made by neighbours who resent his position as Reverend in Salem. Parris: “Thomas, Thomas, I pray you, leap not to witchcraft, I know that you – you least of all, Thomas, would ever wish so disastrous a charge laid upon me. We cannot leap to witchcraft. They will howl me out of Salem for such corruption in my house.” (Miller, A., 1956, Act I).
However, it is not only a jealous “land-lust” that drives many of the characters to their doom. The sexual jealousy of Abigail, a young and attractive woman of seventeen, brings about the downfall of Proctor. Abigail has fallen in love with Proctor, and they have been having an illicit affair, although Proctor has been married to Elizabeth, a faithful wife, for many years. Abigail desires for Proctor to leave Elizabeth and marry her instead; an action which would be heavily proscribed by the theocracy of Salem. When she realises that Proctor will never do this, she switches her love to hatred: “Unsuccessful in supplanting Elizabeth in Proctor’s hearth and heart, a vindictive Abigail will wreak vengeance on her by naming her as a witch in hope of finally displacing her. John’s guilt over the brief affair, his seeing the sexual sin as an indication of utter depravity, his unwillingness to forgive himself, and his need to be punished are what drive much of the later action.” (Bigsby, C., (ed.) 1997, 96-97).
It has been argued that in this sexual jealousy that drives the play, Miller has deliberately objectified Abigail and Elizabeth, by casting them as “extremes of female sexuality – sultriness and frigidity, respectively – which test a man’s body, endanger his spirit, and threaten his ‘natural’ dominance or needs”. (Schissel, W., 1994, 464). However, that Miller has done this is in common with a society such as Puritan Salem, where demonic activity is linked to dangerous (female) sexuality. In effect, Salem criminalizes sexual desire, and interprets feminine power as dangerous. This society is governed by a “Puritanism [that] transforms risky sexuality into witchcraft.” (Alter, I., 1989, 123).
It takes Giles Corey and John Proctor, both killed, who refused to name names and thus break the chain reaction of accusation and condemnation, despite the risk to his own outward reputation amongst the villagers: Proctor [with a cry of his soul]: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (Miller, A., 1956, Act IV). Likewise, Elizabeth tells the audience of Giles Corey: “He were not hanged. He would not answer aye or nay to his indictment; for if he denied the charge they’d hang him surely, and auction out his property. So he stand mute, and died Christian under the law. And so his sons will have his farm. It is the law, for he could not be condemned a wizard without he answer the indictment, aye or nay.” (Miller, A., 1956, Act IV).
When Corey is forced to answer the charge with either a yes or no, by having huge stones laid on his chest, his final words are of defiance; he simply says: “more weight”. (Miller, A., 1956, Act IV). Proctor is driven in the same way Corey is, in this final defiance of a corrupt authority, and an obsession to keep one’s name: “Proctor must judge and answer only to himself: human conscience is the final authority, autonomous in all things. Even the law must in fact, be violated when it comes into conflict with the dictates of a rightly formed conscience.” (Bigsby, C., (ed.) 1997, 98). Discussion of the way we order society, how we configure individual freedom against the order of the state is, therefore integral to the play, and is a comment upon modern society in so far as this is (so Miller proposes) a human concern that can never be resolved, because human societies, based as they are upon human failings and weaknesses, can never be ideal.
In conclusion, we can see that The Crucible comments upon society contemporary to its first productions, in that it has an obvious parallel to political events of that era. However, this does not confine the play to being merely a historical relic; it is also a comment upon society and its dealings with individual. It is this timelessness of the themes of The Crucible that allows it to comment upon any society in which it is performed.
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