The Crucible by Arthur Miller

“The Crucible and the play of power and fear” by Dr Jennifer Minter

In his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller states, if the play is a hit on stage, ‘it is either a warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past”.  It is a metaphor of the immortal underlying forces that can always rise again.

In his own Words: Timebends:

The Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts

Arthur Miller states: “on a cold spring day in 1952, I was the only visitor in the Historical Society “Witch Museum”, the exhaustive collection of papers on witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, (43), at the time an institution known to few outside scholarly ranks but far more widely frequented when my play The Crucible had registered in the public mind. (43).  Miller also suggests that “something registered in his mind”, something that suggested that these New Englanders were “putative ur-Hebrews”, with whom they shared “the same fierce idealism, devotion to God, tendency to legalistic reductiveness, the same longings for the pure and intellectually elegant argument”. “And God was driving them crazy.”

The pictures in the Museum recalled just how “fantastically people were behaving under the prickings and seducing tricks of witches”. One such picture that indeed seemed to have stayed with Miller was that of the “afflicted innocent girls pointing in terror at some farmer’s wife who was secretly persecuting them and yet stood in proud contempt of their Christian accusations”. (One thinks of Rebecca Goodes, Goodes Proctor.) “Nearby in front of a judge and some fifteen subordinate officials and Christian ministers dressed in floor-length robes, with long prophetic beards, looking wildly outraged at the incredible Devil-driven adamancy of the accused.”

Miller states that in visiting Salem he tried to understand the shifts of interests that turned “loving husbands and wives into stony enemies”, “loving parents into indifferent supervisors or even exploiters of their children, and so forth”. That was the real story of Salem Village, “what they called then the breaking of charity with one another”.

“Every testimony I had read revealed the sexual theme, either open or barely concealed”. Night was the usual time to be “subverted from dutiful Christian behaviour”.

“To make not a story, but a drama of this parade of individual tragedies – this was the intimidating task before me” (Timebends)

The central story of the breakdown of the Proctor marriage and Abigail William’s determination to get Elizabeth murdered lies at the heart of Charles W Upham’s 19th century masterpiece, the Salem Witchcraft.  Miller admits that he was captured by the “cleansing” nature that ricocheted throughout the town as the girls projected their “pestilential sins” onto their neighbours, and were applauded for their courage.

If Abigail seeks vengeance for her illicit love affair after John Proctor rejects her, this conflict is also symptomatic of a greater malaise as the devil – the black man in white society – reveals the tensions and contradictions that lie at the heart of a society that clings to purity, and moral rectitude, whilst recognising its problems at the same time.

In Salem, the tension occurs between the church-run state and individuals who have concerns about the integrity of authority figures. Such individuals seek to exercise their freedom and do not believe that Reverend Parris is helping them to practice their faith in the best way. Although they may have honourable reasons, the court and the religious “keepers” in contrast use the witchhunt as an excuse to restore their authority and so use it for negative reasons. They place their faith in the girls, who pretend that they are being persecuted by the devil. They wish to “root” out the devil in Salem and cleanse the community of evil spirits.  It also becomes an excuse for others to vent long-held hatreds and it becomes an illegal grab for land.

The paradox of the  Salem tragedy: the spread of fear

Miller presents the witch-hunt, then, as a consequence of the hysterical fear that grips citizens when faced with social upheaval. During the theocratic 16th century society in Salem, the power of the state is under threat as individuals begin to question entrenched conservative, religious values.

In his explanatory notes, the playwright notes that there is a fundamental paradox that lies at the basis of the “Salem tragedy”,  which is also typical to any era that tries to balance the tension between “order and freedom”.  The more the state and religious body politic seeks to “keep the community together” and prevent “any kind of disunity”, the greater the danger of exclusion and prohibition.  Likewise, the more determined the officials become to stamp out “witchcraft” and enemies of the theocratic state, the more enemies it creates.

Miller explains that this paradox is typical during times of flux. As individuals seek greater freedom and autonomy, they become a threat to the social and political status quo. In these cases, there is a tendency on behalf of those in a position of authority to become more authoritative, more draconian and more intolerant.  The witch-hunt becomes a product of this tension. In such a climate, people often make “accusations” against an enemy and escape scrutiny.  It becomes morally and spiritually acceptable to make charges against an enemy and to vent one’s greed, one’s grievances, and one’s “land lust” bickerings.

At the time, The Crucible would be the only Broadway play to take on the anti-Communist hysteria (Timebends, 236) which was at the basis of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was a result of the McCarthy style witchhunt that systematically targetted left-leaning thinkers.  Miller admits in his autobiography, Timebends that he recognised a link between the “ritualistic” tendencies of the FBI and the Salem witchcraft phenomenon. In “almost every case the Committee knew in advance what they wanted the witness to give them: the names of his comrades in the Party, and informers had long ago identified the participants in various meetings” ((331).

Arthur Miller chaired the Waldorf Astoria Conference in 1949, which was watched keenly by the House Committee of Un-American Activities (which had become a “kind of thought police in Hollywood”. ) Participants at the conference, a meeting of writers and artists, were labelled as “supporters” of communism, and between them, they generated widespread public suspicion and anger which, according to the Chairperson, was a startling new phenomenon in post-war politics.

Whilst Miller was not wholeheartedly a communist supporter, he was labelled as such. A liberal thinker, he could not in all honour, he says, overlook the role of the Soviet Union in blocking Nazism. He also thought it important to counter the “burgeoning anti-soviet” sentiment that was gaining sway.

When Arthur Miller told Molly Kazan, (Elia Kazan’s wife), who sought to justify to the playwright, her husband’s treacherous betrayal of “communist supporters” in front of the Committee, Miller announced that he was on his way to Salem. (Molly justify the husband’s confession on the grounds that the United Electrical Workers union was “in the hands of the communists”. (334)
“She instantly understood what my destination meant, and her eyes widened in sudden apprehension and possibly anger, “You’re not going to equate witches with this!”.

Miller anticipates that the strongest reaction would be that “there are communists … there never were any witches”. Suffice to say, according to Miller, Christians believed the stories in the bible of “real” witches” and such were the feelings of distrust and paranoia that for 100 years after the hangings, people refuse to buy the farms.

Layers of conflict

On one level, the Salem tragedy arises because of the shock and fear experienced by the girls, who are caught dabbling in witch-craft in the forest. They are spotted dancing and then sitting around the cauldron. Abigail is drinking chicken blood and the other girls are throwing frogs into the cauldron. They are aware that this “ witchery’s a hangin’” offence, but Abigail threatens the girls that she will harm them in the dead of night.  Alarmed and to deflect attention, they instigate a witch-hunt against their enemies which sets in train a court case that leads to the deaths of more than 72 people in Salem.  Specifically, Abigail uses the witchhunt as a pretense to take revenge on Goodie Proctor who dismissed her after she became aware of her affair with John.

However, the conflict also concerns the manner in which people worship God in Salem; many individuals are beginning to show their faith in individual ways which undermines the power of the church and the state.  For this reason, the witch-hunt also conceals other long-held hatreds and simmering divisions.  The court and the religious “keepers” place their faith in the girls as it becomes a convenient means of arresting their eroding power.

Many citizens in Salem use the witch-hunt as a pretext to grab land. Thomas Putnam, reeling from a prior confrontation with his brother-in-law, uses the opportunity to fight with his neighbours over boundaries and titles; the land-grab is “elevated to the arena of morality”.

Miller also presents the witchhunt as symptomatic of deeper rifts in society.  The playwright identifies a sense of “panic” or fear which arises as individuals question the authority of the powerful theocratic institutions and seek to demand greater individual freedoms.

The Reverend Parris

Alarmed at the systematic erosion of faith since arriving in Salem seven years prior, Reverend Parris uses the witchhunt as a way to regain some control.  The Reverend Parris panics upon surprising the girls in the forest; he is fearful and anxious at his niece’s, Betty’s, condition and his fear prompts a cover up.  The girls are dancing “like heathens” in the forest. There is a suggestion that they might have been naked, which would be particularly shameful.

Clearly the Reverend is aware of the fact that his position of authority in the community is under threat and he knows that the girls’ misadventures (their “obscene practice” and “abominations in the forest”) will only undermine his precarious status.  He fears that he will be shamed and ruined if they are caught “trafficking in witchcraft”, which undermines not only the reputation of the church, but his own standing and status in the community.  He believes that his enemies would seize this opportunity to malign his reputation and “ruin me with it”.   As he notes,  “there is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit”.

Suzanna Walcott, the messenger from Dr Grigg’s, prophetically states, “you might look to unnatural things for the cause of it”.  But during these early stages, the Reverend is dismayed and furious at the suggestion of “unnatural causes”.   He is inclined to accept Abigail’s testimony that Betty is not “witched”: “We did dance, uncle, and when you leaped out of the bush so suddenly,  Betty was frightened and then she fainted. And there’s the whole of it”.  Later, he will change his stance in order to protect his reputation.

The Reverend knows that his position is precarious owing to his obsession with the ornaments of faith.  Specifically, he takes it as a personal affront that his power as the Lord’s minister is being challenged.   He reminds people that a “minister is the Lord’s man in the parish; a minister is not to be so lightly crossed and contradicted.” (35)

Tituba the black slave and guilt

The Devil himself “was almost always a black man in a white community”. The fact that it was the black slave Tituba who started the confessions was important. The judges joined forces to battle for God in this “open war with Hell”. “Had there been no tinder of guilt to set aflame, had the cult and culture of repression not ruled so tightly, no outbreak would have been possible”. (341) “Every testimony I had read revealed the sexual theme, either open or barely concealed”. Night was the usual time to be “subverted from dutiful Christian behaviour”.

“John Proctor, then, in being driven to confess not to a metaphoric guilt but to actual sex with an identified teenage partner, might save the community in the only way possible – by raising to consciousness what had been suppressed and in holy disguise was out to murder them all” (341). “The political question, therefore, of whether witches and Communists could be equated was no longer to the point. What was manifestly parallel was the guilt, two centuries apart, of holding illicit, suppressed feelings of alienation and hostility toward standard, daylight society as defined by its most orthodox proponents” (341) Specifically, the liberals or “left leaners” were shamed for having seen Russia as a kind of spiritual condition.

Governor Danforth’s response  

Those in a position of power, like Governor Danforth and the Reverend Parris, appear to be merely interested in perpetuating the power of the court and the church and refuse to listen to dissenting views. They identify themselves as part of the system and any dissent becomes a personal affront.  Miller also suggests that they place their faith in the girls because it is expedient to do so as a means of reclaiming their eroding authority.

As the “keeper” of justice, Danforth believes that people must be sentenced to death if they do not confess. He follows “procedures” and refuses to admit Proctor’s deposition.  He maintains that a “person is either with this court or he must be counted against it”.    He maintains that 4000 are already set to hang in jails upon his signature and 72 are ready to be hang in Salem here as well. There is “no road inbetween.”

Danforth is convinced that “the voice of Heaven is speaking through the children” (81) and that any hesitation would be to admit that he has already erred in the sentencing of prior convictions. He does not brook any exceptions and will not stay the proceedings because this will cast aspersions on his honour and reputation, which he confuses with the court’s.

When John Proctor and the Reverend Hale plead for the innocence of their loved ones and seek more time, Danforth dismisses their concerns by stating that “it is not just” for those already found guilty.

When he threatens Mary Warren and tells her that she must confess or hang, he becomes angry, frustrated and even hysterical as a sign that his pride has been wounded.  Governor Danforth follows strict court “procedures” and refuses to admit Proctor’s deposition.  (This sets up a  direct parallel to the manner in which the “accused communists” were refused the constitutional right of the 5th amendment which would protect one from self-incrimination.)

Danforth maintains that a “person is either with this court or he must be counted against it”.  There is “no road inbetween.” He is convinced that “the voice of Heaven is speaking through the children” (81) and that any hesitation would be to admit that he has already erred in the sentencing of prior convictions. He does not brook any exceptions and will not stay the proceedings because this will cast aspersions on his honour and reputation, which he confuses with the court’s.  When he threatens Mary Warren that she must confess or hang, he becomes angry, frustrated and even hysterical as a sign that his pride has been wounded.

Those who refuse to compromise

German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote of heroic individuals that there seems to be a compulsion to do the “right thing”. In this regard, John Proctor becomes such an individual.

As Miller states, “an individual conscience was all that could keep a world from falling” (Timebends) Setting aside his feelings of unworthiness, he mounts the “gibbet like a saint”. His confession indeed “clinched the play”.

During the climax of the court case, John Proctor, who has wavered in his love towards his wife, reaffirms his loyalty and commitment to Elizabeth and restores the honour of his name.  John is shamed by his illicit affair with Abigail which he believes dishonours the family name. As a result, he deems himself to be a “fraud”. During his speech to the court, he finally gains the courage to reveal to the court the fact that he “lusted” after Abigail during his wife’s period of confinement.

He experiences “inner conflict” or a dilemma revolving around his affair with Abigail. Should he reveal his affair to the court, thus sacrificing his name and shaming his wife. To keep the affair silent, has sinister repercussions for the people in Salem, including his wife, who are being accused of witchcraft.

John has very high standards of propriety and knows that he has compromised his personal honour and his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth

  • he knows that he should reveal to the court the source of his shame and his affair with Abigail
  • he also knows that Abigail “thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave”
  • he knows he has betrayed his wife, Elizabeth, whom he regards very highly as an upright and loyal wife
  • he believes that he does not have the strength or the pride and dignity to defend his name
  • he has lost faith in himself and feels ashamed and guilt-ridden, especially given his high moral standards.

During his speech to the court, he finally gains the courage to reveal the source of his shame to the court. He tells them that he thought of Abigail “softly”. In fact he “lusted” after her during his wife’s period of confinement after the birth of their third child.)

This prompts Danforth to call Elizabeth as a witness; she has never lied; but unfortunately she remains loyal to him and protects his name and honour.

Proctor’s dilemma continues after he is sentenced to death because he sees himself as an unworthy and broken man — not as a martyr. He wavers in his commitment to the truth because he sees himself as a “fraud” in comparison with the goodness of others.  “My honesty is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothing’s spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before”.  He downplays his courage and believes that it is only spite that stops him from confessing to “dogs”. 119

However, he does change his attitude just before he is to be hanged. He states, “now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor”.  Finally, he meets his death with pride and dignity.  Most importantly, he clings to the honour of his name… “Because it is my name!” John Proctor, who has wavered in his love towards his wife, reaffirms his loyalty and commitment to Elizabeth and the fine people in Salem. He dies with dignity and honour, affirming that there is some goodness in his name.

Elizabeth’s dilemma

 This prompts Danforth to call Elizabeth as a witness; she has never lied; but unfortunately she remains loyal to him and protects his name and honour.

  • She is confronted with an awkward dilemma between protecting her husband’s reputation and her strict adherence to the truth. She admits that she dismissed Abigail but is forced to compromise her principles when she refrains from calling her husband  a “lecher”. (100), thus telling her first lie. This is out of character and she sacrifices her beliefs for her husband’s reputation. Ironically, he relies on the fact that she has never told a lie in her life and hopes that she will follow her convictions.
  • She also the courage to examine her conscience. She realizes that moral rectitude on its own is not sufficient.  She felt inadequate because she was so plain. Her commonness was exacerbated by Abigail’s fulsomeness. She realizes that she kept a “cold house” and that this played a part in turning John away from her. She, too, was culpable.  119

The Reverend Hale

The Reverend Hale changes his views and opinions throughout the witchcraft trials.

  • Initially, he hastily places his belief in his niece and commands authority in Salem. He places his absolute trust in the witches and dispatches 72 death warrants. “I dare not take a life without… there be proof”…  (89)  He signs the death warrant for Rebecca Nurse.
  • From observing the “good” people in Salem, he comes to realise “it is a lie. They are all innocent.” (115) They are “gulling” the court.
  • Has the courage to recognize the folly of his behavior and attitude: (Appears p 37) as the savior, as the “bridegroom to his beloved”. He was “bearing gifts of high religion” (115)
  • But he still believes that Proctor must confess because only God can take away a life. – but does this contain a self-serving aspect to his attitude.
  • He urges Elizabeth to make her husband confess. “Do not mistake your duty as I mistook my own.” (115)
  • He wants John Proctor to admit to a lie, because he would count himself as murderer. He tells Elizabeth that “life is God’s most precious gift, and no principle, however glorious may justify your taking of it.” (115)
  • He tells her that it may be that God prefers a liar than someone who clings so preciously to their pride.
  • He believes John Proctor is foolishly throwing his life away out of pride and this may be a sin.

Mary Warren’s dilemma

Mary Warren witnesses Abigail inserting the needle into Goody Proctor’s poppet and intuitively believes that she must defend John.  At first she responds favourably to his pleas: “do that which is good, and no harm shall come to you” .  (“Now remember what the angel Raphael said to the boy Tobias.”). However, under pressure from both Danforth and the girls she caves in.

  • Under Danforth’s stern questioning she buckles.  She becomes terrified of Danforth’s stern demeanour, especially when, as noted in the stage directions, even he becomes hysterical. Danforth tells her, “you will confess yourself or you will hang! 103. “Do you know who I am? I say you will hang if you do not open with me!”
  • Mary then admits to Hathorne and Danforth that she did not see spirits: “It were pretence” . “I used to fight because I thought I saw spirits…”
  • Mary cannot withstand the pressure. She betrays John as the “devil’s man” and she claims he threatened her saying, “I’ll murder you if my wife hangs! We must go and overthrow the court.” (104) “He wakes me every night, his eyes were like coals and his fingers claw my neck, and I sign…” (103)  Mary says of Sarah Good, “She tried to kill me many times”.
Parallels

Just as John Proctor defends his name and his honour, many journalists defend the truth. Called “the voice from the grave” the final editorial written by the Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge foreshadowed his own death because he refused to compromise his principles and took an impartial stance on the ethnic rivalry between the Tamils and the Singhalese. He criticised the Sri Lankan Government’s discriminatory treatment of the Tamils who he said were ‘deprived of all self respect”.  “When finally I am killed it will be the Government that kills me, he wrote (referring to President Mahinda Rajapakse). He hinted at the killers from within the ranks of Sri Lanka’s Government and detailed its flouting of democracy. Wickrematunge was shot in the head in Colombo by two gunmen on a motorcycle.

Likewise, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, refused to compromise his beliefs. He was sentenced to 11 year’s prison for exercising his international and domestic rights to free expression and for using non-violence to protest against human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese government. In his pro-democracy manifesto known as Charter 08, he called for political reform in China, including the right to freedom of expression, of assembly and of religion. His wife, Lui Xia and bystander, is under house arrest and has not been accused of committing a crime.  His wife also suffered high penalties. She was placed under house arrest, but was not accused of committing a crime.

In 1968 it was Mexico City’s turn to stage the Olympic Games, and Peter Norman represented Australia. It is often forgotten, however that Norman won the silver medal in the 200m; he was blacklisted by the Olympic Committee because of his outspoken support for fellow (African American) medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Peter Norman stood on the pedestal bearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, whilst Smith and Carlos raised their fists in symbolism of Black Power for racial equality. Whether we feel compelled to take a stand or remain impartial, ordinary people have the potential to defy the odds and act in extraordinary ways that can restore our faith in humanity.

Conflict always involves choices

Consider these two contrasting examples. In 2009, Trooper Mark Donaldson was the first Australian soldier for 40 years to receive the Victoria Cross medal  – for his fearless actions in Afghanistan. Braving an onslaught of enemy firepower, he dangerously exposed himself to enemy fire, enabling back up forces to recover the wounded soldiers. Such heroic acts show us what it is to be a true Australian.  In this case, his actions show us that he could not walk away from danger; in particular the danger that threatened his mates.

Compare this to another story. In 2012, an American army staff sergeant civilians entered three Afghan family’s homes at 3am and began a vicious killing spree.  He killed 9 children and 3 women. Relatives said he poured chemicals over their dead bodies and burned them. One wonders whether this soldier, who evidently reached his breaking point, as Ivan Pavlov (ground-breaking psychologist) would say, suffers from remorse.

Indeed, as Miller reminds us, the choices we make under pressure reflect our personality, our views and our values. He writes: “a character is defined by the kinds of challenges he cannot walk away from. And by those he had walked away from that cause him remorse.”

Sometimes, the nature of some conflicts force people to compromise their principles due to self-interest or fear. Some, however, are able to retain dignity and honesty no matter how hefty the price.

During times of conflict or stress people are forced to make choices. Sometimes the choices may involve defending their principles and integrity or compromising their views and values.

Many individuals in Salem, like the soldiers fighting for their lives, are faced with a fundamental choice – to survive or not to survive. Many characters in Salem risk their lives because they adhere to their fundamental moral beliefs and refuse to confess to the pact with the devil.   When Giles Corey faces the test of life or death, he clings to his faith and sense of honesty. He asks for “more weight”.   Similarly, just before he is hanged, Proctor affirms his moral commitment: “now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor”. Finally, he meets his death with pride and dignity.  Specifically, John Proctor must decide whether or not to sign the confession. Also he needs to decide the best way of protecting his wife’s honour which he knows will involve the exposure of his infidelity in a very public forum.  However, his conscience dictates to him the need to clear any suspicion surrounding his wife’s integrity and confess his sins.

People may also be driven by greed or self-interest and deal with conflict in a brutal and negative ways. Although conflict involves choices, people are likely to choose the side which is expedient for them, usually because of self-interest.

Sadly, many people make poor choices or choices they regret during conflict, often because they lack the confidence or life skills to deal with the situation. In 2007, Brodie Panlock committed suicide because of relentless workplace bullying. She suffered “unbearable levels of humiliation” because she did not know how to cope with such discrimination and offensive comments.

Likewise, Mary Warren’s dilemma is typical of those who are caught up in a conflict which demands life skills that they simply do not possess. She has to choose between following court orders and supporting the hysterical claims of the girls, or upholding her values and telling the truth. She is typical of those who are forced to compromise their views and honesty due to anxiety and pressure from the court and her peers. Initially she is determined to reveal to the court that the girls are lying, and is buoyed by John Proctor’s advice about the angel Raphael, “do that which is good and no harm shall come to thee.” However, she becomes so intimidated by the Governor, Danforth, that she cowers before his threats. He tells her authoritatively, “You will confess or you will hang!” This emotional stress leaves her an emotional wreck. Under Danforth’s stern questioning, she is not able to stand firm to her principles and chooses to confess.

The theme of mass hysteria; the contagious nature of fear

Arthur Miller bases his play The Crucible on the McCarthy-style witchhunts that waged against communists in the 1940s and 50s in America. More recently, the congressional committee investigating the radicalisation of Muslims in America has also been labelled a McCarthy-style witchhunt by many civil rights campaigners.

Miller describes the witchhunt as a “perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom”. In other words, he recognises the disruption to the balance of power in Salem, Masuchusetts. 1692.  He believes that the contagious spread of fear erupts when change threatens the established status quo.

Specifically in Salem, there is tension in the community between the church authorities and many of the citizens who are seeking greater freedom of expression especially in terms of the way they worship. For example, John Proctor and a group in the community are questioning the manner in which the religious authorities are seeking to control their lives. They do not approve of many of the Reverend Parris’s sermons and his emphasis on material comfort and props. They do not believe, as Reverend Parris, does that the golden candle sticks are so important.  Parris is also complaining about people who are no longer frequenting the church.  In contrast, Proctor believes that he can be a god-fearing person without necessarily going to church.

With regards to the contagious spread of fear, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, identified the use of violence and fear that propped up unpopular dictatorships. He states that Bashar al- Assad in Syria  “rules by fear” and the desire to “strike fear in the heart of your people by letting them know that you play by no rules at all, so they won’t ever, ever, think about rebelling against you.”

Likewise during the 1940 and 50s, there was increasing tension between the god-fearing democrats in America and the atheistic communist Russian power.  At the height of the  Cold War, this tension dominated world politics and the Americans feared a spread of Russian power as well as communist infiltration. Post-war, communism spread throughout Eastern Europe and China.

The witch-hunt against communism sought to stamp out the perceived threat of communism as it was spreading through Eastern Europe and China. Joseph McCarthy, an American Senator, made a public accusation that more than two hundred “card-carrying” communists had infiltrated the United States government.  However, the reasons for conflict actually proved disastrous as the accusations proved to be untrue. Many people suffered the stigma of being called a communist sympathizer and lost their passport.  There were many trials often based on unsubstantiated accusations, just like Abigail’s. Although there were no executions, these destroyed careers. Up to 320 artists were blacklisted which for many meant the end of their careers – this brought about a great deal of professional and personal anguish.

Likewise, throughout the Muslim world, blasphemy laws have become a cover for similar types of victim-blaming under the guise of the Koran’s “charitable injunctions”. Religious conservatives resist the attempt by legal reformers to change the country’s blasphemy law.  It states that anyone found to have defiled the name of Muhammad in writing or speech should be punished with life imprisonment or death.  Up to 65 people, including lawyers and judges, have been murdered since 1990 over blasphemy allegations.  The conviction of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, drew international attention and revealed the tendency to accuse Christians or “infidels” of crimes.  The governor of the Punjab province was gunned down in 2011 because he criticised the blasphemy law which is often exploited by individuals who wish to silence or kill people against whom they may have a grievance.  Contrastingly Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, the leader of the Khatm-e-Nubuwwat lawyers’ Forum, believes that the punishment for blasphemy should be “only death”.

As Miller points this, the contagious spread of such charges is more likely to happen when systems and the authorities are under threat.  The fear of communism revealed the fragility of a capitalist democratic system that wavered under the yoke of freedom. For this reason, McCarthy and his followers were able to whip up enormous fear in the community.  As in Salem, the prosecutors eventually conclude that there is a lack of evidence. In Salem, the court relied solely on the dubious evidence of the girls, and adopted the view that a person was “either with this court or against it”. The court dismissed his petition defending his good credentials. During the McCarthy era trials, the level of threat posed by the artist’s or person’s “left” leanings is exaggerated.  As in Miller’s Crucible, many people were not prepared to stand up against McCarthy and the anti-communist machine. Many feared the loss of their jobs. His friend and director, Elia Kazan provides such an example.

In April 1952, Elia Kazan revealed to Arthur Miller that he was prepared to “cooperate with the Committee”. The President of Twentieth Century Fox had given him an ultimatum. They would not employ him unless he satisfied the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating individual’s Red-leanings. Kazan confessed to Miller: “He had been subpoenaed and had refused to cooperate but had changed his mind and returned to testify fully in executive session, confirming some dozen names of people he had known in his months in the Party so long ago.  (Timebends, 333)

More recently, spokespeople have have criticised Americans for waging a McCarthy-style witchhunt against “radicalised” Muslims or those who have travelled overseas to certain countries. In the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans established a congressional committee to investigate the “radicalisation of American Muslims’. Its aim is to investigate Muslims who have been suspected of visiting countries with terrorist training camps such as Yemen and Somalia.

As Miller points out, people need someone to blame during times of change. They need to find a scapegoat to deflect blame from themselves. What is particularly insidious for Miller is that people were also able to justify their grievances in such a way that made them look respectable. It seemed as if they were acting on behalf of the common good. It “suddenly became possible – and patriotic and holy – for a man to say that Martha Corey had come into his bedroom at night”. One could not “ordinarily speak such things in public”. He believes that the witchhunt is dangerous because they are able to express “long-held hatreds of neighbours” all in the “arena of morality”.

Thomas Putnam is a typical opportunistic character who seeks to take revenge for past grievances during the witchhunt of Salem. Not only does he and his wife blame Rebecca Nurse for their still-born births but he also resents the fact that the parish gave the ministry to George  Burroughs in preferences to Putnam’s brother in law, Bayley.  He took the slight personally and felt that his family’s reputation had been “smirched”. Rebecca Nurse is one of the first “decent” people accused of witchcraft.  Abigail also seeks to settle scores with Goody Proctor and resents the fact that she dismissed her from the house after an adulterous affair with her husband.

A crucible of mixed and conflicting emotions:

In The Crucible, Abigail resents the way she was treated by Goody Proctor and so curses her through trafficking with witchcraft in the forest. Looking to “dance with [Proctor]” she plants the needle in a poppet and states that Elizabeth was intending to murder her. Likewise, Ann Putnam’s bitter envy for the serene matriarch, Rebecca Nurse leads her to hold her accountable for the deaths of her seven children. It can therefore be identified that long held hatreds can be a cause for tension and dispute in a community.

A worldly, wild girl whose parents were brutally murdered by the Indians, Abigail is mortally offended by Proctor’s rejection.  “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” says the old proverb and Abigail’s ache for Proctor leads to her misuse of power to satisfy her lust. Thomas Putnam’s greed for the Corey’s land also motivates him to support the girls in their quest for revenge. He is extremely self-centred and uses the deaths as an excuse to claim land he believes he is morally entitled to. In many historical accounts, conflict has been used as a decoy for opportunists to satisfy their own greed. Indeed in many countries, the dictators have exploited their country’s finances. For example, the prosecutor-general, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, notified the United States that the former president Hosni Mubarak and his family may have hidden billions of dollars worth of cash, gold and other state-owned valuables. Many commentators attribute the conflict during this year’s ‘Arab Springs’ to dissatisfaction with government accountability.

As we can see, principles frequently become corrupted and greed and animosity are often thinly disguised. As Miller points out, these desires are “elevated to the arena of morality” and the distinctions between truth and lies, good and evil are confused as many “witches” “confess” with trafficking with the Devil in order to save their lives. Miller himself had been pressured to name names during Cold War America. He was called to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities of any communist sympathisers he knew. His ex-best friend Elia Kazan, chose to pursue their Hollywood career as a stage director and betrayed their friends to the “dogs”. But, not Miller. He refused to “squeal” and suffered drastic consequences – perhaps not as disastrous as John Proctor or the modern-day John Proctors who are suffering for their defence of human rights and the moral imperative to uphold freedom and justice. They are languishing in prisons throughout China.

In times of conflict, people often fear the erosion of their authority and may take extreme measures to protect it at all costs. Is this a moral endeavour? Or at what stage does it tip over into immorality, deceit and betrayal? In Miller’s allegorical play ‘The Crucible”, Governor Danforth is anxious to protect his theocratic community in Salem. Together with Parris, he is quick to believe the girls as a way of entrenching the power of the court and church, which had already been overthrown in Andover. Danforth is convinced in his own self-righteousness, as does Hale at first. Danforth believes that as the “keeper” of justice, people must be sentenced to death if they do not confess. He maintains that a “person is either with [the] court or against it” and there is “no road in between.”

Other points from Arthur Miller (Timebends)

In the Salem witchhunt, he becomes aware that it was his own life, his own times, his own “inheritance” that were being revealed in different disguises.

These connections were evident whenever Miller saw “moral intensity” (rectitude and hypocritical sententiousness), set against the “clans defensiveness against pollution from outside the ranks”

The playwright and Miller’s rival Odet denigrated the play as “just a story about a bad marriage”. 237

To the playwright, Marxism is in principle neither better nor worse than Catholicism, Buddhism, or any creed as an aid to artistic truth-telling”.   Art is not propaganda because “a writer cannot make truth but only discover it”. 237

Laurence Olivier, settled upon the Northumberland dialect, which is “spoken through clenched jaws” (336)

It was only after the success of the play, that the town itself started to exploit its notoriety. The Witch Trail, which included a set of street signs indicated where so and so had been arrested or interrogated or condemned to hang, began to emerge as part of the town’s attraction as a tourist destination. Even then, was there no suggestion that the honour of the state had been compromised.

Miller visits Salem trying to understand the shifts of interests that turned loving husbands and wives into stony enemies, loving parents into indifferent supervisors or even exploiters of their children, and so forth… that was the real story of Salem Village, “what they called then the breaking of charity with one another”.

The central story of the breakdown of the Proctor marriage and Abigail William’s determination to get Elizabeth murdered lies at the heart of Charles W Upham’s 19th century masterpiece, the

There seems to be no irony in Reverend Parris’s description of the possessed victims, of girls truly afflicted and of the danger posed by people like Elizabeth Proctor. “And irony, of course, is what is usually dispensed with, usually paralysed, when fear enters the mind.” (337)

Miller admits that he was captured by the “cleansing” nature that ricocheted throughout the town as the girls projected their “pestilential sins” onto their neighbours, and were applauded for their courage.

“One of the incidental consequences for me was a changed view of the Greek tragedies; they must have had their therapeutic effect by raising to conscious awareness the clan’s capacity for brutal and unredeemed violence so that it could be sublimated and contained by new institutions, like the law Athena brings to tame the primordial, chainlike vendetta” (342)

When the play was performed in China, it served as a metaphor for life under Mao and the Cultural Revolution, when accusation and enforced guilt ruled China. The writer Nien Cheng who spent six and a half years in solitary confinement and whose daughter was murdered by the Red Guards , could not believe that a non-Chinese had written the play. “Some of the interrogations, she said, were precisely the same ones used on us in the Cultural Revolution”

  1. Please see a typical student response: The Crucible and the reasons that fuel conflict
  2. Please see The Crucible: dilemmas and choices

“The Crucible  and the play of power and fear”,  Dr Jennifer Minter, English Works, first published on 14th October, 2014.