‘The Crucible’ is a play, written in America during the 1950s, by Arthur Miller. It is based on the true events that happened in the American town of Salem in the 1600s. Many women and some men were arrested, trialled and imprisoned for alleged witchcraft. Twenty were hanged. However, it is also influenced by other events that occurred before and during Arthur Miller’s life. For example, the anti-communist movement is now known as McCarthyism.
The period Miller wrote ‘the crucible’ was the 1950s this was a time when new beginnings were happening in the USA and most people at that time were in search of the American dream. As James Truslow Adams describes it in his book entitled The Epic of America (1931) “That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”.
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It was the time when the cold war was threatening to get serious and break out into full-scale war. The cold war was the conflict between the two superpowers of the world; the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States. In 1953 the year of the play’s first performance the Korean War had just come to an end, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) exploded its first hydrogen bomb and Joseph Stalin died.
This all sparked an American movement now known as McCarthyism which loomed over and dominated American society throughout the 1950s.
McCarthyism is the term that describes a period of intense anti-Communist suspicion initiated by Senator Joseph McCarthy however it began before he was ever involved. This period is also referred to as the Second Red Scare, “McCarthyism” later took on a more general meaning, not necessarily referring to the conduct of Joseph McCarthy alone. Everyone was being accused of dealings with communism in fact people were punished for doing anything that was considered ‘un-American including Arthur Miller who was asked to give the names of people he knew who were believed to be communists but he refused, consequently, he was fined and sentenced to prison, but he did not serve his sentence as it was dropped on appeal. He reflects his being asked to name names in his play ‘the crucible’ in the scene where Abigail is asked to name witches in the town but unlike Miller, she consents to save herself and falsely accuses various women in Salem of her crimes of witchcraft.
The period the play is set in is the 1600s. The Puritans were the leading religion of the time it was formed in England. The Puritans strongly believed in the separation from the Roman Catholic Church and its traditions, the movement away from the Episcopacy (the government of the Church by a hierarchy of bishops) towards a Reformed Protestant Church and theology, simplified forms of worship, an emphasis on personal interpretation of the Bible and harboured a deep dislike for church ritual, robes, music and idolatry. Their aim was to cleanse people from the remnants of Roman Catholicism, cleanse and convert them to Puritanism.
A modern-day equivalent of the Puritans would be the Quakers or the Amish. People began emigrating from England to Massachusetts in the 1620s with the intention of creating models of puritan life and theocracy, a religious institution. Salem originally settled in 1629 and was completely built from scratch in the wilderness. The frequent problem with this was vicious, fatal attacks from the Native Americans who were clearly there first. The community was run by a pioneering spirit. Their way of life was hard work and they abided by strict religious observance.
This was a new world for all and the only way of life they ever knew. At the stage of the settlers in ‘the crucible,’ we find a small town in turmoil with itself. There are those within the town with a compelling temptation to rebel and break free from conformity and those who are desperately still trying to enforce the town’s harsh rules because they are afraid of the unknown.
Witchcraft, the exercise or invocation of alleged supernatural powers to control people or events, practices typically involve sorcery or magic, with the usual intention of harm. In early modern European history, there was a mass witch scare; people lived in constant paranoid fear of supernatural activity meaning witchcraft. This terror was injected into people by the church. Christian theology portrayed witches as the servants of satan, who was the indecently evil incarnation, witches were the ones responsible for attacking the upright godly and seducing the feeble, in fact, they were scapegoats for everything bad that ever happened. So in order to rid themselves of these vermin, similarly to a person killing an innocent spider for the irrational fear of it, people would organize witch hunts with the intention of riding a town or village of all its filth meaning witches.
Subsequently, witch hunts were very popular from the 1400s to the mid-seventeenth century. When a said witch was discovered it often resulted in public hysteria on a large scale. The alleged witch would then be trialled and imprisoned or put to death. Hence the strict, religion-crazed Puritan settlers took this custom along with them from England to poison their new land, America.
Thus when a group of young women were found cavorting naked around a fire and drinking frog juice it is not astounding that the conclusion of witchcraft was reached by the puritan authorities. ‘Witchcraft’ to the puritans is the broad term given to anything that threatens to oppose their perfect society. The girl’s behaviour was wild and out of control and if this attitude spread around Salem it would break the power of those in command e.g. reverend Paris.
The witchcraft trials were a time when no one was above suspicion and so it became every man for himself. Every person was desperately trying to save themselves from the noose and they soon discovered that they had to do to achieve this was repent and direct the blame at someone else. All that was needed to convict a witch was a witness that claimed that an apparition of the ‘witch’ (that only they could see) demonically attacked them.
This was always enough evidence to link the defendant with having an illicit affair with the devil. Those that testified obviously saw nothing. People began to use the trials for personal gain, land disputes were settled by one party accusing the other of witchery consequently they would be taken away and hanged and that was the end of that. Many had to testify against their neighbours with no choice if they wanted to save themselves from conviction.
‘The Crucible’ isn’t entirely historically accurate Miller admits in his notes to the play that he used dramatic license and fictionalized in order to make the play feasible, for example, Abigail was in reality only twelve, not sixteen it would not have been acceptable or appropriate for John Proctor to have a sexual affair with a twelve-year-old girl. However, with a couple of exceptions, the facts in the play are correct. In the middle of such a difficult time in American history, Arthur Miller was able to make a subtle attack on McCarthyism (which was causing him and the rest of the nation so much strife) with his manuscript ‘The Crucible’ about a parallel situation that happened over 200 years before.
‘The Crucible’ even after such a long time still has modern-day relevance. We can compare the play to the current affairs happening in the twenty-first century as Miller did with McCarthyism. The witch scare in Salem is similar to the problem we face today with terrorism. Public terror is ensured by terrorist attacks just it was with rumours of witchcraft. However, this modern-day threat is far more real.
There are still real people who call themselves witches in the 21st century and there are places around the world where witch hunts still take place. To incarcerate or kill someone for being a witch in 2007 would no longer be permitted because it would be seen as prejudice, just as it would be wrong to imprison a person for being black.
If I were to stage a play of ‘The Crucible’ this year I would use realism, but not for the visual, spatial or aural aspects. I would have the set minimalist and use emotive colours with props, of which there would be few. The cast would be dressed basically in brownish colours to reflect the people’s Puritanism culture. The props and furniture would be far apart from each other and the actors should use as much of the space as they can when performing. I’d have the actors use modern-day accents to imply modern-day relevance. All this should be so so that the audience can use their imaginations to create their own interpretations. Similar to imagining the story when reading a book.
‘The Crucible’ is a tragedy. It tells us that people were ignorantly cruel at that time. And that humanity is fallible when it comes down to doing what is morally righteous or saving itself from pain and hurt.
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