The Crucible: More than an allegory
"It is not for me to make easy answers and come forth before the American people and tell them everything is all right, when I look into their eyes and see them troubled…my criticism, such as it has been, is not to be confused with hatred. I love this country, I think as much as any man, and it is because I see these things that I think certainly traduce these values that have been in the country that I speak"
- Arthur Miller
Everyone knows, or thinks they know about The Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Unfortunately, most of what they know comes from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. While Miller’s play is a dramatic and engrossing dramatization of some of the events that took place in Salem in 1692, it is not entirely accurate. What occurs then is sort of a modern day legend much akin to Homer’s Iliad or The Odyssey, stories that incorporate real people and places in fantastic situations. This story then becomes, like the Greek classics, a morality play, where cause and effect plays out before our eyes, and we see what becomes of a society when people make the wrong decisions. Again, like many of these stories, the truth is always stranger than the fiction. The Crucible, while generally considered to be a thinly veiled allegory of the reign of terror held by the House Un-American Activities Committee under Senator Joseph McCarthy, is much more than that. It is deeply tense dramatic work that includes issues of sexuality, religion, hypocrisy, enlightenment, sexism, feminism, politics and redemption. It’s allegory reaches far before 1692 and far after 1953.
When The Crucible first opened at The Martin Beck Theater in New York on January 22, 1953, it was met with a lukewarm reaction. Many critics, like Walter Kerr, thought it was too much allegory and not enough substance. Brooks Atkinson, in his New York Times review, liked the play, but stated that it "lacked universality" and that "On a lower level of dramatic history with considerable pertinence for today, it is a powerful play…." 1 Even Arthur Miller himself wasn’t very impressed with the production. As a result, it only ran for 197 performances. This was not a very long run of performances compared with his other plays, Death of a Salesman ran for 742 performances on Broadway. The country was in turmoil, people were afraid to even entertain open criticism of what was going on at the time. The effect was even more pronounced after Miller actually appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. Like John Proctor, Miller refused to name names, and was cited for contempt and sentence to a prison sentence. Both, however, were defeated by an appeal. His next play, A View from the Bridge, only ran for 149 performances. It seemed as though his allegory was haunting him. 2
Miller later wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film of The Crucible, which was less of an allegory and more of a dark retelling of the tale in verisimo style. The film’s realism takes the McCarthy allegory out of the story and lets the viewer draw his own connections to the story. Through the film, we can see the many other facets of the story that resonate with us today. It paints a very clear picture of Puritan life in 17th century New England. At that time, "These men were, after all, not only Salem Villagers: they were also men of the seventeenth century; they were New Englanders; and finally, they were Puritans"3 All of these monikers held a specific connotation and it's own sense of pride. In each capacity, these men had a duty to perform. As the men of Salem Village, they had a duty to keep a community together that was quickly fragmenting. The charter of Salem Town and Salem Village was revoked, due to a bloodless coup d’etat between officers of King George III and the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, making any legal dispute almost impossible to arbitrate. This was also why so many of the accused witches spent so much time in jail between their arrest and trial. "The basic problem was that while more and more suspected witches and wizards were being arrested, not one trial had yet been held. Indeed there could be none…Massachusetts was without a legally established government! The authorities had no official recourse except to throw suspects into jail without a trial."4 The town was also in the throes of a war between two factions of what Hawthorne would later call "Violent Churchgoers" as to their new pastor, Rev. Parris. The Salem Villagers were indeed left adrift by having no official government, they did, for once, have a chance at the freedom to attempt to govern themselves. A group of men grabbed at the chance to take control of the church by appointing a new pastor, for they knew that if they controlled the church, they controlled Salem.
"On June 18, 1689, a ‘general meeting of the inhabitants’ of Salem Village…agreed to hire Mr. Parris as a minister….On October 10, another ‘general meeting’ voted to give outright to Samuel Parris ‘and his heirs’ the Village parsonage together with it's barn and two acres of land!"5
This went against a decree made at a village meeting in 1681 stating that the pastor did not have ownership of the Village parsonage. It was later discovered that the "general meeting of the inhabitants" was really a meeting of only a few men, all related to the influential Putnam family. This dubious appointment of the Rev. Samuel Parris created a rift in the community instantly. The Village became divided into Pro-Parris and Anti-Parris factions. These factions transferred almost person for person into the accused and accusers during the witch outbreak. Almost every accuser was related to the Putnam family either by blood, service or business; and almost every defender or accused person was related to the Proctor family by blood, service or business.
This schism of public opinion imbued every aspect of Village life in Salem. Public opinion in colonial England was a very strong thing.
"In American, the majority has staked out a formidable fence around thought. Inside those limits a writer is free but woe betide him if he dares to stray beyond them. Not that he need near an auto-da-fe but he is victim of all kinds of unpleasantness and everyday persecutions. A political career is closed to him for he has offended the only power with the capacity to give him an opening. He is denied everything…before publishing his views, he thought he has supporters; it seems he has lost them once he has declared himself publicly; for his detractors speak out loudly and those who think as he does, but without his courage, keep silent and slink away. He give in and finally bends beneath the effort of each passing day, withdrawing into silence as if he felt ashamed at having spoken to truth."7
The above quote could have been written by someone watching the struggle of John Proctor in Miller’s play, but in reality it was written by Alexis de Tocqueville, a French writer and political theorist who lived in colonial Pennsylvania for some time. However, he did not set foot in Salem. Such a strikingly appropriate observation from a man who, to all accounts, knew nothing of the Salem Witch Trials, affirms that fact that this could have happened at any place in the colonies at the time, or in fact any time. To be sure, if looked at closely, one can find truths in de Tocqueville’s statement after September 11, 2001. The country was engulfed in this frenzy of patriotism, and all nay-sayers were quashed by the overwhelming public opinion.
It is also necessary to look at the community of Salem in it's religious context. Puritan society was a very controlled society, repressive, unflinching in it's use of the Bible as it's sole authority of correct behavior. Such a community also lent itself to reactionary behavior, meaning outbreaks of behavior that were directly contrary to the beliefs of the society. The girls involved in the "crying out" were especially vulnerable to this kind of "counterculture" behavior, as they were presented with a unique situation. These girls, at the brink of adolescence, with their changing bodies and their budding sexuality, were crying out to express themselves in some way.
Miller captures this consummately in the character of Abigail Williams by raising her age from 11 to 16, she embodies the essence of repressed Salem. Miller gives a reason for her outbreak in her affair with John Proctor.
Abigail: John – I am waitin’ for you every night…I know how you sweated like a stallion whenever I come near! I have a sense for heat…and yours has drawn me to my window, and I have seen you looking up, burning in your loneliness.8
In John Proctor, Abigail has an outlet for her repressed desires, and once released it cannot again be stifled.
In addition to sexual release, John Proctor is in a sense Abigail’s intellectual savior. He has "taken her from her sleep and put knowledge in her heart."9 When Proctor ends the affair, Abigail reels with confusion and torment:
Abigail: I never knew what pretense Salem was…the lying lessons I was taught…and now you bid me tear the light out of my eyes?"10
John has become her father figure, he has treated her as a woman and consequently she feels like one, perhaps prematurely. She is left adrift searching for a place in a community that will not accept her or treat with even a shred of the dignity that was given to her by Proctor. She has no father of her own, only her uncle Rev. Parris, who, to say the least, has his own problems. While Abigail is often portrayed as a malevolent force in Miller’s play, it doesn’t take much to see how she indeed could have gone mad placed in such a situation.
In addition, at the time a fad was sweeping through New England: Occultism. All over the colonies people were fashioning crude crystal balls, tarot cards, performing all sorts of divination. To the everyday folk of the colonies, whose views were not as strict as those of the Puritans, but still strict enough to give this simple fashion of occultism an air of danger, this was the new thing to do. Slowly, this crept into the homes of Salem Village.11
Contrary to Miller’s play, in reality, there were indeed quite a few adult women besides Tituba who were involved in the rituals that the girls were performing.
Again, it is not hard to find a modern counterpoint to this situation either. The traditions of the Middle East have created somewhat of a theocracy, including systems of repression of women. In Azar Nafisi’s book Reading Lolita in Tehran, she writes about a group of girls who created a sort of secret "dead poet’s society" of their own and read banned books, one of them being Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Nafisi goes on to talk about the effect that this reading had on the girls. When Lolita first appeared in print in America in 1955 (right in the middle of the McCarthy hearings) it was immediately banned from many libraries and it caused an incredible uproar. Later, in 1962, when Stanley Kubrick directed the film version of Lolita, it was so controversial that the tag line for the film was "How could they make a film of Lolita?"12 If we have taboos that even our modern so-called "free" society has trouble dealing with, one can only imagine the incredible affect that it would have on the ultra-repressed society of the Middle East. By this comparison, we then see how these occult activities, however harmless, had an effect on the girls in Salem and the Salem community at large.
In conclusion, it is clear that The Crucible is much more than just an allegory of McCarthyism. If that is what one seeks, it is better to watch the film The Manchurian Candidate. Miller’s dramatic masterpiece resonates on many other levels. Contrary to Brooks Atkinson’s original review in 1953, The Crucible does not lack universality, it is indeed universal, and it's visceral tale of society gone mad is as chilling as it was when first produced.
1 The New York Times – 1953 – Crucible review – Brooks Atkinson
2 Introduction to The Crucible – Christopher Bigsby
3 Salem Possessed – Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum
5 Ibid 6 Ibid
7 Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America and Two essays on America, Volume 1, Chapter XV, trans. By Gerald Bevan
8 Arthur Miller The Crucible Act one
11 Charles W. Upham Salem Witchcraft