We are tempted to think that the soul purpose of Arthur Millers play The Crucible was to create an outlet that exposed the mass hysteria of the McCarthy era , however to say this you would be ignoring the central themes that have allowed this play to reach universal audiences. Among themes such as the abuse of power, conflict with authority and mass hysteria The Crucible deals with the importance of identity and the individual conscience. These two themes are closely linked because until you complete your journey in finding yourself you are unable to have an individual conscience. Miller uses one of the central characters in the story, John Proctor, to explore the journey of individual conscience. This theme combined with a unique structure and language allows him to creature a play that addresses the social and political concerns which are essential to every human existence.
Arthur Millers play The Crucible opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theater on 22 of January, 1953. Though the play is based on the events of the Salem witch trials of 1692, Miller took artistic liberties when developing his story line that allowed him to delve into the political and moral issues that had suddenly become the dominating fixation in America. The Crucible depicted the similarities between the Salem witch trials and a metaphorical witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy against communist and their supporters. Arthur Miller was inspired by the hysteria that surrounded the Salem witch trials which he saw to be parallel with McCarthyism. Miller paired McCarthys quest to expose communists in America with the 1692 witch trials to shed light on the similarities of the hostile manner in which people where questioned, the blatant disregard of legal rights, guilt by association and the blacklisting of those involved in both events.
The McCarthy era was a time in American history where people had become paralyzed by the paranoid fear that was instilled in them by the Red Hunt led by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy felt that people who assigned themselves with the communist party where guilty of going against the government and rightfully deserved to be punished. HUAC held trials in which they accused people of this crime and like the trials in 1692 people where treated hostile, prosecuted with little or no evidence and forced to name others involved. Mirroring these two historical events allowed Miller to express the political and social concerns he was experiencing first hand as a result of HUAC and the nations hysterical reaction that grew our of the fear of being accused.
It is impossible to derive social and political meaning from The Crucible without taking into consideration the context that allowed the events of the 1692 witch trials to occur. Seventeenth century Salem was strictly governed by Puritans who had migrated from England to escape religious persecution. The terrifying events of the Salem witch trials had come from great pressure for the puritans to define there religion in a new land. They believed the only way to defend themselves against evil was to abide by a strict code of laws defined by the bible. The rigid beliefs of the puritans combined with political tension between the town and village allowed for hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials to flourish out of control resulting in numerous people being persecuted by only spectral evidence. During this time the state and church acted as one entity which allowed the witch trials to be conducted in a way that ignored the rights of the prosecuted. This is evident in the play, in three Danforth says the government and central church demand of you.., showing that one is not separated from the other. The idea that a person can be found guilty by association or simply someone swearing that they are allowed Miller to use this context as a way to express his concerns regarding McCarthyism and the HUAC trials.
The title The Crucible manifests itself in the context and background on the play creating a symbolic reference to the heated hysteria and the way in which the accused where harassed, questioned and punished. A crucible is a pot this is designed to melt metals at extremely high temperatures and separate impurities from the pure. This is also true of the events of the play. Salem strongly believed that the devil had infiltrated their community through human agents and needed to be purified or destroyed. As the play develops we discover the irony of the title. Miller is not suggesting that these trials separated the pure from the impure or evil, but if fact created them by punishing the innocent. Millers colourful use of irony and conciseness in the title expresses his attitude towards not only the Salem witch trials but the political circumstances of McCarthy he had found himself tangled in.
The simplistic structure of the play also compliments the way Miller communicate his characters exploration of conscience and identity. The play is presented in four acts and in the opening scenes involving Abigail, Parris, the Putnams and the girls the audience quickly learns the circumstances which caused an honest man like Proctor to loose his individual conscience and what sparked a chain reaction of displaced accusations of witchcraft on the townspeople. Each act is set in one place allowing the audience to concentrate on the actors and their words with out being interrupted by set changes.
Mistakenly the court room scene where Elizabeth, a women who does not lie, lies about her husbands lechery in an attempt to save his life is perceived as the climax of the play, however this is not a climax but a turning point which seals Proctors fate and pushes him towards a realization that allows the plays central action to come to an end. The central action of the play being Proctors agonizing search for his conscience and it is not until he can find this objective that the plot is able to reach its climax. The climatic moment in the play is summed up in all of twelve lines, as the search that lies at the heart of the play leaves Proctor crying out:
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 hand! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!
As Proctor cries out for his name he is crying out for his individual conscience, that one part of him that he can not let go of without loosing himself. This fatal decision that he would rather die than give up his name restores his self worth and it is only by Elizabeths last line He have his goodness now. God forbid I take if from him that the audiences under stands the significance of Proctor taking this fatal path. Miller uses this scene to evoke in his audience the idea of the importance of individual identity and conscience as a basic need to human existence. Miller is suggesting through Proctors refusal to sign his name away that a man is nothing if they loose that one thing that defines their existence.
The simplicity of the characters in The Crucible should not be mistaken for miss judgment on Millers behalf. It is the lack of character development that allows the social and political themes within the play to dominate through agents such as John Proctor. Proctor is an every man created so that the audience is easily able to relate to him and the central action which is internalized with this characters plight to regain his conscience. The plight to find ones conscience and everything that represents is a concern that Miller sees to be basic to every human existence and wished to deal with in this play.
Millers use of interpolated commentary allows him to add his own theories into the character personalities and life situations. This is evident in Millers description of Parris He believed he was being persecuted wherever he went, despite his best efforts to win people and God to his side. This description may be used to explain Pariss desperate attempts to please the judges and handle the situation of witch craft so strongly. However it should be understood that as a play the audience is not given this information and it is left to the actors to represent these characteristics through the way they interact with each other, and as the story develops the different elements of the characters, which would have been explained in the interpolated commentary, are revealed. Every human existence is shaped by events and choices they make during their life. Miller uses the interpolated commentary to show how the choices and events in his characters lives have shaped the people they are and the choices they make during the witch trials.
One of the aspects of The Crucible that contributes to the meaning of the play is Millers creation of an archaic yet believable dialogue. Miller uses language to set the period and tone of the play this can be seen in the first line of the play, My Betty be hearty soon? He ensures that the dialogue is typical of 17th century puritans yet still understandable for a modern audience. The use of archaic language such as referring to a woman as goody is crucial for Miller to distance the audience from the characters which contributes to the overall feeling that this play is set in a different time.
Miller was able to use an archaic style language to make the dialogue itself poetic in its descriptions of events and use of imagery. An example of this is in act three where Danforth states we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good. This type of language is evocative and memorable and allows the meanings of the play to stand strong over time.
In act three Miller writes them that fear not light will surely praise it. This slight dislocation of syntax in the characters speech heightens the sense that this play is set a period that is not only separated from us by time but also they way in which they communicated with each other. Communication is part of human existence and can be seen as one of the social issues Miller is attempting to address in his play.
The vocabulary, rhythm and patters of speech in the play are all heavily influenced by the King James version of the Bible. Hyperbole is used to heighten images and put importance on certain events. Elizabeth description of Abigails effect in the town is exaggerated as she says, Abigail brings the other girls into court, and where she walks the crowd will part like the sea for Israel. Miller uses this biblical image to impact on the audience the importance of religion in Salem in the seventeenth century. References to the devil and hell usually manifested in images of fire or heat reoccur throughout the play. A fire, a fire is burning! The heat of the fire symbolizes the chaos that is surrounding these court proceedings and the existence of evil in their community. Miller is attempting to communicate that in all societies there is evil, whether it takes the form of the devil or an unjust government but it is the way we choose as a society to deal with evil that determines our existence.
In conclusion Arthur Millers play The Crucible deals with social and political concerns that are basic to every human existence. The simplicity of the play allows themes such as mass hysteria and the individual conscience to be represented through a clever use of context, language, structure and interpolated commentary. It is the idea that a man is nothing without his conscience that drives the plot and led this play to reach universal audiences.