Comic Critique of Proctor’s Heroism (Act IV)
As noted on the ‘Reading Miller Against the Grain’ page, it was important to offer a critical portrayal of Proctor’s act of self-sacrifice in the final act. This was so that the audience didn’t lose sight of both the position of male privilege from which it emanates and the disastrous effects it would have on Elizabeth and her children.
The only person who can criticize Proctor in the final act is Elizabeth. Everyone else on stage can’t see past Proctor’s decision to go to the gallows because they either desire it (Danforth and Hathorne) or want to save him from himself (Hale and Parris). In each case, the figures don’t understand the dialectical basis for the decision.
As a result, the production used Elizabeth as a way of offering on-stage commentary. In the following stills, we see her response to Proctor’s protestation that signing the confession will ruin his good name.
In this sequence, Proctor rises from his bench in order to show his self-importance, yet as he continues with his passionate defence of his name, Elizabeth demonstratively turns away from him, crosses her arms and expresses indifference. She has heard this speech before. Her turn away from Proctor and the jaded look elicited titters from the audience as this unexpected response invited the spectators to rethink Proctor’s decision to have himself executed.
Later on, Proctor gives Elizabeth advice on how to deal with the Court and how a public show of distress will only delight the Court’s officers. In Miller’s stage directions, the advice is provoked when Elizabeth rushes towards Proctor in fear for his life. Yet because this production paid little attention to the stage directions, Elizabeth was not distraught, and so Proctor’s speech was more patronizing than advice-giving. As a result, Elizabeth, who had already turned away from Proctor, as seen above, gave a yawn out to the audience, confirming her attitude to Proctor’s selfish act. The yawn tended to provoke guffaws: a more critical attitude towards Proctor’s apparent heroism had been achieved in at least some quarters of the audience.