The Contradictions of Patriarchy
Any social system based on power relations is marked by contradiction. Such patterns, with a focus on gender, were established early in Act II. Consider the following clip:
The Proctors speak civilly to each other until Proctor hears that his instructions regarding their servant, Mary, haven’t been carried out. Elizabeth turns from wife to underling in the blink of an eye, and the audience is invited to reconcile this sea change in his manner with the social context. However, the power relationship between the two may be more complex that its appearance suggests.
Hegel, the great philosopher of dialectics, noted that in the master and slave relationship, the master, who seems to have all the power, nonetheless requires recognition from the servant in order to assert that power. The servant thus is necessary for the relationship to exist in the first place; it is one of mutual interdependence, not the dominance of one side over the other. This, in turn, implies that power relations are more fluid and unstable than their appearance may suggest. That is, the servant may be able to bring about change by refusing to grant recognition to the master.
The patriarchal relations of The Crucible often find their form in the relationship between John and Elizabeth Proctor. For the most part, as the visual documentation shows, Elizabeth lowers her head when in John’s or any other man’s presence. At times, of course, she answers back, makes accusations, and stands up for herself. However, there are other moments that tease out the dialectic at the heart of this relationship more clearly.
A striking one is to be found in Act IV.
Proctor asks for Elizabeth’s blessing for his change of heart: he intends to offer a false confession of witchcraft to save his own life. She tells him that she can’t judge him, putting the responsibility for the lie on him. In a conventional production, this exchange may be understood as Elizabeth playing her wifely role in this Puritan society: she is modest and believes John should make his own decisions. In our Brechtian production, we preferred for her only to play the role of the humble wife. This had, we hoped, the effect of bringing out John’s dependence on his wife’s agreement, not just taking it for granted. As such, we would reveal the dialectical entanglement of their relationship, that Elizabeth played a necessary part in the patriarchal workings of their society.
In this production, Elizabeth was facing the audience and John got up from his prison bench to address her side-on and at a peculiarly respectful distance.
This configuration showed a power relationship in which Proctor’s position emphasized his weakness, not his strength. Proctor speaks emotionally while his wife remains calm and balanced. That is, the conventional relationship of male to female in the play is deliberately inverted to provoke the audience’s curiosity.
Proctor then moves behind Elizabeth before he says ‘I would have your forgiveness, Elizabeth’. In doing this, he takes up a more threatening position, pressurizing her to agree with his decision. He raises his voice, yet Elizabeth will not concede, and so he comes downstage to show his frustration.
This sequence demonstrates the dialectic that defines their relationship: Proctor, who should have the power, admits that his power is nothing without Elizabeth’s recognition of it. Yet she consciously denies him her approval of his decision, leaving him lost and angry. The tension goes unresolved.