The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a modern classic. Premiered in New York in 1953, the play famously makes connections between the Salem witch hunts of 1692-3 and Senator Joe McCarthy’s ‘red scare’ in which alleged Communists were hounded out of public office and the media by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The political critique of such injustices is clear, so how does Brecht help illuminate a play that is clearly political in the first place?
This video inadvertently identifies a series of misreadings that this Brechtian production sought to address. Here is a brief list of quotations (with references to the time they crop up in the video):
- Proctor is ‘considered a honest and an honourable man, John Proctor hates hypocrisy’ (3.47)This brief summation of the play’s central character suggests a remarkably one-sided reception of a man who is happy to administer violence to the servants beneath him, uses his male privilege to stop his wife reminding him of his infidelity, and who threatens his maid Mary Warren with a severe beating if she doesn’t testify at court. Proctor is morally problematic, yet Miller’s text mentions these negative aspects almost in passing.
- ‘Proctor ultimately sacrifices himself for his wife’s sake’ (3.39). ‘[Proctor] decides to protect his name, for personal reasons, and his family by paying the final price’ (4.37).The play climaxes in Proctor’s decision to agree to his own hanging rather than to have his name publicly associated with a false confession of association with the Devil. It is difficult to understand why he is sacrificing himself for ‘his wife’s sake’ as she will be left economically ruined with a growing family to support. He thus isn’t protecting his family, and his ‘personal reasons’ aren’t necessarily that ‘personal’. On the one hand, he is a defender of the truth and he wants to expose the lies that have led to the deaths of many innocent people. On the other, Proctor has a view of himself that sees martyrdom as heroic, irrespective of the damage it will do to his family. Such contradictions drive Brechtian theatre.
- ‘[Proctor’s] efforts to redeem himself make him the play’s hero’ (4.11)Proctor offsets the sin of adultery, his affair with Abigail, by taking a moral stand against the court at Salem. This notion of redemption is problematic because he doesn’t redeem himself of the behaviour listed under point one, above, which is intimately connected to his relationship with women. Indeed, this relationship persists throughout the final act. The play’s dramaturgy encourages the audience to sympathize with Proctor’s stand against lies, yet it hides the many privileges he enjoys as a man in a patriarchal society. It is difficult to accept him exclusively as a hero when he is so tainted by the views, opinions and actions seen earlier in the play that continue to its end.
- ‘[Abigail’s] lies and manipulative ways eventually lead to the deaths of nineteen people’ (5.39)In this reading, Abigail is the source of the problems in Salem; her ‘ways’ provoke the violent ends of innocent people. Such a view fails to account for the society in which she lives and her status as a female child. This is a society in which dancing in a wood by a group of teenagers is considered an outrage and evidence of malign diabolical influence. Abigail’s behaviour can also be understood in the context of the pressures piled on her by the religious and judicial communities. This is not to excuse her denouncing any of the others, such as Tituba or Elizabeth Proctor, but it contextualizes her actions. The town seeks willing accomplices to its witch hunt, and Abigail presents a very useful stooge. Portraying her as singularly wicked or evil misses the point that she serves her society’s ends admirably (reinforcing the power of the adult, male Puritans) without actually being aware of it.
- ‘As John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth is loyal and dedicated’ (6.00) ‘Even though her husband had an affair with Abigail, she eventually blames her cold nature for his actions’ (6.14) ‘She also helps him redeem himself and keep his goodness by allowing him to be hanged’ (6.26)Elizabeth’s ‘loyalty’ also needs to be understood socially. As a woman, she is effectively a man’s property. She has few means or opportunity to fend for herself and is thus dependent on her husband. That she provides Proctor with an excuse for his infidelity is remarkable, and her alleged ‘cold nature’ may be contradicted by the fact that she’s given birth to two boys and is pregnant with a third child. As can be seen here, her ‘admission’ of coldness was treated most ironically in our production.
- ‘The Crucible’s main themes include the exploration of good versus evil’ (6.35)By channelling social problems into ones of morality (good and evil), the commentator in the video distracts from the very concrete issues that run through the play. A set of dangerous values informs almost every aspect of the play. They include the superiority of men over women, adults over children, and white people over those of other races. The orthodoxy of the Puritan Christians is also stifling and leads to the initial ‘crime’, dancing in a wood. Good and evil are sideshows to the real issues at the heart of the play: social division, power hierarchies and privilege.
As can be seen from the views expressed in the video, which are not untypical and are re-echoed in professional and amateur productions alike, the play has been received in ways that focus on individuals (particularly on Proctor and Abigail) and their characters strengths and weaknesses. Such interpretations ignore the social and historical contexts that can be understood as fundamentally informing the play’s conflicts.
Our Brechtian production of The Crucible sought to place the social dimension at its heart and to articulate all the figures as children of their historical time.
Click on Reading Miller Against the Grain, Historicizing The Crucible; Criticizing Patriarchy, and Comedy, Historicization and the Critical Attitude to find out how we resisted conventional treatments of the play.