by Arthur Miller
Introduction by Christopher Bigsby
Play (based on real events)
Penguin Classics, 1995
Written in 1953, The Crucible is a play based on the infamous witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1692 to 1693. As a result of these trials, nineteen people (and two dogs) were convicted and hanged for witchcraft.
In Miller’s play, a group of young girls is caught dancing in the woods of Salem Town late at night; among them are the daughter and the niece of the town’s pastor, as well as Tituba, the pastor’s slave. In Puritan New England, any wrongdoing or misfortune was considered the work of the Devil, and if young girls were found to be dancing in the woods–against all propriety–then surely they must have been influenced by the Devil himself. To avoid punishment and to find an excuse for their actions, the girls–led by Abigail, the pastor’s niece–point their fingers at certain women of Salem Town and accuse them of bringing the Devil into town through witchcraft. Abigail begins the train of events leading up to the trials and hangings by first pointing a finger at Tituba (quite obviously singled out for being a foreign-born slave with different traditions that make the townspeople uncomfortable). Of course, mass hysteria ensues, and society reacts as it always tends to react in the face of hysteria.
Miller’s Crucible is less about the details of the witch hunt and subsequent trials, and more about how events of this nature affect the communities in which they take place. As has been proven throughout history, when a situation arises that brings with it hysteria and a definite us or them mentality, people will do what they can to conform and ensure they have a solid place in the us category. In the case of the Salem witch trials, people were admitting to doing things they had never done or pointing fingers at neighbors–and even friends–in order to exonerate themselves and keep themselves safe from hanging. To point fingers and do one’s duty to the safety of the town was to be a member of the us group…the citizens who weren’t pointing fingers and doing their best to help weed out the “witches” were automatically assumed to be under the influence of the Devil and were relegated to them status (and ultimately jailed and/or hanged). Miller uses John Proctor–the protagonist of The Crucible and the man who stands up to those in power, while refusing to conform and add to the frenzy–to show not only what he felt was the moral thing to do in these situations, but also to show that he knew just how hard it is sometimes to be the nonconformist going up against a large group. In addition to the theme of conformity, The Crucible also demonstrates how mass hysteria can lead to socially justified violence.
Written during the McCarthy era–also known as McCarthyism or the Second Red Scare–Miller used the Salem witch trials as a way to speak out about the latest “witch hunt” taking place. Arthur Miller saw a definite parallel between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the hunt for communists in America taking place during his own time; the same frenzy that brought people in Salem Town to point fingers at people they had been neighbors and friends with, was the same kind of frenzy that was leading people during the McCarthy era to point fingers at their neighbors, acquaintances, and friends, as well. Knowing that writing a play about the Red Scare and the harm he saw it doing to American society would no doubt land him in the subversive them group (which would likely also land him in jail or worse), Miller decided to show his disdain for the people in power and those who were cowering in their conformity, by writing a play about a very similar situation in America’s history.
The Crucible is a quick read and a well-written play. Arthur Miller accomplished what he set out to do–showing readers (or the audience) the psychological consequences of mass hysteria, the way communities fall apart in the face of that hysteria, and what happens when conforming to those in power is deemed the moral thing to do while opposition to that power is equated with evil.
(Click here to learn more about Arthur Miller.)
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