Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Synopsis

"I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history", Arthur Miller wrote in an introduction to The Crucible, his classic play about the witch-hunts and trials in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. Based on historical people and real events, Miller's drama is a searing portrait of a community engulfed by hysteria. In the rigid theocracy of Salem, rumors that women are practicing witchcraft galvanize the town's most basic fears and suspicions; and when a young girl accuses Elizabeth Proctor of being a witch, self-righteous church leaders and townspeople insist that Elizabeth be brought to trial. The ruthlessness of the prosecutors and the eagerness of neighbor to testify against neighbor brilliantly illuminate the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence. Written in 1953, The Crucible is a mirror Miller uses to reflect the anti-communist hysteria inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy's "witch-hunts" in the United States. Within the text itself, Miller contemplates the parallels, writing "Political opposition...is given an inhumane overlay, which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized behavior. A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence".

Excerpt

Forty years ago, in his introduction to his Collected Plays, Arthur Miller meditated upon The Crucible, staged four years before, in 1953. A year after that first production, Miller was refused a passport, and in 1956-57 he endured the active persecution of the American witch-hunt for suspected Communists. The terror created in some of his former friends and associates by the possibility of being branded as warlocks and witches "underlies every word in The Crucible," according to Miller. "Every word" necessarily is hyperbolical, since The Crucible attempts to be a personal tragedy as well as a social drama.Miller, Ibsen's disciple, nevertheless suffers an anxiety of influence in The Crucible not so much in regard to Ibsen's An Enemy of the People but in relation to George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. The frequent echoes of Saint Joan seem involuntary, and are distracting, and perhaps fatal to the aesthetic value of The Crucible. For all its moral earnestness, Saint Joan is enhanced by the Shawian ironic wit, a literary quality totally absent from Miller, here and elsewhere. Though a very well-made play, The Crucible rarely escapes a certain dreariness in performance, and does not gain by rereading.

This is not to deny the humane purpose nor the theatrical effectiveness of The Crucible, but only to indicate a general limitation, here and elsewhere, in Miller's dramatic art.Eric Bentley has argued shrewdly that "one never knows what a Miller play is about: politics or sex." Is The Crucible a personal tragedy, founded upon Proctor's sexual infidelity, or is it a play of social protest and warning? There is no reason it should not be both, except for Miller's inability to fuse the genres. Here he falls short of his master, Ibsen, who concealed Shakespearean tragic purposes within frameworks of social issues, yet invariably unified the two modes. Still, one can be grateful that Miller has not revised The Crucible on the basis of his own afterthoughts, which have emphasized the absolute evil of the Salem powers, Danforth and Hathorne.These worthies already are mere facades, opaque to Miller's understanding and our own. Whatever their religious sensibility may or may . . .

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