Written and Edited by Lindsay Price May, 2009
This month we offer Part One of Two of an analysis and exercise newsletter for Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Part One will look at the Dominant Themes of the play, Part Two will focus on character and language.
Click Here to read Quick Facts and Quotes about Arthur Miller. Our November Newsletter focused Death of A Salesman and our March Newsletter on All My Sons.
- a container of metal or refractory material employed for heating substances to high temperatures.
- a severe, searching test or trial
I officially give up trying to put together a newsletter on an Arthur Miller play in one month. After studying The Crucible and coming up with the various article titles, I had to stand and wave the white flag: it has to be over two newsletters. It's a good news realization I suppose â it means that there is much to analyze, discuss, and discover in the plays. That's rather fantastic news actually, the material is very rich! It's good news for you too; you'll get the in depth analysis in manageable sections - you won't open this file and see a fifty page newsletter. It's great news for me in that I can write that fifty page newsletter over a couple of months. Phew!
The Crucible is my least favourite of the Big Three Miller Plays. (Death of A Salesman well in the lead with All My Sons a strong second.) I find that plays with hysteria at their core tend to lead to hysterical acting. The number of exclamation marks in the script don't help dissuade that notion. There are 197 sentences in Act One alone that end in an exclamation point. That's potentially a lot of wailing and shouting. As a playwright and as an audience member, I hate wailing and shouting on stage. It feels very self-indulgent.
I'm also not fond of Arthur Miller's stance of, "this is a play and not history but hey, let me include a bunch of history-driven essays right in the middle of text." The audience never sees these essays, which begs the question as to why they're there. If indeed The Crucible is a play and not history, why are they necessary to the understanding of the play? Are they there to add historical weight? Why would that be necessary given that core elements of the plot - the affair between Abigail and John, the dancing in the forest - are completely made up?
Further to the contradiction of, "this is a play and not history," Miller uses historical names - Each of the names in the play are recorded in the history of the Salem witch trials. Miller adamantly states that each character in the play suffers the same fate as their historical counterparts, which again suggests he is trying to emulate history somewhat.
I'm not particularly fond of the play on its own merit either. I find the stereotypes are drawn with thick unwavering straight lines. Every character is confined to a box: Elizabeth is the good wife. Abigail is the spurned, vengeful teenager. Danforth is unwavering justice. Hale is the idealistic intellectual. Except for Hale, every character lives in their box for the entire play. This is just not interesting to watch. Abigail is written so tightly into her box that she has to disappear from the story completely. Certainly her running away may have been what happened historically, but The Crucible is a play and not history, right?
Dramatically speaking, a lot of the horror (and therefore a lot of the drama) within the plot occurs offstage rather than on. Abigail's needle in the belly moment is a great example. The audience is told this story instead of shown the story. We are told about Giles' dramatic death after the fact.
Having said that, highly dramatic moments often occur offstage in Miller plays â the most important plot points in All My Sons for example: the moment when the cracked airplane parts are let through, Joe winning his appeal. But the consequences for these offstage actions in All My Sons feel more human and therefore infinitely more watchable. I guess that's what it all boils down to: I don't connect to the characters in The Crucible. I am missing their humanity.
But enough about me. The Crucible is Miller's most produced play. There are hundreds of high school productions each year and the play is on many high school curricula. As with every Miller work there is much to discuss and many rich themes to explore. It's a worthy adversary to study in the classroom. So let's get to it!
This month we will cover the Dominant Themes in the play. In June, we'll cover the characters and language.
'I have rung the doom of my good name!' (John, Act Three)
What is the importance of a person's name and reputation? When is the reputation of a person more important than their actions? What's in a name? A great deal according to the characters in The Crucible. The characters are quite concerned with the perception of their name and reputation.
Though it wouldn't seem so in comparing their personalities, John and Abigail are have identical obsessive natures surrounding their good name. They both take pride in their reputation, know the power of a good name, act based on their reputation and their downfall comes of putting their good name before their humanity.
Abigail is consumed with having a good name. When Parris questions Abigail about her reputation and whether or not her name is 'white,' Abigail is adamant: 'There be no blush about my name.' (Act One) And when pressed further, Abigail flies into a temper: 'My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled!" (Act One)
When she becomes a conduit for naming witches, Abigail's name is taken to an exalted level. In Act Two, Elizabeth describes how Mary Warren talks of Abigail:
'She speak of Abagail and I thought she were a saint, to hear her. Abagail brings the other girls to court, and where she walks the crowd will part like the sea for Israel.' (Act Two)
This is exactly what Abagail has always wanted. A good name beyond reproach. A trusted name. A name with power. Abigail's name has so much power she is able to accuse anyone of being a witch. Her powerful reputation trumps those with seemingly spotless reputations: Abigail has the power to accuse and condemn Elizabeth.
John too is consumed with preserving his good name. In Act Two, when the accusations of witch begin to escalate, Elizabeth pushes John to reveal Abigail as a fraud. He's reluctant:
'I am only wondering how I may prove what she told me Elizabeth. If the girl's a saint now, I think it is not easy to prove she's a fraud... (Act Two)
For revealing Abigail as a fraud will undoubtedly reveal the fraud in his background as well â his past affair with Abigail. This indiscretion would cast a poor light on his name and reputation, something he would like to avoid at all costs.
This is exactly what maidservant Mary Warren suggests at the end of Act Two when she tells John that Abigail will 'ruin' him, ruin his name, if he crosses her. And though John states with seemingly unshaken confidence that he's not afraid of Abigail - âGood. Then her saintliness is done with. We will slide together into our pit." (Act Two) - He still holds on to the information of the affair till it is too late.
It is only when it is clear that Abagail's power is too strong that John reveals the affair, and right away marks the importance of the reveal in connection to his name: âA man will not cast away his good name, You surely know that.' (Act Three)
It's interesting to note that the appearance of a good name and the appearance of a good reputation is just as acceptable as the real thing. John is an adulterer, but so long as no one knows he's still a good man. Abigail can do anything she want; have an affair, lie, falsely accuse her neighbours so long as she is seen as having a good name. Because she's not in the last act to speak for herself, the assumption could be made that she disappears because of the reveal of the affair and taint that has placed on her name. Certainly John is touted as a liar, but why would she leave? Particularly since she wins at the end of Act Three. How has her power diminished? Why would she not stay to see her enemies destroyed?
In the end, the obsession for a good name backfires on John. When John reveals the affair, Elizabeth is brought into the courtroom to corroborate. Because John has been so strongly attached to his reputation, Elizabeth (a woman known for telling the truth) thinks lying about the affair will save him. She denies the affair ever took place and John is arrested as a witch.
Further, John's obsession is what takes his life. In Act Four John is a broken man. He has been jailed and tortured. On the day of his execution he is given a chance to confess, mostly because of his good name. There is a growing unrest and resentment against the witch trials and fear of what may happen if a 'good' man such as John is hanged:
'....John Proctor is not Isaac Ward that drank his family to ruin. I would to God it were not so, Excellency, but these people have great weight in the town.......unconfessed and claiming innocence, doubts are multiplied, many honest people will weep...' (Parris, Act Four)
When John learns that he will have to sign his name to the confession, which is a lie, he refuses.
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!....I have given you my soul; leave me my name! (Act Four)
In the end, he would rather die than have his name brought into question.
'There be a thousand names; why does she call mine?' (Elizabeth, Act Two)
Adding another layer to the importance of names, a significant aspect of the Salem witch trials was not only admitting to being a witch but to name other witches. This act was part of the confession and the confession held no weight without naming names. The problem was when people named names merely to deflect attention away from themselves. In the play, this is certainly what Abigail and the girls do to deflect attention away from their dancing in the woods:
âI saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil! (Act One)
When characters refuse to name names they get into trouble. In Act Three Giles refuses to give the name of his source who proves Putnam is falsely accusing his neighbours as witches:
'I will give you no name. I mentioned my wife's name once and I'll burn in hell long enough for that. I stand mute.'
For this refusal Giles is arrested in contempt of court and eventually killed.
When John attempts to confess in Act Four, he also refuses to name names. 'They think to go like saints. I like not to spoil their names.' (John, Act Four) The judge's response is that John's confession is a lie and invalid if he does not name names: 'Proctor, you mistake me. I am not empowered to trade your life for a lie.' (Danforth, Act Four)
Clearly the act of naming names weighed heavily on Miller's mind while he was writing The Crucible. The parallels between the events of Salem and Miller's environment at the time, the McCarthy era, are easy to draw.
The late 40's and early 50's were a tumultuous period as the cold war between the Soviet Union and America escalated. There was a underlying paranoia about the threat of communism which was brought to the forefront by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joe McCarthy. The purpose of the committee was simple: to investigate those who appear to be un-American, with communists at the top of the list.
On February 9, 1950 McCarthy, who up to this point was a rather unknown Senator, made a speech in Virgina in which he stated there were communists in the Department of State and he held in his hand a list of names. Read the Speech.
This was the beginning of a brief but damaging period of hysteria in which Americans were interviewed about their involvement in the Communist Party, pressured to admit they were members and to name the names of other members. Whether or not the accused were communists, or whether or not the names of those brought forward did anything seemed to be a moot point. Many were accused and many were named, with little proof. Being critical of the government, for example, was enough 'proof' to convict an individual as a communist.
Hollywood was hit directly by the McCarthy trials as screenwriters, playwrights, directors, musicians, and actors were brought in to testify. Those who refused to cooperate with the committee were blacklisted, meaning they weren't allowed to work in their field. For some, the blacklist ended their careers. Miller himself was called before the Committee in 1956 and refused to name names. As a result, he was blacklisted, received a suspended sentence and for awhile was not allowed out of the country.
Elia Kazan, who directed All My Sons and Death of A Salesman did name names; he gave up eight individuals to the committee in 1952. This ended the relationship between Miller and Kazan and acted as one of the catalysts for Miller to write The Crucible.
Read this article Miller wrote in 2000 about the McCarthy era and writing The Crucible
Stand in a circle and play a name game. This one called Cross Circle is perfect: http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/Cross_Circle.html
How does the tone of the game evolve when the names change? How does perception change? How do you look at people when they are an attribute rather than a name? What does the name a person wish they had say about them?
The outward appearance of those in Salem was very regimented. Everyone wore the same clothes. It would be difficult to make a first impression or a judgement on someone based on their appearance. This is when name and reputation become so important to a person. Their good name or bad name is what people reacted to.
Given that the characters in the play create little physical impression, create a Hat (for the male characters) or a handbag (for the female characters) based on their name/reputation. What would they look like? This is a symbolic exercise, so it's based on the behaviour and dialogue of the characters, not on the type of hat/handbag they would really carry in real life.
Place the objects or drawings at the front of the room. Is it easy or hard to decide which hat/handbag belongs to which character?
It is amazing how many lies are turned into the truth in the play as well as how many times when the truth is spoken, it is regarded as a lie.
The characters who are known for speaking falsely become heroes in the community - it's no coincidence that the majority of lies that turn to truths stem from Abigail:
This ability to turn lies into the truth gives Abigail a sense of power; power which she is able to rend from the men, which she quickly abuses. While she is certainly the main offender, the action of lies to truth permeates through other characters and through the entire play:
The characters who are known for speaking the truth have no recourse and no reprieve in this atmosphere:
By Act Four the number of times the word 'lie' is used is in the dozens:
By this point everything about Salem, everything about the court, everything about the community is a lie. Even John is swept up as he initially decides he would rather lie and live than die.
'My honest is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothing's spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before' (Act Four)
But in the end when his reputation is at stake, living a lie is not enough. He accepts the truth of death.
'Mr Hale. I do think you are suspecting me somewhat? Are you not?' (Elizabeth, Act Two)
It's amazing, in any century, how easily suspicion and rumour can become proof and fact. Have a look through any tabloid, and see how easily you believe or disbelieve what is said about celebrities. Is the fact that it's in print, proof? Is a picture proof? If you read or see on television that a celebrity said something, do you instantly believe it? Think about the rumours at your school. How easily do you believe or disbelieve what is said about teachers and students? What is your belief based on? Suspicion or proof? Rumour or fact?
The whole notion of witchcraft is based on suspicion and rumour. During the Salem witch trials themselves there was no proof or evidence given of the existence of witches. All those condemned were based on the accusation and stories of others. The same goes for those accused as witches in The Crucible. Every 'fact' regarding a potential witch is proved based on a story, a suspicion that someone had, a rumour that someone heard, something somebody 'said' they saw or felt.
This is established early on in the play. When the Putnams enter Betty's room in Act One, the first thing they want confirmation on is not Betty's sickness but how high she 'flew.' The word of another is enough to make this rumour fact:
'Why it's sure she did. Mr Collins saw her goin' over Ingersoll's barn, and come down light as bird, he says!'
The rumour of Betty 'flying' passes through the community as quickly as a game of telephone. It becomes more factual, and less doubtful. There is no 'proof' as we know it. Even when an older seemingly sensible character enters the room such as Giles, he talks about Betty flying without scepticism: 'I hear she flies.' (Act One)
Suspicious acts become the norm for proving witch like behaviour. In Act Two Mary Warren lists the 'proof' for condemning Goody Osborne:
When John asks again and again for the proof, Mary states, "I told you the proof. It's hard proof, hard as rock the judges said."(Act Two)
Since conventional methodology is out the window, Characters go out of their way to write new rules for deciding proof and fact.
Because of the definition of proof has changed, the usual manners of proof are not acceptable or recognized. John, Francis and Giles try to use conventional steps to prove their cases (that their wives are not witches and the girls are frauds) in front of Danforth:
Even Hale tries to persuade Danforth to go the conventional route with this case: 'I pray you, sir, this argument let lawyers present to you.' (Act Three) All attempts to provide conventional proof are denounced.
It is significant that by Act Four the tables slowly start to turn on the strength of suspicion and rumour. When Parris brings up the rumour of the rebellion in Andover and their suspension of the trials Danforth shoots it down immediately: 'Andover is remedied. The court returns there on Friday, and will resume examinations.'
Suspicion and rumour are no longer on the same plane as Proof and Fact.
Set up an improv court case with a judge/prosecution/defence/defendant/witnesses and jury. Use a modern crime with Salem methods of proof:
A person is accused of robbing a bank. They are tried using the same methods they use in the play to convict the witches. (suspicion, rumour, and spectral evidence such as a group of girls who feel ice cold, or get stomachaches) In the world of your improv, all these methods of proof are legitimate, so don't allow modern reactions to interfere. Take the situation and the methods very seriously, as they do in the play.
At the end of the improv, the defendant should be giving the opportunity to confess and to name the names of the others involved in the bank robbery. Otherwise, the defendant will be executed. What does the defendant do? Discuss the response to the exercise afterwards.
Search the play for dialogue that can be used in the court, as well as specific mentions of suspicion and rumour.
'Theology, sir, is a fortress.' (Hale, Act Two)
Religion, Law and witchcraft go hand in hand in hand in The Crucible. Historically, Salem operated under a Puritan theocratic government.
Theocracy: a form of government in which God is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, with God's laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities. In other words, church and State are one.
The Puritans left England because they weren't allowed to govern themselves the way that they wanted and risked religious prosecution.
In a sense, the Puritans were the originators of the American Dream: hard work leads to success and the life of your dreams. For the Puritans this would mean a strict commitment to religious behaviour, and a strict commitment to hard work which would lead to heaven. The downfall of the American Dream is a standby theme in Miller works. The Crucible shows quite clearly the flaws in the Puritan American Dream in the context of the Salem witch trials; a commitment to 'hard work' does not exempt one from the accusation of witchcraft.
In a society that firmly follows the Bible and believes that the Devil is just as real as God, it's not difficult to connect the dots from a child acting in bizarre manner, to full-blown witch trials in Salem.
Nor is it difficult to see in a theocratic society how witches become officially tried in court. As the belief in witches is part of the religion, that means that the persecution of witches is the responsibility of the law.
In the play religion is always spoken of with the authority of the courts of law:
There are many issues with prosecuting witches under this heavy and equal weight of religion and law, where both are rock solid and unwavering. It is no accident that Miller has Hale describe Theology as a fortress.
The equal weight suggests that there is rock solid legal proof of witchcraft, which there is not. It suggests that all those who accuse witches are rock solid individuals and act to the highest order of religion and law, which they do not. Historically, there were many accusations in the Salem trials that were based on selfish and vengeful behaviour - Rebecca Nurse was accused by Ann Putnam, who later issued an apology for accusing an innocent which Miller capitalizes in the play:
Further to this there are numerous acts of uncharitable and un-Christian behaviour:
The culmination of this behaviour shows how impossible the narrow Puritan standards are to uphold. The standards do not account for human behaviour. They are a fortress on uneven ground.
Lastly, it is no mistake that Miller again uses stone imagery when John rips up his confession, the 'good and legal proof' that he is a witch. He tells Elizabeth to 'show a stony heart and sink them with it.' (Act Four)
'I have sins of my own to count.' (Elizabeth, Act Four)
Although religion and Law are essentially one and the same, there is a firm line in the sand dividing the Saint and the Sinner in The Crucible.
Danforth states in Act Three that, "We live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the shining sun is up." For Danforth the world is black and white, good is quite separate from evil, the saint and the sinner are clearly defined in their own boxes. Again, it's no mistake when Parris describes goodness in terms of the colour white in Act One.
Miller fully explores the failure of this concept and how it's impossible to divide the saint and the sinner with such clean lines:
Those with 'saintly' characteristics (John and Elizabeth) must come face to face with sin, while those with 'sinner' characteristics (Abigail) are placed in the light of a saint. The world is not as black and white as Danforth suggests and further rocks the stable ground.
In groups, highlight lines that illustrate one of the seven deadly sins. (pride, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, sloth, envy) Create a tableau that shows the sin using the line as a jumping off point.
For example, Abigail suffers from a number of the sins. She speaks with envy in Act One when she speaks poorly of Elizabeth â she wants to be in Elizabeth's place as John's husband. Take the line, "It is a bitter woman, a lying, cold snivelling woman and I will not work for such a woman!" and create a picture of the line, illustrating envy. For example, Elizabeth and Abigail stand side by side, with Abigail reaching out to scratch at Elizabeth.
Do the same exercise, highlighting lines that illustrate one of the ten commandments.
'I'll not hang with you! I love God, I love God!' (Mary Warren, Act Three)
Hysteria is at the core of the The Crucible and the Salem witch trials themselves. During the course of the trials, over 180 were accused with 19 hanged. The accused ranged from infants to the elderly. Two dogs were killed as witches. As a hurricane gathers wind and speed, so did the desire to accuse, condemn, and convict. Hysteria is an uncontrollable outburst and in a hysterical world, no one is safe, especially not those who live in a logical, sane manner.
What is most interesting though is that Abigail, who is clearly the eye of the hysterical hurricane, remains tightly controlled. She chooses when to push the hysteria, who will carry the hysteria out and who the hysteria affects. Once the hurricane begins to spin, Abigail is out of harm's way and someone else follows through with the dirty work.
In Act One, Abigail's story about what happens in the woods changes depending on who is talking to her, and more importantly, who might be accusing her. The activity starts out as common dancing in which no one was conjuring spirits. But when Hale is close to accusing Abagail of being a witch, she ratchets up the hysteria to claim that not only did Tituba make her drink blood, but that she caused Abigail to laugh at prayer. As Tituba becomes sucked into the storm and actually confesses to working for the Devil, Abigail puts the icing on the cake by giving Hale exactly what he wants: the names of witches. The end of the Act is a whirlwind of names: 'I saw Goody Hawkins with the Devil! I saw Goody Bibber with the Devil! I saw Goody Booth with the Devil!'
In Act Two, Abigail's ability to create a hurricane is so powerful she doesn't even have to be on stage. Elizabeth says that the town has 'gone wild' with the hysterical response of Abigail and the girls right in the middle of it all:
"And folks are brought before them, and if they scream and howl and fall to the floor â the person's clapped in the jail for bewitchin' them."
When Abigail does not get the desired results in her initial accusation of Elizabeth, she goes to great lengths to push hysteria over the edge with the needle in the doll story. The first thing Cheever asks for when he enters the Proctor household is if Elizabeth has any 'poppets.' Obviously this is something he has been prompted to ask for, as he find the needle in the doll right away. The hurricane spins out of control as Cheever relays that Abigail suffered from a needle in the stomach at dinner and claimed Elizabeth had been the culprit:
'...two inches in the flesh of her belly, he draw a needle out. And demandin' of her how she come to be so stabbed, she testify it were your wife's familiar spirit pushed it in.' (Cheever, Act Two)
Act Three is Abigail's greatest work as she is able to show Mary Warren as a liar and convict John of witchcraft in one fell swoop.
John brings Mary Warren in to testify that she, Abigail and the other girls were frauds and only pretending. Once she enters, Abigail starts out calmly and with very little to say. In four pages of script, she has only three lines. It would be very interesting to stage this moment as Abigail stands silently as the other characters swirl about her in text and in movement, in their hysteria.
And a hurricane of hysteria it becomes as John reveals the affair, Elizabeth lies which condemns John, Hale attempts to out Abigail, and Abigail mentally pushes Mary to the point that she denounces everything she's said and declares John a witch.
'He wake me every night, his eyes were like coals and his fingers claw my neck...'
And as the hurricane builds to a fury with Mary's uncontrollable sobs, John's arrest and Hale's denouncement of the court, Abigail sits silently. Her work is done.
There are no hysterical events in Act Four and thus Abigail is missing. Not only is she missing she has run away from Salem altogether. It's a missing piece of the story. Is her tenure at an end as the tide shifts away from supporting the trials? Is it because John has gone to jail and she believes he'll die? Only Abigail knows...