Before the Crucible:
The playwright Arthur Miller was born in
on New York 17 October 1915, to a non-Orthodox Jewish family. Miller had a comfortable childhood, but when his father was ruined in the Depression of 1929, the family moved to Brooklyn, at that time almost a country suburb. Arthur Miller's school career was unpromising; he worked briefly in his father's business and then took a variety of casual jobs, some of them manual, which provided the background for several plays.
Miller began to read extensively, and applied for a place at the
to study journalism. As a student, he wrote award-winning dramas and began to think of playwriting as a career. After graduating in 1938 he returned to University of Michigan , where he worked on various theatre projects, but was eventually forced to return to manual work. In 1940, he married an old college friend. When the New York entered World War II in 1941, he was rejected for military service because of an old sports' injury. USA
Miller was beginning to be successful in other forms of writing, but his main interest was in live theatre. His first Broadway play won the Theatre Guild National Award but was not a commercial success. During this long apprenticeship, Miller was hammering out the themes central to his best-known work - the link between social commitment and personal integrity, the individual's need to confront his past, and conflict within the family. A chance conversation provided the idea for his first widely acclaimed play, All My Sons (1947). Death of a Salesman (1949) had an even longer run, and was performed worldwide.
The Cold War and Senator McCarthy
After the end of the World War II,
became locked in political rivalry with Communist Russia. This was the so-called Cold War. The threat of nuclear weapons hung over the two superpowers’ struggle for dominance. In June 1950, when America ’s ally, Communist China, began to expand into Russia South-East Asia, embarked on the Korean War. This conflict had an enormous effect on the political climate at home. Fear that Communists were infiltrating Government led to the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most prominent figure in a committee that scrutinized possible suspects. His investigations were aimed particularly at university teachers, trade unionists, and artists of all kinds—anyone suspected of left-wing sympathies. Those called before the Un-American Activities Committee were asked to prove their innocence by naming others. Some witnesses caved in; others lost their jobs. There were many suicides. America
It was against this background that Miller wrote The Crucible. The
witch trials had fascinated him long before he saw their possibility as an allegory for McCarthyism. The play opened in January 1953, and won two prestigious awards, but the critics were distracted by the obvious parallel with contemporary events. Salem
In 1956 Miller found himself in the same dilemma as his hero, John Proctor. He was refused a passport to visit
for a production of his play. The committee called on him to testify. When Miller refused to mention names, he was fined and given a suspended prison sentence. The Supreme Court acquitted him a year and a half later. By then McCarthy himself was dead. Brussels
The Crucible is Miller’s most frequently produced work. As the McCarthy era receded, it became easier to assess the merits of the play and realize that it has a universal significance outside the context of a particular crisis in American history. Miller himself is pleased at his development.
A crucible is a melting pot or vessel in which crude ore is heated to a temperature that makes it release the pure metal. The metaphor applies most of all to the hero, John Proctor, who finds his true self by enduring a different kind of purification; but it is almost as apt for several other characters as well as for the whole community that suffered from these tragic events.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO THE PLAY
In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, some English trading companies started to send settlers to
North America. Among them were the Pilgrim Fathers, who crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower and landed in on Massachusetts 21 November 1620. Ten years later, about a thousand Puritans settled around Massachusetts Bay, in the area later known as New England. They brought with them a royal charter to set up a colony ruled by a Governor and General Court. A Puritan elite of politicians and clergymen imposed a strict administration on the new colony. As well as reclaiming land from the forest, the settlers had to come to terms with the Native American tribes and periodic outbreaks of smallpox.
By 1692, there were marked differences between the various centres of population. Trade and education flourished in towns like
; inland areas were much less safe and prosperous. Several other factors caused unrest. While the colony awaited the arrival of a new charter from Boston , its laws, including those on land tenure, were technically suspended. The rulers felt their grasp slipping. England
The village had developed as the agricultural hinterland of
, a thriving trading town on the coast five miles away. Rivers and sea inlets lay between the town and the village, which was in reality a collection of scattered farmsteads. Farmers living further inland had to grow their produce on much less fertile terrain. Added to jealousies about land were disputes over appointing a minister. The town continued to demand taxes to exercise authority over the villagers. Salem
Although officially part of the Church of England, the 1630 Puritans were closer in belief and practice to Presbyterian Calvinism. They believed that every soul was predestined for Heaven or Hell. Old Testament law applied to every area of life. The Puritans blamed any temptations to break their stern code on the Devil and other evil spirits. Those who broke the rules had to confess in public and suffer severe punishment. To work on Sunday was a serious offence. The Puritans disapproved of most forms of relaxation. They confined private reading to the Bible and other religious texts. Children had to live up to this code of behaviour from their earliest years and take their share of adult work from the age of seven.
Miller discusses the effects of this highly demanding self-discipline in his notes to Act I of The Crucible.
Like most people in the seventeenth century, the Puritans believed in witches. The idea of witchcraft existed long before the Christian era. The Old Testament states, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. This was the basis of the witchcraft laws. In prehistoric societies, magic and sorcery were a feature of religion; the early Christian Church regarded them as the remains of paganism. There were laws against the practice of witchcraft, but no systematic persecution.
Anxieties began to increase when the Church declared (1320) that magic and witchcraft involved a pact with the Devil. From then on they were classed as heresy, carrying the penalty of eternal damnation. The reformed
shared these views. Whereas ordinary people worried about the harm witches might do them, the Church regarded every lost soul as a defeat in the war between God and the Devil. A reader can notice this difference in The Crucible. Protestant Church
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands were put to death for witchcraft. When medicine and veterinary science were at such a primitive stage, disease and sudden death could seem to result from a spell cast by a spiteful neighbour. Those thought to be witches were male and female, of all ages and social ranks, but most of them were elderly women.
The most famous handbook on witchcraft was Malleus Maleficarum (“The Witches’ Hammer”). This might have been one of the books weighted with authority that Reverend Hale brings to
There were several witchcraft trials in
before 1692. Two involved adolescent girls suffering hysterical fits similar to those seen in Massachusetts . In January 1692, the daughter and niece of the village parson, Reverend Parris, having experimented with fortune-telling began to gabble nonsense and twist their limbs into grotesque positions. They claimed that the spirit of Parris’s West Indian slave Tituba was tormenting them. Soon more young girls began to display the same symptoms. Tituba and two other women were arrested on the charge of bewitching them. Salem
Over the following months the number of hysterical girls increased, as did the people they accused. The youngest victim was a child aged four. The defendants were jailed, but not tried until June, when the new governor set up his official court, which decided to allow ‘spectral evidence’; that is, the girls’ allegation that the witches were sending out their invisible spirits. The witch-hunt spread and scores of people went to prison. Those that confessed were reprieved. Six men and thirteen women were hanged. Since prisoners had to pay for their keep, many families went bankrupt. Doubts arose about the ‘spectral evidence’, particularly when the girls began naming prominent people. The Governor intervened, and in May, 1693, the remaining accused were set free, apart from those who could not pay their prison charges.
How Historically Correct is The Crucible?
The Crucible keeps close to what we know about events in 1692. Much of the dialogue repeats the enquiry documents word for word. Miller made changes for practical dramatic reasons or to emphasize the themes of the play. Here are some reasons for Miller’s attempt to make some alterations.
All characters in The Crucible are taken from official documents, but the number of persons involved in the witch-hunt is greatly reduced. The fortune telling becomes a more dramatic expedition into the Devil-haunted forest. The date when the hysteria began is advanced from winter to spring. Several execution dates are altered; for example, John Proctor did not die with Rebecca Nurse. Miller also standardizes the ages of the girls; apart from Betty Parris, they are all teenagers. In reality, they spanned a much wider age range and included several adults.
The only piece of pure invention is the relationship between Abigail Williams and John Proctor. In 1692 he was a man in his sixties and she was a girl of 11. However, the invented relationship rings true to the repression of Puritan society and forms a dynamic centre around which the whole story develops.
Such discrepancies are less important than the themes developed in the text. Like all great plays, The Crucible speaks to us about universal human issues. The details of place and time are merely the playwright’s way of creating his ideas in flesh and blood.