Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Crucible: Setting and Dramatic Language

The Crucible is set in Puritan New England in 1692. As we have already seen, Miller researched this period in great depth in an attempt to make his portrait of Salem life as authentic as possible. Not only are the characters closely based on real people, but their conversations often echo statements found in historical records and court transcripts.

As early settlers in New England, the Puritans lived the frugal lives of pioneers. Houses were built of logs, wood fires provided the only heat for cooking or warmth, and kerosene lamps or candles offered the only light after dark. When John Proctor enters his home with a rifle in Act II, it is a reminder that the dangerous wilderness begins just beyond the boundaries of the Proctor farm.
The Puritans were somber, disciplined people who did not allow any frivolity to come between them and their work. Each of the settings in The Crucible reflects the spartan quality of Salem life. Furnishings of any kind are kept to a minimum and always serve a definite purpose. Decoration for its own sake simply does not exist. In general, the rooms are described as spare, tidy and plain. The descriptions give the sense of hard beds and stiff, uncomfortable benches and chairs.
In order to achieve the greatest possible unity in his play, Miller gave each of his four acts unity of Place, with each occurring entirely within one setting only. Because each of these settings is different, the play can offer four different views of life in Salem. To some degree, the settings in The Crucible com­ment on one another. The orderly calm of the Proctors’ home, for example, is in clear contrast to the emotional chaos in Parris’ home. And the dark, filthy prison cell is a strong rebuke to the hypocrisy of the austere courtroom antechamber.
Act I takes place in the bedroom of Betty Parris. The room is small, as is the window, which lets in only a little of the morn­ing sun. The room is sparsely furnished: a bed, a chair, a chest, a small table and a candle. Because the house is not very old, the “wood colors are raw and unmellowed.”
Clearly, this is not a pleasant room for a child. There is nothing to play with, nothing to look at and nothing to stimulate the imagination. Yet, as The Crucible clearly shows, the imagination of young girls can never be totally repressed. Indeed, in this bare, dark, uncomfortable room, the girls invent their first extravagant lies.
Act II is set in the “common room” of the Proctors’ house. The common room is a combination kitchen, living room and dining room. Here almost all household activities except sleeping take place. The room is clean and tidy, though rather dark and somber. When we first see it, Elizabeth is upstairs singing gently to her children. Dinner is cooking over an open fire.
The quiet of the Proctors’ home is a welcome relief from the hysterical atmosphere of Betty Parris’ bedroom. Yet, even here there are signs that life is not as pleasant as it could be. As Proctor enters the room, he tastes the stew in the fireplace and finds it bland. Later, he suggests to Elizabeth that she “bring some flowers in the house,” as it is spring. Elizabeth’s failure to make her home more warm and attractive is partly behind the guilt she feels in Act IV, when she confesses to her husband that “It were a cold house I kept!”
Despite its shortcomings, the Proctors’ home at the beginning of Act II is harmonious and orderly. Throughout the act, this domestic tranquility becomes increasingly disrupted. First, Proctor and Elizabeth quarrel. Then Mary arrives with disturbing news. Then Hale arrives to question Elizabeth. Finally, Elizabeth is arrested, and Proctor is left behind, half-mad with grief and rage. Despite Proctor’s attempt to retreat from society, the hysteria that has gripped Salem has finally plunged his own private world into chaos.
Act III takes place in the vestry of the Salem meetinghouse, which is now the anteroom of the Salem General Court. The room is described as “solemn, even forbidding” with heavy exposed roofbeams. There are two plain benches, a long meeting table with stools and one armchair. Sunlight pours through two high windows. Offstage in the courtroom, a trial is taking place.
As the act begins, we overhear the trial of Martha Corey. As Martha denies the charges against her and Giles is thrown out for creating a disturbance, we gain a vivid impression of a packed courtroom during a highly sensational public trial. As the voices of the townspeople rise excitedly, the door opens and Giles Corey is carried into the room by Herrick.
The meetinghouse, or church, of Salem has been turned into a court. This underlines the fact that, in the Puritan theo­cracy, the church and the state were the same. Just as the Puritans believed that God presided over their church services, they believed that He watched over their legal matters. A solemn, forbidding atmosphere was therefore considered appro­priate for both.
In the severe atmosphere created by this setting, we meet the equally severe Puritan authorities, Deputy Governor Dan-forth and Judge Hathorne. We quickly learn however that, for all its apparent loftiness and austerity, Puritan justice is an absurd and horrific farce. Eventually, the solemn atmosphere of the setting is turned completely upside down by the bizarre per­formances of Abigail and the girls. When Hale leaves the room in disgust, he slams the door behind him, thereby turning his back on Puritan authority and all it stands for.
Unlike the vestry room of the court, the setting for Act IV has no pretensions at all. The final act of The Crucible is set in a bleak prison cell shortly before sunrise. Moonlight trickles through a barred window. There are two benches and a great, heavy door. Early in the act, Danforth comments on the cell’s “prodigious stench.”
The setting for Act IV, then, is one of total squalor and desolation. In vile cells like this one, many of the finest people in Salem wait to be executed. Yet, in this foul setting, John Proctor finds the honor and integrity to choose death over a false confession. In Act III, a dignified setting was made lowly and absurd by the evil accusations of the court; in Act IV, a sor­did setting is ennobled by the courage and honesty of the prisoners.
Throughout Act IV, the cell is dark except for Herrick’s lantern and the faint moonlight. However, just as Act I of The Crucible began in the morning, Act IV ends with the first light of dawn. Events have come full circle: the witch hunt has been launched, reached its peak, and now, due to the courage of Proctor, Rebecca, and others, it is about to come to a close. As Elizabeth watches her husband’s execution through the barred window of the cell, “the new sun” pours in upon her face, sym­bolizing a new era of freedom from tyranny in Salem.
Dramatic Language
In order to create the atmosphere of 17th century Salem, Miller has invented a special dialect for his characters. In some cases, speeches in The Crucible are based directly on historical records and court documents. For example, in Appendix One, a court record shows the following exchange in the trial of Sarah Good:
Q. Why do you hurt these children?
A. I do not hurt them. I scorn it.
And in The Crucible, at the beginning of Act III, Judge Hathorne is overheard questioning Martha Corey:
Hathorne’s Voice: Why do you hurt these children?
Martha Corey’s Voice: I do not hurt them. I scorn it!
Although the language in The Crucible sounds authentic, it is not really early colonial English. Language has changed a great deal in three hundred years, and an audience today would find it difficult to follow a real 17th century conversation. As Miller himself has stated:
I use words like “poppet” instead of “doll,” and grammatical syntax like “he have” instead of “he has.” This will remind the audience that The Crucible is taking place in another time, but won’t make it too difficult to understand, which it might be if I used all the old language, with words like “dafter” instead of “daughter.”
Because the dialect in The Crucible is unfamiliar to us and not meant to be realistic, it is free to become highly lyrical. For example, when John Proctor describes the spring landscape, he says “Lilacs have a purple smell. Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think. Massachusetts is a beauty in the spring.” And when he rages at the sky after Elizabeth’s arrest, he cries, “We are only what we always were, but naked now . . . Aye, naked! And the wind, God’s icy wind, will blow!”
Language in The Crucible becomes most stylized and exotic in the false “trances” of Abigail and the other girls. Abigail’s first accusations are rich with poetry. The strong rhythm created in the following speech is based on the repetition of sentences beginning with “I”:
Abigail:     I want to open myself! . . . I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him; I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!
In a later scene, Abigail again uses repetition to achieve her pur­poses. By echoing every word that Mary Warren says, she con­vinces the court that Mary’s spirit has possessed her. The effect is eerie, and very powerful dramatically.
In The Crucible, complex, emotional speeches often conceal deceit or false reasoning. The truth is simple, and needs no rhetoric to adorn it. The most striking example of this contrast occurs when Hale asks Elizabeth to persuade her husband to confess. In a series of beautifully phrased arguments, Hale maintains that there is nothing worth dying for: “Life, woman, life is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the tak­ing of it.” Elizabeth listens to Hale’s claims, then rejects them quietly and simply: “I think that be the Devil’s argument.”
Because the stylized language in The Crucible easily lends itself to moments of intense lyricism, it is ideal for portraying the inner struggle of John Proctor. Throughout the witch hunt, Proc­tor’s spiritual anguish erupts in bursts of poetry. In the climactic speech of the play, Proctor teeters on the edge of abandoning his honor once and for all. He finds, however, that he cannot bring himself to hand over his signed confession:
Proctor:    (with a cry of his whole soul) Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!
At the end of this speech, Proctor finally realizes that, to mean anything, his name must reflect his soul. He tears his confession into shreds and chooses a heroic death.

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