Sunday, August 22, 2010

Introduction to the Crucible by Arthur Miller

A “crucible” is a severe test, or a trial. It is also a container that can withstand great heat. As it passes through a furnace, the metals and ores within it are transformed in some way. For the characters in The Crucible, the Salem witch hunt is the trial from which they emerge utterly changed. As each character passes through the furnace of lies, vengeance, greed and tor­ture, he is either purified or corrupted. For John Proctor, the heat is especially intense, and the struggle toward goodness is laden with many traps and obstacles.

All the characters in The Crucible are based on real persons who lived in Salem in 1692. For dramatic purposes, several characters have sometimes been fused into one and small details have been changed. In general, however, the actions of the char­acters are closely matched to the actions of their historical counterparts. Miller researched the period exhaustively and wanted his play to be as true to the historical records as possible. See Appendix I for some of these records.
Although The Crucible offers many parallels with our own time, it also makes use of many ideas and attitudes that were unique to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Some knowledge of life in Salem is needed to fully understand the play. The follow­ing material, therefore, explains basic Puritan customs and beliefs, and offers a summary of the actual Salem witch hunt. In addition, this introduction looks at Miller’s use of the witch hunt to comment on the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.
The Puritans
In 1620, the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock in Massa­chusetts and founded the first permanent settlement in New England. They had left England to escape religious persecution and to establish a New Jerusalem in the New World. This Pro­mised Land, however, contained many new dangers. In the face of a harsh climate, fierce animals, hostile Indians and a vast, godless wilderness, the Puritans drew together in a tightly unified group with extremely strict rules and an autocratic leadership. Through a combination of bitterly hard work, rigid discipline and harsh justice, the Puritans succeeded in taming the land that no one before them could conquer.
The Puritan government was a theocracy; that is, it was completely controlled by the Puritan church. The ministers of the church were also the town officers and administrators. Because the Puritans believed that they were the new Chosen People, they did not permit members of any other religion to corrupt their pure society. Those who did not belong to the church could not hold property or vote. In addition, those who did not attend church regularly or follow the church regulations could be excommunicated, thereby losing all their property and rights.
In The Crucible, Deputy Governor Danforth is the perfect example of a theocratic ruler. Because he believes that he speaks for God, he cannot accept the possibility that he has been wrong. In his ruthless judgments, he holds to the strict letter of the law, for “While I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering.”
“God’s law” for the Puritans was certainly strict. Any­thing that distracted them from hard work was part of the Devil’s plan to destroy them. There were no celebrations or holidays, no theaters or novels and no children’s games or enter­tainments. Dancing was considered a serious sin. It was natural, then, that Abigail and the other girls felt a need to dance in the woods. Their youthful high spirits had no other outlet. It was also natural that they should lie to cover up their “sin.” If they had been found out, they would probably have been whipped.
In addition to viewing pleasure as sinful, the Puritans saw sex as a necessary evil, to be practised joylessly only between a man and his wife. As John Proctor knew only too well, adultery was considered a hideous crime and could easily result in excom­munication and the loss of one’s property. Some historical analysts believe that this sexual repression was directly respon­sible for the mass hysteria that produced the witch hunt. In The Crucible, Abigail’s dislike for the people of Salem is largely based on her contempt for this repression.
The Puritans believed that everything stated in the Bible was literally true. The Devil was very real to them, always trying to tempt them away from their work and God’s laws. Moreover, the Devil was a cunning and extremely powerful opponent. Once he set out to destroy a soul, there was almost nothing the person could do to prevent it. As Abigail angrily tells Deputy Governor Danforth: “Think you to be so mighty that the power of Hell may not turn your wits? Beware of it!”
This grim sense of man’s powerlessness was also found in other aspects of Puritan life. The Puritans believed in the doc­trine of the elect. According to this fatalistic belief, only a few people would be chosen by God to be saved from Hell. There was nothing a person could do to earn a place among the elect. No amount of good works or righteous living could help. All a person could do was live an upright life in the blind hope that he might be one of the few who were chosen.
A major reason why salvation was so difficult to attain is found in the Puritans’ adaptation of the doctrine of original sin. According to the Puritans, each person at birth is already evil and on the verge of eternal damnation. As Jonathan Edwards, a famed Puritan minister, once preached, “The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire . . . .” In The Crucible, Parris also preached “hellfire and bloody damnation” in his sermons, much to Proctor’s disgust.
Not only was man born an evil sinner, but his sins could not be washed away. Therefore, every person concealed guilt in his heart from which he could never be free. In The Crucible, John Proctor is deeply troubled with guilt as a result of his adulterous affair with Abigail. He tries to bury this guilt by pretending it doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, as Elizabeth tells him, “The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you.”
Although their guilt could never be entirely removed, it was sometimes possible for Puritans who sinned to regain the path of righteousness. First, however, they had to publicly confess their sins and perform some act of penance. This policy of open confession was carried to absurd lengths during the witch hunt. Those accused of witchcraft could either confess to lies or hang. Not surprisingly, most chose to confess.
Because the Puritans’ legal system was used to uphold religious laws, many such absurdities were possible. Over the cen­turies, Western society has developed “due process of law” so that the truth can be uncovered. This due process uses witnesses and other hard evidence to prove whether a person is innocent or guilty. The accused is also granted certain rights so that he can defend himself. The Puritans, however, could not rely on due process to get at the truth. Because religious crimes involved magic and invisibility, there could be no witnesses or hard evidence.
In The Crucible, Deputy Governor Danforth sums up the absurdity of the Puritan court when he explains that witchcraft is an invisible crime. Only the witch and her victim can possibly witness this crime, and the witch would never accuse herself. Therefore, the victim’s testimony must always be accurate. As a result of this absurd reasoning, the Puritans had no way of objectively finding out the truth. When the lack of due process was combined with the false confessions, the door was opened to a reign of terror in which rumors, lies and superstitions ruled the courts.
In summary, then, virtually every aspect of a Puritan’s life fell under the strict control of the church. Rigid discipline was enforced, and pleasures were forbidden. Personal rights were few and could be suspended at any time. Personal freedoms were virtually non-existent. Life for the early Puritans was a constant battle against the harsh climate, the vast wilderness and the temptations of Satan. Even for those who won that bat­tle, divine salvation was by no means guaranteed.
By 1692, however, the land had been partly tamed and the surrounding wilderness was no longer so terrifying. The need for rigid discipline, hard work and tight unity was no longer as great as it had been. To the great concern of the church, many Puritans began to feel the need for more personal rights and freedoms. Ultimately, the church’s struggle to maintain its auth­ority against ever-increasing opposition erupted into the full­-blown hysteria of the Salem witch hunt.
Witchcraft among the Puritans
The persecution of witches was by no means limited to the Puritans in New England. During the 17th and early 18th cen­turies, tens of thousands of people were executed as witches throughout Europe and the Americas. The Roman Catholic Inquisition was especially bloodthirsty in its relentless pursuit of those who practised the black arts.
It is not surprising that the fear of witchcraft took so deep a hold among the New England Puritans. As fundamentalists, they believed every word that was written in the Bible. Moses’ statement, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” was well known by almost every member of the colony. In The Crucible, when Elizabeth Proctor suggests that witches do not exist, Reverend Hale scolds her, “You surely do not fly against the Gospel, the Gospel —.”
The Puritans deeply believed in evil as a tangible force in the world. The Devil was a real being, the lord of the angels cast out of heaven for betraying God. Since his fall, the Devil had worked constantly to destroy God’s kingdom on earth by temp­ting God’s subjects away from Him.
Because the Puritans believed that their colony was the center of God’s earthly kingdom, they believed that the Devil was focusing all his attention on their destruction. The vast wilderness around them provided the Devil with many hiding places, as well as many heathen savages who willingly did his work. According to Puritan belief, once the colony was perfected the Devil would be banished forever. Because he knew this, he was attacking them now with all his power and might.
The Puritans, then, considered themselves soldiers in the midst of a great war against evil. The enemy was powerful, and capable of infinite deception. As Reverend Hale claims, “Until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.” Human beings, on the other hand, were weak, born in sin and likely destined for damnation. To make matters even worse, the Devil had recruited many helpers among the Puritans themselves. These helpers were known as witches.
The belief in witchcraft is very ancient and can be found in almost all cultures. In general, a witch is a person who is believed to have supernatural powers. In many cultures, witches have been revered as wisewomen or healers. In others, they have been persecuted and killed.
As modern feminists point out, almost all of those who have been killed as witches have been women. Often these women directly challenged male authority. Many had become influential in their villages through the practice of midwifery or herbal medicine. Witchcraft has always been associated with the dark, irrational side of human nature, a side traditionally seen as female. In addition, many of the rituals associated with witchcraft are highly sexual in nature. Feminists argue that female sexuality is considered most threatening by male-dominated, sexually-repressed societies. Certainly, no more sexually-repressed a society has ever existed than that of the Puritans.
The Puritans were never really clear on exactly how witches helped the Devil in his battle for human souls. Apparently, a person became a witch by making an agreement with the Devil. The witch then “sent out” her invisible spirit to harm innocent people. Sometimes a witch entered an innocent person’s body and controlled his thoughts. A witch could also assume the shape of an innocent person while tormenting others, thereby framing the innocent person for crimes he didn’t commit.
Needless to say, all this resulted in a fair amount of legal confusion when charges against witches were laid. As Danforth pointed out, witchcraft was impossible to prove even with witnesses or hard evidence. In general, the word of the victim was taken, even though it was recognized that the Devil’s trickery may have caused an innocent person to be accused.
The absurdities do not end there. Any witch could end her contract with Satan simply by confessing to witchcraft. Since hanging was generally the alternative, many witches did indeed confess. Yet, presumably, a real witch would have no qualms about lying while pretending to confess. Meanwhile, a truly devout Puritan, such as Rebecca Nurse, would be unable to make a dishonest confession, and would therefore hang. In other words, the laws on witchcraft were such that the least devout Puritans lived while the most devout, who refused to lie, were hung.
In 1692, the Puritans believed that they had found the Devil’s center of attack in Salem, Massachusetts. As a result of the legal absurdities outlined above, the courts were turned over to hysteria, private vengeance and land greed. In what was to become known as “the delusion,” hundreds were arrested for witchcraft, and 20 innocent people lost their lives.
The Salem Witch Hunt
Salem does not seem to have ever been a very peaceful village. Long before the witch hunt, the people in the town had split into opposing factions as a result of land feuds and political disagreement. Because boundaries were somewhat unsettled, different claims were often made to the same tract of land.
In particular, a longstanding quarrel had developed between the Nurses and the Putnams, two of the largest and wealthiest families in the district. Various wills and deeds were contested in court through a long series of lawsuits. Over time, the quarrel grew as friends and distant relatives of both families took sides against one another.
This conflict was made more intense when Reverend Parris defeated the Putnams’ candidate to be elected as minister of Salem. Because Parris did not have a clear majority, his election was contested. Parris also angered many members of his con­gregation with his requests for free firewood, expensive church additions and the deed to the minister’s home.
Reverend Parris had a black servant, named Tituba, whom he had found in Barbados. Tituba’s customs were considered strange and dangerous by the solemn Puritan townspeople. Eventually, she was caught teaching Parris’ daughter, Betty, and niece, Abigail Williams, how to tell the future by reading palms. Tituba was punished, but the suspicion of witchcraft was firmly planted in the minds of the Salemites.
In February, 1692, Betty Parris began to suffer from some sort of fit. The doctors were baffled by her illness and suggested that it had a supernatural cause. Reverend Parris sent for the help of other ministers, and he tried to keep his daughter’s ill­ness hidden from the town. Word spread, however, and before long rumors of witchcraft were flying through Salem.
No one knows precisely what happened next. However, on February 29, 1692, the first three arrests for witchcraft were made. At this stage, the accused were all social outcasts. Tituba was a black servant from another country. Sarah Good was an old beggarwoman. And Sarah Osborne seldom attended church and was considered immoral.
These three women were ordered to either confess to witch­craft or hang. Not surprisingly, they confessed. In their confes­sions, they were forced to accuse other Salemites of doing Satan’s work. Before long, the jails were full of prisoners accused of witchcraft.
The role of Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, Mary Warren and others in these events is not quite clear. Quite possibly, Abigail and Betty made the first accusations against Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Certainly, they made a number of later accusations, and many innocent people were found guilty as a result of the girls’ testimony.
The witchcraft trials took place in Salem while the governor of Massachusetts was absent on a campaign against the Indians. In his place, Lieutenant Governor William Stroughton acted as chief justice. Stroughton was a strict Puritan who followed the law to the letter, and he totally believed in the existence of witch­craft. Like Danforth in The Crucible, he could not bear to have his authority questioned. Stroughton issued the first death war­rant in Salem and personally witnessed the hanging that resulted.
The Salem trials began in March, 1692. For evidence, the court relied on the testimony of the young girls and on the con­fessions of those who were threatened with hanging. During the trials, 55 people confessed to being witches. The first hanging took place in June. Five others were hung on July 19, five on August 19, and eight on September 22. During this time, Giles Corey was pressed to death for refusing to plead guilty or not guilty. In addition, two dogs were hung as witches.
By October, 150 prisoners were still awaiting trial, and others had already been condemned to die. Many of these prisoners were highly respectable men and women whose arrests had raised a public outcry. The public had also been enraged by rumors that some important men had used their influence to prevent their wives’ arrests, while others had bribed the court to find their wives innocent. Salemites began to doubt the testi­mony of the young girls and question the false confessions.
Governor Phips ordered the court to find a more trust­worthy method of testing for witchcraft than the testimony of the girls. A series of meetings resulted with some ministers pro­testing the lack of hard evidence and rejecting the use of the forced confessions. Finally, on October 29, 1692, Governor Phips yielded to public pressure and put an end to the trials and executions.
The witch hunt continued to affect the lives of the people of Salem long after the last trial was over. Twenty Salemites were dead and their property confiscated. Many others had been excommunicated, and had lost their property and rights as a result.
Not until 1709, 17 years after the trials, did the survivors and the heirs of the victims feel free to ask the government for restitution. In 1711, some money was awarded as compensa­tion. However, much of this money was given to informers rather than to victims or their heirs. The reputations of the accused were reinstated and, in 1712, the excommunications were reversed by government order.
 As Miller notes at the end of The Crucible, some of the farms that had belonged to the accused witches were left to ruin for more than a century before anyone would dare to live in them again.

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