Miller captured the paranoia and hatred of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials and made a controversial reference to his own society’s Witch Hunts during McCarthyism in the 1950s. In only 146 pages, Miller told us the stories of the lives of John Proctor, Elizabeth Proctor, Abigail Williams and others during the 1692 Witch Trials in Salem Massachusettes. The quiet Salem community was living happily in their own sleepy world, until several local girls fell ill as their sickness was blamed on witchcraft.
John Proctor was a farmer in his middle thirties. He did not have to be a partisan of any faction in the town, but there was evidence in the books that he could not tolerate hypocrites. This is perhaps the one thing that Proctor was afraid of becoming. He was a kind man who could not refuse support to partisans without drawing their deepest anger. In his presence a fool felt his foolishness instantly, consequently, a Proctor is always marked for slander and defamation(Miller, “The Crucible” 20). Although he may come across as a steady mannered individual, Proctor is not an untroubled man. His was a sinner against his wife, a sinner against his community, a sinner against his own morals, and a sinner against his Puritanical society. He was so troubled by this sin of adultery, that he came to regard himself as a kind of a fraud, although he does not show it on the surface for even a second.
Elizabeth Proctor, John’s wife, is a strong woman who knows about her husband’s sin but, like John, does not let on to her secret. She spends most of the novel trying to cope with her husband’s sin and as she comes to terms with it, Elizabeth is able to once again forgive her husband and make an effort to protect him from slander. This is what ultimately gets her and her husband in trouble with the courts.
Abigail Williams is Proctor’s partner in sin. She is one of the local girls who gets afflicted by the devil. She is inherently evil and to cover up her own misgivings, she ends up accusing almost have of her community of witchcraft and convinces the other afflicted girls to do the same. To achieve this, Abigail threatens the girls with these words: “Now look you. All of you. We danced. . .Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it. . .”(Miller, “The Crucible” 20).
She still loves John at the beginning of the novel, but quickly turns on him and his family with the accusations of several people in the community including Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth.
There are other characters in The Crucible that serve various purposes. All of his characters have integral relation to the theme and no characters are introduced to facilitate the mechanics of the plot. Sarah Good, along with Rebecca Nurse and others, is one of the many accused witches Tituba is brought in to introduce the girls’ motive for making their accusations of witchcraft. Putnam land dispute with Proctor is introduced to tell the reader that there were ulterior motives to the Witch Trials. We are aquatinted with Giles Corey to let us know that not only were women being accused of witchcraft, but men as well. Corey’s death was also especially brutal, in his refusal to enter a plea, he was pressed to death with heavy stones. Samuel Parris, Reverend Hale, and Judge Danforth are brought in as the prosecutors of the witches, although Hale has a change of heart towards the end of the novel and attempts to persuade Proctor to lie to save his life rather than tell the truth and save his reputation.
Some playwrights have complained that drama is one of the more naive forms of art, and even more playwrights complained that dramatic criticism is one of the most naive forms of criticism. Despite that, Miller put across in his works the old and apparently fruitless battle about the nature of dramatic tragedy. Miller dared to tackle hard subjects and the one that proved to be the most controversial of his time.
The Crucible, more than anything else, was a kind of a social commentary on the era of McCarthyism that swept through the America in the 1950s. Senator Joe McCarthy accused many people of being Communist and spreading Communist ideas. Many of those people were Blacklisted and had their careers ended by McCarthy’s wild imputations. Miller compared this era of paranoia to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Thus, The Crucible was born. Miller used the tragic theme of the chose of reputation or death many times, including in another of his famous works, Death Of A Salesman. This underlying theme is snared perfectly in another one of Miller’s plays, The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man: “. . .the one thing a man fears most next to death is the loss of his good name. Man is evil in his own eyes. . .and the only way he can find respect for himself is by getting other people to say he’s a nice fellow.”(Miller, “The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man” 37)
This quote is precisely what plagues John Proctor at the end of The Crucible in which he makes a decision to confess a lie that he is a witch to save his life, or refuse to confess and save his reputation, his good name. This is the basic premise of Miller’s works.
Such a wonderfully written play as The Crucible can only be complemented by wonderfully written criticisms. Many of Miller’s plays, The Crucible in particular, have been compared to the works of Sophicles and Ibsen. The premise that was absorbed by this play was the most valid and fertile subject for the drama, that of the attempt to show man struggling to be at one with society(Hogan 147). He once wrote in his essay, “On Social Plays”:
“The social drama, as I see it, is the mainstream and the antisocial drama a bypass. I can no longer take with ultimate seriousness a drama of individual psychology written for its own sake, however full it may be of
insight and precise observation.”(Miller, “On Social Plays” 1)
Dramatic criticism proceeds largely by clich. The original clich about Miller after the success of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Crucible was that he was a playwright of intense seriousness who attempted to evolve a modern equivalent of tragedy from a preoccupation with social issues(Hogan 166).
Basically, John Proctor’s affair with Abigail Williams was the indirect cause of the Salem Witch Trials. Had the affair not occurred, Abigail would not have gotten involved with Proctor, she would not have gotten angry with his ignorance of her, and she would not have accused him and his wife of witchcraft. John Proctor’s decision to either lie and save his life or tell the truth to save his reputation is the center theme of the play. The following speech by Proctor summarizes the point Miller was laboring to make excellently:
“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!”(Miller, “The Crucible” 143)
This could be interpreted as a message from Miller to those being accused of practicing Communism, the witch craft of the 1950s. Linking to the McCarthyism era of his time, Miller captured the paranoia and hatred of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials.