Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Source of book: My eldest child’s English textbook

For this post to make sense, here is the background. My wife and I were homeschooled through high school. I did video courses for the last three years - and I greatly benefited. We have homeschooled our own kids, but knew that it was unlikely that we would do it unassisted during the high school years. Because we both work, it was going to be impossible to do the kids justice. Thus, we have enrolled our older kids in a hybrid charter school program. They attend traditional classes for 2-3 days out of the week, and do the rest at home. This means that a certain amount of their work needs to be reviewed by us. My eldest and I have long enjoyed discussing stuff, so I get the job of going through history, science, and English with her most of the time. This semester, she had to read The Crucible, which I had never read. I decided that I would be of more help if I knew what I was talking about. 

During my high school years, the public school kids all had to read The Death of a Salesman, if I am remembering things correctly. I haven’t read that one either - we never did Arthur Miller in my American Literature course. I’m not sure we even did a play at all...probably they were all too modern for the Fundie curriculum we used. So, this was my first experience of Arthur Miller. 

The Crucible is a fictionalized drama of the Salem Witch Trials. Miller takes a few artistic liberties with the timeline, and obviously adds details of conversations which are not in the record. Most of these are minor, but there is one significant change - see below.

Miller intended The Crucible to be, among other things, an allegory for the Red Scare and the McCarthy hearings. First performed in 1953, it turned out to be rather more prescient than Miller preferred. The House Un-American Activities Committee was unamused, and denied Miller’s passport, so he couldn’t see the London premier of the play. In 1956, Miller was subpoenaed to testify before the Committee. Miller steadfastly refused to name any names - a fascinating parallel with John Proctor’s stance in the play - and was charged and convicted of contempt of Congress. Fortunately for Miller, an appeals court later overturned the conviction. 

I believe The Crucible succeeds well at shedding some much-needed light on the dangerous dynamic which led to the witch hunting. It is a bit too easy here in the 21st Century to just say, “oh, look at the silly religious fanatics” and assume that we do not share the same evil tendencies. This would be a dangerously false assumption. As Miller notes, witch hunts may have religion involved in some cases, but they are far more universal than that. For example, Miller cites the Soviet Union under Stalin as an example of a “secular” witch hunt. The connecting factors seem to be universal human issues. Greed and envy, to name two, drove much of the witch trials. Miller actually plays down the role of Thomas Putnam a bit - later historical research reveals that Putnam used the trials to eliminate people he had previously feuded with - and then grabbed their land once they were safely dead. 

But one more thing really stood out as well. Miller uses extended “stage directions” in the first act to philosophize, and in one of them, he muses that it is during times of cultural change - often a loosening of strict social control - that witch hunts occur. As the powerful faction finds itself losing influence and power, it seeks victims. These scapegoats can be made examples of in an attempt to restore control, restore the past. Miller did cite global examples, but he felt that the United States was particularly vulnerable because the Puritans never really went away. 

“[I]n America, any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell.” 

You can see this playing out in our own times, when anyone who isn’t on the reactionary and white nationalist Trump Train is accused of being a Flaming Communist™. And, of course, we have our scapegoats today - primarily immigrants and Muslims - who are under increasing pressure. 

Miller also adds a plot element to explain how the paranoia got started. This is the most significant departure from the historical facts. The slave Tituba is initially fingered as the problem. She, however, is not stupid, and sees that she is in serious danger of being murdered. So, she starts naming names. So far, so good. That fits. However, it is in the character of Abigail Williams that the play takes a non-historical turn. In real life, Abigail was age 11, not 17. Likewise, John Proctor was 60, not in his 30s. It is easy to see why Miller made the change: the existence of an affair between the two was important to his vision of the events. But it didn’t happen. More likely, Abigail and the other very young girls were suggestible, and said things to get attention. 

This actually has played out in our time as well, during the day-care sex abuse paranoia. This got started in my hometown of Bakersfield (although I didn’t move there until much later), then spread across the nation. It later turned out that children were...rather suggestible, and could be nudged to say things that weren’t, technically speaking, true. Years later, the convictions were overturned, changes were made to how children were interviewed, and most of those involved slunk away in embarrassment. Well, except for Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels, who has insisted to this day that everyone wrongly convicted was guilty as sin. Jagels is almost a direct parallel to William Stoughton, the Salem judge who was most instrumental in keeping the prosecutions going, and was furious when the Governor ended the trials and released the remaining prisoners. 

The affair, unhistorical as it is, does work artistically, so it is easy to see why Miller went that direction. 

To me, the most fascinating part of the play was the ending. Proctor is on the brink of signing a faked “confession” in order to save his own life. (Essentially, confess, and you aren’t killed, claim innocence, and you are hanged.) However, Proctor has two objections. The first is that he absolutely refuses to name other people. He is willing to humiliate himself, but he knows that if he names names, he will be exposing other innocent people to the witch hunt. The second is that he does not want his “confession” published. This too is related to the desire to protect others. He knows that if he “confesses,” the judges will use that as leverage against holdouts. He decides it is okay if he privately “confesses,” and the judge uses that in court. But he doesn’t want a written record. Proctor, as history records, eventually refused a confession, and was hanged. 

The question of ethics is fascinating. On just the surface, the question of when one is justified in lying to save one’s life is interesting. But the question of how to avoid harming others is the bigger one. Miller clearly thought this through, because he did not hesitate to follow his own character’s decision when it was his own freedom at risk. 

I also wanted to mention a few things about Arthur Miller’s own life, as I think they are interesting and relevant. His most sensational moment outside of the Red Scare was his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Sadly, her drug addiction - which continue during the marriage - would lead to her death of an overdose soon after the divorce. 

It is interesting that Miller was considered a Communist. Even as early as The Crucible, Miller was critical of Communism (as noted above). In the 1960s, the USSR banned his works after he spoke up in favor of freedom of speech for Soviet dissidents. So, the “communist” accusation seems unfair. Not that that stopped right-wing figures from making it. 

Another incident later in life is telling. Miller gave a lecture entitled "On Politics and the Art of Acting,” which made the assertion that politics was largely about the art of performance. Somehow, this rather obvious and indisputable truth was considered controversial in right-wing circles. If any further proof were needed, one need look no further than the election of Donald Trump, whose entire existence seems to be substanceless performance art. 

It was interesting discussing this play with my kid. Teens are underrated, and one of the best things about having one is talking about literature. (She also read Little Fires Everywhere, so that made for an interesting discussion…) If anything, The Crucible has aged exceptionally well, and tells truths that are every bit as relevant to our own times as they were in the era of McCarthyism - or in the days of the Puritans. 


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