Arthur Miller (b. 1915)
Contributing Editor: Robert A. Martin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Written and first produced for the 1953 drama season in New York, The Crucible continues to interest students for its witchcraft theme and setting in Salem and for its more recent political association as a historical parable against the dangers of McCarthyism. While the latter issue has generally faded in the public mind, it was very much the issue when the play opened. The several layers of meaning-- historical (witchcraft), political (McCarthyism and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee), and the ever-present approach to the play as stagecraft and theater--allow an instructor to open the play to a class probably not knowledgeable about any of the layers. I have found that such a class is quickly taken up to the level of the play. Miller has added a running commentary on the issues and personalities of Salem. It is important to point out that there is no character in the play "who did not play a similar--and in some cases exactly the same--role in history" (Arthur Miller in his "Note" on the historical accuracy of The Crucible).
The witch-hunt that occurred in Salem in 1692 resulted from a complex society at a turning point when the power of the Massachusetts theocracy was weakening. Reverend Parris was more representative of absolute church authority than Miller makes him out. Once the issues came into the open, he found that the whole "devilish" conspiracy needed wiser and more learned minds to uncover it, even if he was absolutely convinced of the reality of witchcraft. I usually begin a class by stating that at Salem on Gallows Hill in the spring of 1692, nineteen men and women were hanged; one man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death for standing mute; and two dogs were also hanged for witchcraft. The classroom then becomes a different place; the question of witchcraft, or how could those people have believed in it, brings out some interesting and fruitful ideas, discussions, viewpoints. Discussion of the play, however, should identify the McCarthyism parallels in a way that students can understand. Miller has said that the theme of the play is "the handing over of conscience to the state." The question is not entirely a remote one, as almost any major newspaper or television exposé can make the issue clear to today's students.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Central to this play, in addition to Miller's theme stated above, is one of illusion versus reality. In a society that held a doctrinal belief in the power and reality of the devil to "overthrow God's kingdom," the powers of persuasion to see "specters" where there were none resulted in mass hysteria. When John Proctor, a born skeptic, challenges the illusion, he is subsequently brought down by the reality of his adultery. As the witch-hunt spread to eventually cause the arrest of prominent citizens, some form of common sense prevailed and the girls were silenced. The Salem hysteria has been investigated and researched widely, and many excellent sources are available. One recent theory proposed that the whole business was the result of ergot poisoning, a bacteria that produces hallucinations if wheat is stored for too long and is allowed to ferment. This, of course, was the theory of a modern-day scientist who also happened to be a graduate student. It was a neat and "scientific" solution to a very old question. Unfortunately, the whole theory collapsed when expert senior biologists looked at the idea closer and declared it bad science. Miller, possibly as a result of the play, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 on the pretense of issuing him a passport. He was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about the communistic connections of others. The decision was later reversed. Miller had in effect been convicted on the same principle as John Proctor--guilt by association--and like Proctor he refused to name others.
In the early 1950s there was something resembling a cohesive audience for serious plays. That audience was both shocked and fearful that the theme and subject of the play would unleash still further inquiries by the forces of McCarthyism. Reviewers, reflecting the mood of the audience, had several reactions. Some praised the acting, some thought it was a play without contemporary parallels, and others avoided the play's obvious point altogether. The best way to understand the response by critics is to read their reviews in the 1953 volume of New York Theatre Critics' Reviews.
Miller has written at length on the play and on the context of the time. The following are easily available sources I have my students use in their research. The first and probably most important are Miller's comments in volume one of Arthur Miller's Collected Plays (Viking, 1957), pp. 38-48. All of Miller's essays are reprinted in my The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller (Viking, 1978), including several comments made over the next several decades. An early work on The Crucible was (at the time) nicely complete and informative for its comprehensive critical collection of essays on the play, the history behind it, and the context: The Crucible: Text and Criticism (Penguin, 1977, first published by Viking in 1971), ed. Gerald Weales. John H. Ferres edited a useful collection of essays on the play titled Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Crucible: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice-Hall, 1972). Also of interest for its judicious selection of essays and an interview with Miller in 1979 in which many references and comments on The Crucible occur is Critical Essays on Arthur Miller (G. K. Hall, 1979), ed. James J. Martine. Somewhat of broader scope, but nevertheless useful for its international Miller bibliography by Charles A. Carpenter and a fine essay by Walter Meserve on The Crucible is Arthur Miller: New Perspectives (Prentice-Hall, 1982), ed. Robert A. Martin. My essay, "Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Background and Sources," has proven of use to many students and scholars who seek to learn some of the connections between the play and Salem in 1692, and has been reprinted numerous times, most recently in Essays on Modern American Drama (University of Toronto Press, 1987), ed. Dorothy Parker, and in Martine's Critical Essays noted above. I recommend that my students read selectively in Conversations with Arthur Miller (University of Mississippi Press, 1987), ed. Matthew C. Roudane. There are fifty-two page references listed in the index for The Crucible. Miller's comments in conversations and interviews are frequently more enlightening than any other playwright in our history because he is articulate as well as theoretically sophisticated. Finally, a more recent account is The Crucible: Politics, Property, and Pretense (New York: Twayne Masterworks Series, 1993), by James J. Martine, which is one of the most complete and comprehensive studies of The Crucible to date. Martine is a well-known Miller scholar and his critical judgment is astute.