The Crucible as a Historical Play

The Crucible as a Historical Play

The Crucible as a Historical Play

In his note on the historical accuracy of The Crucible, Arthur Miller points out that his play “is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian”. Even without examining the distinction Miller makes between himself and what he calls the “academic historian”, it can certainly be agreed that The Crucible is not history. To be sure, in 1692 people were killed in Salem, Massachusetts. Even to say that in 1692 people were persecuted in Salem is to add something to the events that took place; it is to introduce art.

No artist writes history; for that matter, no “academic historian” does either-simply because such a thing is impossible. An artist makes history by interpreting it. He gives it shape and substance. His interest is not primarily in what happened, which is speculative anyway, but what is happening. To put it another way, the artist is not so much interested in the facts of a historical situation as he is in the meaning of those facts as he construes them and sees their relation in the continuum of human nature.

This would all seem quite obvious when, as a reader, one is under the influence of the vision of a single man, in the grip of one set of equations. “After all”, we are tempted to say, “innocent people were hunted down and murdered in Salem”, forgetting that the validity of such a statement depends on what we mean by “innocent”, “hunted down”, and “murdered”. To accept, without examination, the thesis of The Crucible as either historical fact or as an incisive commentary on contemporary society would be as irresponsible as to reject it for being historically slanted or easily liberal. The appreciation, the evaluation of any work of art, lies not only in one’s conclusions, but in the process of reaching them; the appreciation of art is actually a process of self-definition. It means having not an answer, but a position.

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One approach to defining The Crucible is to notice the different terms which can be used to describe its subject. The play may be said to be about such things as the nature of justice, tolerance, evil, order, forgiveness, society, individualism, adolescence; and to this extent, The Crucible is a play which, if it is not an allegory, is at least allegorical a play about the meaning of words. This is not to say that The Crucible is simply a manipulation of abstract nouns. It is, rather, a placing of action and character in such a way as to enable, sometimes to force, us to use abstract nouns in order that we may rediscover the complexity and significance of them.

In this sense, The Crucible is intended to make us remember, as Robert Frost said poetry makes us remember, what we forgot we ever knew. John Proctor’s confrontation with his wife Elizabeth in the final act of the play, for example, involves the working out of definitions of forgiveness, justice, and sin. But no easy attachment of a name to an action or a character is possible. Is Elizabeth’s forgiveness wholehearted, or a compound of fear, yearning, and self-contempt? Is John Proctor’s vacillating sense of justice (his inability to forgive himself which alternates with “I want my life”) heroic, or born of weakness and despair? Who or what is sinful here, and to what extent: John Proctor because he has lusted after Abigail Williams, Elizabeth because of her earlier suspiciousness and coldness, the Salem community because it has erected a moral code that thwarts love and kindness?

Our definition of such terms as forgiveness, justice, and sin through a reading of The Crucible must necessarily undergo a process of re-examination. In large part, the way in which The Crucible may be said to be a play about words determines its mode, and in this respect it is to notice that the impact of The Crucible is primarily a result of its metaphoric nature, of its analogical suggestiveness.

What happened at Salem in 1692 is like what happened at X in Y. Miller himself has been quite explicit about this aspect of his play: “What was in the air’ (in 1952) provided the actual locus of the tale” he has said, and “When I looked into the Salem witch-hunt) … it was with the contemporary situation at my back, particularly the mystery of the handing over of conscience which seemed to me the central and informing fact of the time”. The fact that The Crucible is based upon an analogy is important to remember because analogies can obscure as well as reveal. There is no doubt that an analogy can be extremely illuminating, uncovering what is masked by circumstance, sharpening our perception of what has become blurred or dulled by familiarity. There is also no doubt that an analogy, in whatever art form, can distort or oversimplify, can shape events to fit a thesis. When this happens, art becomes polemic.

The most pertinent questions raised by The Crucible are, of course, the extent to which Miller’s metaphor of the witch-hunt is applicable to civilization as we understand it and the extent to which a reader can accept Miller’s conception of the individual and society, and of the struggle that exists between them.

In his introduction to The Crucible, Miller claims that what he calls “the Salem tragedy” emerged from “a paradox“, a paradox which is at the root of all civilization: that society, in order to be society, must be founded upon the idea of exclusion and prohibition”. This can and often does mean the suppression of individual freedom. To this dilemma, Miller says,

“There is no prospect yet that we will discover (a) resolution.”

Both the terms “tragedy” and “paradox” imply a duality of attitude toward what happened at Salem. Yet it is not always a simple matter to locate this duality in the play itself. Injustice, hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, authoritarianism- these are readily apparent. But where do we find any positive commitment to the necessity for order, or any understanding of the problems which face those responsible for maintaining it? Are we to interpret the play as implying, particularly in its concluding lines, that society is impossible, that to be an individual is to be the agent of one’s own destruction?

It might be argued that Miller had no obligation to present a balanced image of authority, that The Crucible is concerned with the subjugation of the individual, and that the metaphoric mode of the play was chosen deliberately in order that the characters and theme might have applicability to more than what took place at Salem. Indeed, Miller has claimed that if he had the play to do over again, rather than mitigate the evil of characters such as Danforth and the judges he represents”, he “would perfect (their) evil to the utmost”.

All art, it has been suggested, is a distortion of experience, for art is not an experience by itself but a way of organizing it. As The Crucible demonstrates, however, this process can work two ways: as a means of enlarging our imaginative perceptions of experience, or as a force which numbs and deadens them. There is no question of The Crucible’s impact particularly as a stage production, which inevitably yokes us to its pace and rhythms. We cannot witness with indifference the persecution of a man such as John Proctor, or the agonized self-discovery and despair of Reverend Hale, or the pointless, legalized murder of Rebecca Nurse. But we can question the nature and purpose of the emotions aroused by these events and the validity of the commitments these emotions are intended to generate. The legitimacy of The Crucible’s impact remains, for each reader, an open question, and the challenge of reading the play is the challenge of coming to terms not only with Arthur Miller’s way of seeing, but of one’s own.

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