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.