Arthur Miller’s Timeless Tale of Truth on Trial: The Crucible

If you’re looking for a feel-good romp set in Puritan Salem 1692, then look no more, because Puritanism isn’t overtly “fun,” per se, and neither was Salem, during that time. The cruel teachings of the Lord put peoples lives in a tight hold of behavior where even their sphincters cast sin upon the world. The Crucible, while historically altered slightly, offers a comprehensive emotional perspective on the interpersonal dynamics of a town caught in some sort of twisted reality T.V. show where each contestant tries to eliminate the other in the name of the game (God), losers get hanged for being witches. It is entertaining, made even more so by the rich characterization offered by the story’s playwright Arthur Miller.

Miller adapted the screenplay himself to produce the 1996 film. The relevance of the original script, as it may well be known, was in response to the Red Scare of the 50’s and the McCarthyism that blacklisted known artists in Hollywood and abroad and branded them as Communists. Puritanism takes many forms in Miller’s mind. When his close friend Elia Kazan ousted a few of their mutual writer pals to the House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller became swiftly inspired, one might think out of a sense of duty for his friends, to journey to Massachusetts and conduct research on the 1692 Salem witch trials. The idea breeding in his head was the marriage of Puritanism with McCarthyism, and Communism with Satanism.

Satan himself never really makes an appearance in the play, but his spirit lingers anywhere where men and women’s hearts grow fickle, and usually in the people that one would expect. Jealous lovers, overzealous ministers, greedy neighbors, and scared children become the instigators for a county wide witch hunt to satiate a complex menagerie of desires. At the forefront is Abigail Whitney, played stunningly by Winona Ryder, indie darling of the 90’s. She and a group of girls have a cathartic girl’s night out in the woods, hosted by the town’s Barbadian slave-girl Tituba. What looks like a good time around a bonfire, boiling frogs, herbs, talking about boys, and dancing naked, becomes a literal blood bath when Abigail drinks the blood of a chicken, one assumes, to curse her former lover John Proctor. Proctor is played by the other indie darling of all times, Daniel-Day Lewis. His character is the crusading voice of reason against the tyrannical zealotry of fear and superstition.

Fear and superstition are used to the advantage of Abigail’s uncle Reverend Samuel Parris along with Thomas and Elizabeth Putnam. Parris’ daughter betty does not wake after the Satanic ritual of which he witnessed in part (the bloody part), nor does the Putnam’s daughter Ruth. They call in the assistance of another minister and a county Judge to investigate Satan’s involvement with the ailments of these girls as well as the witches responsible for the spiritual chicanery that led these young ones astray. Tituba the Barbadian slave-girl gets blamed first by Abigail. Tituba is thusly punished with an agonizing whipping until she confesses to the crime she didn’t commit, but is then spared a hanging. In this, Abigail, the awakened Betty and Ruth, and the rest of the girls see power and opportunity. Their own form of witchcraft takes hold.

By accusing other women, old timers, rivals, and wives of rivals the girls can placate the Judge and Rev. Parris, both who could do with some good old-fashioned punishment to cleanse the land and save face in their crusade. Even the Putnam’s daughter Ruth accuses their neighbor Rebecca Nurse (whom they are also jealous of for having more children) of witchcraft, and insidious act which Giles Corey believes to be an attempt to steal more land, which was common in those days. Now the girls can achieve land, money, and vengeance via witch-hunt. The list of the accused builds usually upon a sudden abreaction to the unholy spirits in the courtroom to which the girls respond to by parroting whatever crazy thing Abigail sees. In some ways I reckon the camera movement and music enhances this haunting feeling of devils in the air, reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, we get a visceral motivation of their feigned terror. Whereas on stage, I doubt one could achieve the same effect above looking at a bunch of girls playing pretend. One woman even remarks on this foolishness in the court, she will eventually be hanged. What’s also worth noting is the strange usage of sound in the stormy setting outside of the courtroom. I’m not sure what’s going on here but they seem to accentuate a low-wave vacillation which, I assume is meant to be the presence of God’s wrath outside the confines of the court, but really, it just sounds weird.

Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth is soon accused, and overwrought with preserving her husband’s name from the label of adulterer, is condemned by Abigail’s petty revenge. Proctor fails in getting his servant girl Mary to betray Abigail’s lie and when she finally concedes to it he is given no choice but to name God as dead. John Proctor, given the chance, would rather die than have his named nailed to a church door as a confessed Satanist, which Daniel-Day performs with a grimy yet powerful presence. He’s got some great monologues in this one.

Overall, the tale is a mockery of justice and religion. Drag your name through the dirt and confess to meeting the Devil or die in hanging but at least going to heaven. Even one-character, Reverend John Hale, regards life as one of God’s most precious gifts, never to be relinquished, even in the face of damnation, at the end of the line. I suppose, the happiest moments in the film ARE in the very beginning when the girls were dancing nude with Satan. Everyone laughed with glee in a celebration of their freedom and humanity. The aberration of which would be a cold and restrictive life of misery which seems more hellish than any festivities in the woods.

But these puritanical notions were what this country was founded upon, initially, at least, freedom didn’t come until later. Even beyond the pure Puritanical reach was the McCarthyistic response to Communism. But was it truly communism that these folks wanted thriving in a country that gave them Hollywood careers or any career for that matter? I’d say it’s doubtful, in their way they expressed dissent, and expression of such usually happens when people are repressed by Nationalism without regard to the truth of our own emotions, our own humanity, and our own freedom.

A crucible is a ceramic or metal container that molds something into being under extreme temperatures, additionally it could be a severe trial, or different ideas interacting until a new one is formed and maybe used as precedent. These ideas or elements in a crucible are myriad and few have expressed it so concisely as Arthur Miller. What came out of his Crucible was not as benign as what may have come out of the crucible of his era. One can only hope that they all turn out with happy endings but it probably won’t happen and that’s okay.

Erich Onzik

Erich is a sentient spiritual parasite that inhabits the bodies of human hosts until they've served their purpose. Currently, he possesses the body of a writer, cartoonist, and butcher living in NYC. He's written short pieces for The New York Times, Thrillist. He also wrote a graphic novel, and enjoys peddling it at bars.

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