PROCTOR: Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God's fingers? I'll tell you what's walking Salem - vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!
As Vicky mentioned last month, it's time for something a little different here at Alexandria. Welcome to our first group read: The Crucible (written 1952; first performed 1953), by Arthur Miller (b. 1915).
Chances are that this wonderful play needs no introduction, but just in case: It is 1692, and the small town of Salem, Massachusetts, is convulsed by the discovery of a number of its young women dancing out in the woods. Paranoia, jealousy and desperate attempts to escape censure result in accusations of witchcraft. Amid the simmering resentments and multifarious repressions of Puritan civic life, these accusations rapidly escalate into a free-for-all, a self-fulfilling prophecy - and the insular frontier town turns upon itself in spectacular fashion.
It is well known, of course, that the events of the play stand as an analogy for McCarthy's notorious anti-Communist witch-hunts; specifically, for the response to the Red Scare of the late 1940s/early 1950s. Miller has discussed this in detail many times; here, for example, as recently as 2000. For the purposes of this first post, I'm more interested in talking about the implications of the play's overt historical setting, and its themes on their own terms; but the parallels with the playwright's own time are continually, urgently present.
The driving force behind Salem's self-destruction - the trigger and seed-bed of the tragedy - is the constriction arising from the environment and circumstances of the town. Looking outwards, there is the precariousness and the fear of the unknown inherent in any frontier settlement: the tension between the closed interior spaces, the carefully-delineated land boundaries, and the untamed (and thus frightening) woodlands that crowd in upon them, domain of hostile natives and perhaps other, less clearly-identifiable, forces. (Notice how much of the action takes place indoors). A frontier town like Salem is hewn from an unforgiving landscape, and never very secure. Furthermore, as a new community founded apart from conventional social structures and protections, thrown back upon its own resources by its dangerous new circumstances, it carries an intrinsic potential for social mobility or instability - undesirable, of course, to those accustomed to dominance. Thus, the fledgling society must be strictly regulated if it is to preserve its values. When Abigail Williams, ringleader of the accusers, threatens her fellow dancers into maintaining their lie, it is the image of "Indian" violence that she invokes to emphasise her ruthless determination and capacity for harm:
Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents' heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night.
Looking inwards, there is the oppressive Puritan morality, fostered and exaggerated by both the uncertainty of frontier life, and by the religious intolerance that first drove the townspeople's ancestors to seek out these new shores. This morality looks distrustfully even upon singing and dancing (undisciplined, we might imagine, uncontrolled), demands public self-abasement as the price for forgiveness and continued membership of the community, and encourages people to spy on their neighbours. In times of crisis, like the witch-hunts, spiritual credit is to be found in denouncing others, for there is no such thing as private sin; individual wrong-doing threatens the whole community, bringing pollution and peril down upon all. Moreover, in a world-view where everything evil is part of Satan's grand conspiracy to steal souls, every infraction of public morality is an act of treachery: a sign of a fifth-columnist. And all this exists alongside the everyday rivalries and acquisitiveness that divide the community; each fuels the other.
This control imperative impacts particularly on the position of women. In any frontier society, women, as breeding stock and house-keepers, are a precious commodity, to be closely guarded and kept to their proper use. The dress of the period was modest and functional; as the picture on the cover above shows, even their hair is bound up and hidden from sight. Women in the play have really only two possible states, girl and (Good)wife. In absolute terms, the only movement is from their father's control to that of a husband, although there is at least more autonomy - and respect, and social standing - to be found in running a household and appearing as a public model of wifely virtue. For an unmarried girl, however, especially an older one, life is deeply constricting - particularly as many seem to work as live-in domestic servants, at the beck and call of their employers. Mary Warren's rejoinder to John Proctor illustrates this:
I'll not be ordered to bed no more, Mr Proctor! I am eighteen and a woman, however single!
The result of all this control is, of course, an explosion just waiting to happen. The crisis begins when the unmarried girls express their exuberance by dancing in the woodland. It turns into a witch-hunt because the very idea of their dancing threatens dishonour to their families, and because Reverend Parris is paranoid, and desperate to preserve his position. It continues, in part, because it empowers the girls - for the first and likely only time in their lives, the girls have influence, they are listened to; they are feared. It is more personal for Abigail; through her adulterous relationship with Proctor, she has already has a taste of what power a woman might wield - and of what freedom might exist, outside of the crushing framework of her life:
I look for John Proctor who took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretence Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men! And now you bid me tear the light out of my eyes? I will not, I cannot!
Ultimately, the witch-hunt cannot stop because the web of accusations becomes a trap: things progress too far, too quickly, for backtracking. On one level, too many people have a vested interest in the outcome of the trials; the accusers dare not admit they lied, those who benefitted from the arrests are unwilling to relinquish their gains, the judges have staked their reputations on the truth of such matters. Once people start to hang, it can only be true; the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. (There are strong implications that at least some of the girls are nudged by their parents into naming particular individuals, in furtherance of old quarrels, or greed; but the vast bulk of the play's attention lies with Proctor, Abigail, and Abigail's jealous, singleminded rage).
On another level, the proceedings carry their own, inexorable weight and apparent logic: the number and speed and detail of the accusations, the instances of confession, however false. These things seem to confirm the worst fears, to justify the persecution that has already taken place, and demand still more strigent and autocratic measures; the cycle now feeds itself. Implicit in this community's worldview is the idea of an insidious external conspiracy continually seeking agents within. As dreadful as the situation becomes, most have little trouble believing their enemy capable of such far-reaching plans. As Reverend Hale says:
We cannot flinch; these are new times, sir. There is a misty plot so subtle we should be criminal to cling to old respects and ancient friendships. I have seen too many frightful proofs in court - the Devil is alive in Salem, and we dare not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points!
There's a beginning, then; much more remains to be said. :-)
1) On the historical background, for example, of both the 1690s and the 1950s: what does Miller alter, and why? Where do the two stories converge and diverge?
2) What is the role of external judges in the affair? Is there a hierarchy of authority within the local area, just as there is in Salem family and political life? What about other towns that suffered witch crazes?
3) I was intrigued by a point made during in the preamble: that the various public confessions of sin during the play are in themselves a liberation, rather than (or instead of simply being) a humiliation. Does John relish finally admitting to his adultery, and why?
4) Is Salem, as Proctor claims in my opening quotation, what it always was, peaceful but for the girls' wildness? How far can Abigail (and her supporters) be blamed for stirring the hornet's nest? Is she a victim of her situation, or the vengeful whore Proctor paints her? Does my defence go too far? (And who, exactly, is oppressing her? Note that she mentions women ahead of men in her defiant speech to John, quoted above: how far do the women of Salem participate in their own restrictions? Or is she just bitter at Elizabeth's response to her?)
5) What about flawed John Proctor - does he indeed "have his goodness" by the end? If so, how much of that is because we see his post-sin agonising without seeing his sin (cf. the play's treatment of Abigail)? John's decision to die for his principles is all very noble, but how does one atone (assuming that he dies to make up for his past sins as much as to protect his name) - by dying in a blaze of righteous glory, or by returning to life and living it, day by difficult day?
To set out my stall on the latter point: the "leave me my name" speech is my favourite moment in the play... but a less romantic part of me wonders if it isn't just shameless grandstanding, and how exactly Elizabeth is supposed to provide for her burgeoning family after hubbie gets his martyrdom and isn't around to chop wood anymore.
Yes, I know - remarry, I suppose. ;-) Still, if Elizabeth had done the same - even more, had she gone first - would she just have seemed an irresponsible mother? I suppose what I'm driving at is whether it's a man prerogative to perish for his principles, and the woman's to know her place and pick up the pieces. An alliterative conundrum, and no mistake. ;-)
Finally, did anyone else find Miller's editorialising asides rather irritating? (Are these passages in all editions, or just mine?)
Edited to note that this is our 100th post! :-)