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Some would say he is a rigid man, especially in his sticking to the letter of the law. In Act III he will not let Giles Corey submit his evidence unless it is in proper affidavit form. In Act IV, unless John Proctor will sign a written confession, it is no confession. In everything he does, Danforth is most concerned with staying within the precise limits of the statutes.
But look at what he’s faced with. To him “there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country,” and he is willing to use every ounce of his prodigious power to prevent that from happening. If he gives in the slightest bit, God’s whole defensive line will break. Considering the way he sees the situation, it takes tremendous strength and courage to stand so firm against such formidable attack.
And don’t forget that to the Puritans the law, with which Danforth seems so obsessed, was made not by man but by God. Massachusetts at this time is a theocracy–a government ordained by God as his “visible Kingdome” on Earth. Reverend Hale is thinking exactly like Danforth when, he tells Proctor in Act II:
Theology [literally, "God's word"], sir, is a fortress; no crack in a fortress may be accounted small.
Even bending the law a little is dangerous business, especially at such a dangerous time as this.
Ironically, it is Danforth’s strength and courage that allow the witch madness to grow to such monstrous proportions. A weaker man would have broken under the strain; a man less brave would have quailed before hanging someone like Rebecca Nurse. Under a shakier hand, the court’s authority might have disintegrated, and after some confusion, life would have returned to normal.
But for all his rigidity, there seems to be no malice in Danforth, as there is in Parris and Hathorne. His mentions are good, heroic, even. He just happens to be wrong. And nineteen innocent people are hanged on his signature.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: REBECCA NURSE
Although she appears only twice in The Crucible, Rebecca Nurse is important to everyone else in the play. Her reputation in Salem is so high that when she’s first accused of witchcraft, hardly anyone can believe it. To Reverend Hale, “if Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing’s left to stop the whole green world from burning.” To those like Proctor who don’t believe in witchcraft, Rebecca’s being “cried out” is the most monstrous lie imaginable. To the witch-hunters, she’s a great catch.
Rebecca is perhaps less a “person” than a symbol of sanity in a world that’s lost its mind. She retains her dignity and courage to the very end. When asked one last time if she will confess, she says, “Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot.”
But her answer may express something else besides courage. She’s an old woman, close to her end anyway. Her life so far has been blameless, why spoil it now? It’s not common sense.
Perhaps this sensible attitude helps her keep her humor as well. Her last line, spoken as she almost collapses on her way out to be hanged, is, “I’ve had no breakfast.”
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: GILES COREY
Giles Corey is superstitious about his wife’s reading books, and he’s forever taking his neighbors to court on the smallest excuse. He’s afraid of no one, and has a sharp tongue for anybody who thinks he can be made a fool of. But he makes a fool of himself by being so ready to scrap all the time. He’s 83, and set in his ways. In any other play he’d be a comic figure: the stock character of the crotchety old man. But this play is not a comedy, and for all his comic characteristics, Giles Corey is destroyed along with all the other victims of the witch madness.
Giles is more than a stubborn old geezer. Life was extremely hard in those days. Just to be alive at age 83 was in itself a remarkable achievement. But Giles shows little sign of running out of steam: John Proctor thinks nothing of asking Giles’ help in dragging his lumber home.
Is Giles as bull-headed as he at first appears? Before he married Martha, his third wife (he buried the other two), he had little time for church. But now he’s learned his commandments and makes a serious effort to pray. In Act I he passes up a perfect chance to twit his hated neighbor Thomas Putnam–Putnam claims that Proctor’s lumber belongs to him–and instead stays to hear what the learned Reverend Hale has to say. Giles may be slow to change his mind, but he’s not against learning something new.
But just because he’s slow, it doesn’t mean he’s dumb. He may never understand the subtleties of demonology, but “thirty-three time in court” has taught Giles Corey how to recognize greed when he sees it. And he knows enough about the law to keep silent when he is formally charged with witchcraft. By not answering the indictment, he dies a good Christian under the law, and the court cannot confiscate his property, as it did with the other “witches.” In this way his sons inherit, and he keeps his land out of Putnam’s clutches.
In the end, the way he dies tells the most about him:
Great stones they lay upon his chest until he plead aye or nay. They say he give them but two words. “More weight,” he says. And died.
As Elizabeth Proctor says, “It were a fearsome man, Giles Corey.”
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: SETTING
The Crucible is set in the small settlement of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The first three acts take place in the spring, and the fourth act in the fall.
Actually there were two Salems–Salem Town and its tiny suburb, Salem Village. Reverend Parris’ house was in Salem Village, and it was here that his slave Tituba, his daughter Betty, and his niece Abigail Williams first “came down with” witchcraft. The trials, however, were held for the most part in the large meeting house in Salem Town.
Each act is set within a fairly small room: Act I is in a bedroom in Reverend Parris’ house; Act II in the Proctors’ “living room”; Act III in an anteroom to the main hall of the “meeting house,” or church; and Act IV in a cell in the Salem jail. These settings give an impression of containment, almost of claustrophobia, as if we’re boxed in, caught in a trap. As the pressure builds in each act, a sense of panic is bound to set in. Of course, this is exactly what the victims of the witch-hunt must be feeling. Arthur Miller’s settings help us identify with the characters, by putting us, in a sense, in the same room with them.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: THEMES
A number of thematic threads run through The Crucible. Some of them contradict others, some of them overlap. And no one of them completely explains the play. You’ll find that some of them ring more true to you than others, but you can find evidence to support all of them in the play. These themes are:
1. SOCIAL DRAMA
Arthur Miller is dramatizing a bizarre but not uncommon social phenomenon. The explanation for the witch madness can be found in the makeup of the society itself. The play was written at a time when American society was threatened by a similar madness, over communism instead of witchcraft. The author is telling us that it might happen again, and we’d better do something about it.
2. A PERSONAL TRAGEDY
The Crucible is really about one man’s struggle with his conscience. The whole play revolves around John Proctor. The witch madness serves only to intensify and focus Proctor’s energies on his problems with his wife, his neighbors, and himself.
The play demonstrates an outbreak of that peculiar insanity called mass hysteria. We get to see how easily reasonable human beings can become unhinged in an environment that allows little opportunity for letting off steam. Once the seal is broken on the pressure cooker, it explodes.
There were no real witches in Salem. Without the superstitious belief in witchcraft, this catastrophe could never have happened. Arthur Miller blames “them that quail to bring men out of ignorance” for this tragedy, and is making a plea for a more enlightened approach to religious beliefs.
5. GREED AND VENGEANCE
Several characters find “monstrous profit” in the witch madness, and manipulate events for their own ends. Thomas Putnam, the richest man in town, acquires quite a bit of land by having his daughter Ruth “cry out” his neighbors. And Abigail Williams accomplishes a pretty sweet revenge on the Proctors when her affair with John is broken off.
This play examines the question of authority: who has the power, and on what is that power based? What is the proper use of authority, and what is abuse of power? The judges believe they derive their authority from God, and so carry on the witch-hunt as if they are on a holy mission. They’re deceived by the girls, and refuse to believe the obvious truth when it’s staring them in the face. What went wrong?
The separation of church and state, which is one of the cornerstones of the American Constitution, did not exist in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. “Theocracy” means “Government by God,” and the Puritans believed that they were establishing God’s “visible Kingdome” on earth–the state was to be governed by God’s laws. But this mixing up of the laws of God and the laws of men led directly to the legal chaos of the Salem witch trials.
The concept of justice is central to most of Arthur Miller’s plays, especially The Crucible, where he dedicates the entire third act to a courtroom drama. How can we guarantee that a person accused of a crime gets a fair trial? And how should the guilty be punished?
9. HISTORICAL DRAMA
The Crucible tells a story of the American past, a time when many of the basic principles of our society were formed. It’s possible, the playwright suggests, that some of the things that were wrong in 1692 are still wrong today.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: STYLE
Plays can be classified in two major varieties: plays of episodic action and plays of continuous action. Shakespeare’s plays are episodic. No one scene is very long, and the action jumps from place to place, sometimes skipping over years in between. On the other hand, Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex and some modern plays such as Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, follow what are called the three unities: of time–the action usually takes place within a 24-hour period; of place–there is only one location,, and of action–there is no break in the action from beginning to end.
The Crucible falls somewhere in between. The time span is about three-and-a-half months; the action occurs in four different places, although it never leaves Salem; and there is a gap of at least a week between each act (between Acts III and IV almost three months elapse). But within each act the action is continuous from curtain to curtain.
One advantage of the continuous-action method is that it allows the author to build tension or suspense gradually. It also can be less confusing for an audience, because we don’t have to stop and figure out where we are every few minutes. And, finally, it allows us to get to know the main characters very well, by letting us watch them for a long time at a stretch. This is especially important in The Crucible, where we come to understand what happened in Salem in 1692 through the experience of one man, John Proctor.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the style of The Crucible is its language. These people speak a dialect that is much closer to Shakespeare’s English than to our own. Shakespeare’s time was full of adventure and discovery, and his language reflected that excitement and energy.
The Puritans themselves were outspoken. One reason they were driven to the New World in the first place was that they couldn’t keep quiet about religious matters. And most of them came from the lower classes, whose language is generally very earthy.
Add these things up, and then add in the rugged life these pioneers were forced to lead in the early years of American settlement, and you come up with a way of speaking that is sometimes called “muscular.”
Arthur Miller has made his characters speak the way they think–bluntly, directly, and with little concern for fancy phrase-making. He took some lines straight out of writings of the time, including transcripts of the witch trials. The result is a kind of rough poetry, sometimes of great power.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: POINT OF VIEW
Arthur Miller has chosen to tell the story of the Salem witch trials from the point of view of one of its victims, John Proctor. This personalizes the story for us; by the end we know Proctor better than anyone else in the play, and we feel his suffering all the more intensely because we care about him. We also come to understand what happens by following and sharing Proctor’s struggle to understand it himself.
Proctor is an extremely attractive character. He is as good and honest as we ourselves would like to be, and yet he’s not perfect. His mistakes are those of a human being, not a superman. By concentrating the action of the play on John Proctor, Arthur Miller makes it easy for us not only to sympathize, but also to identify with him and the other victims of the witch-hunt: we find out what it would feel like to be caught up in such madness.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: FORM AND STRUCTURE
For the published version of The Crucible, Arthur Miller has inserted passages of prose in which he comments on the background of the story or the characters. These comments tell you a lot about Miller’s thinking, but they interrupt the flow of the action, and you may want to skip them the first time you read the play. Then you can go back and read them all together, or pick them up along the way on your second read-through. You should always read a play twice: you’ll be amazed how much you missed the first time, and how much more sense it makes the second time around when you know what’s going to happen next.
The Crucible has a lot of characters, 21 speaking parts in all, plus quite a few people who are talked about but never appear onstage, like Ruth Putnam and Martha Corey. Each of these characters has a story to tell, and every story is important. It’s easy to become lost unless you can see how each subplot ties into and advances the main plot, which is the flareup of witch panic in Salem.
The story is indeed complicated, but Arthur Miller makes it easier to follow by the way he has designed the play. He begins each act by setting up a terrible possibility, and ends each act by bringing that terrible thing to pass.
In Act I the question is: “Will the town leap to witchcraft?” The curtain falls on Tituba, Abigail, and Betty ecstatically “crying out witches.”
In Act II the question is: “Will the Proctors get caught up by the witch-hunt?” The act ends with Elizabeth Proctor being led away in chains.
In Act III the question is: “Will Abigail foil John Proctor’s attempt to discredit her?” The answer is, yes, and more, for Proctor himself is arrested as a witch.
Then in Act IV the question is: “Will John Proctor hang?” He does.
This repeated pattern of question and answer–”Will the worst happen?” “Yes.”–is the rhythm of the play. You can think of what happens between the setup and the payoff in each act as a kind of tug-of-war: some characters pull toward catastrophe, others pull away from it, and invariably the first group overpowers the second. If you think about the action in terms of this tug-of-war, the plot will be a lot easier to follow.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: SOME NOTES ON READING THE PLAY
There’s a difference between reading a play and reading a novel. The most obvious thing is that a play is all dialogue, whereas a novel will often have many paragraphs of prose describing what a character is thinking. In a play you have to figure out what a character is thinking by what he says, and what others say about him, keeping in mind that people don’t always speak the truth, or at least the whole truth.
Another difference between a novel and a play is the audience each is intended for. When a novel appears in print, it is as ready as it’s going to be for its audience, the individual reader. But the script of a play is a blueprint for a performance by actors, in makeup and costume, on a stage set, before an audience of more than one. Whatever ideas a playwright has in mind, whatever words he puts on paper, the play is meant to be seen and heard, not just read silently by one person slouching in an armchair.
But even if you can’t actually attend a performance, and have to settle for reading the script, there is a way to get a more complete idea of what the play’s supposed to be. Read some of it aloud, “playing” the different characters: How would you say these words if you were in the same situation? What gesture would you use to make this point? Maybe you can get a friend to try it with you. It may sound silly or embarrassing, but it really does help. And it’s fun.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: THE STORY
Although the action is continuous in each act of The Crucible, this guide breaks the acts into what are called “French scenes.” A new French scene begins every time a major character enters or exits.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: ACT I, SCENE 1
From the moment the curtain rises, we know something is wrong. A little girl, Betty Parris, lies inert on the bed. What’s the matter with her? Is she sick? Hurt? Her father, Reverend Samuel Parris, is weeping and praying frantically over her. The next three things that happen tell us things are really bad: 1) the black slave Tituba, obviously very frightened, comes in begging Parris to tell her that her Betty’s “not goin’ to die,” and Parris furiously drives her out; 2) Betty’s cousin Abigail Williams comes in to announce a message from Dr. Griggs, which means that Betty’s been like this for some time; and 3) Susanna Walcott delivers the doctor’s message: he cannot help Betty, so her affliction must be from “unnatural things,” meaning witchcraft.
Parris’ first reaction is to deny that Betty’s “witched,” which seems natural: it’s a horrifying thought. Horrifying, but not out of the question, because Reverend Hale, a witchcraft expert from Beverly, has already been sent for and is on his way. Both Parris and Abigail warn Susanna to “speak nothin’ of it in the village” on her way back to the doctor. This seems natural, too: Parris is trying to avoid panic among his congregation.
But we soon discover that Parris is more worried about his position in the village than he is about his daughter’s health. Throughout the following interrogation, during which Abigail admits that she, Betty, and Tituba were dancing in the woods, Parris mentions his enemies four times, saying clearly at one point, “There is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit. Do you understand that?” In other words, the worst part of this scandal is that it began in his own house, a fact his enemies will surely take advantage of. For the rest of the play, Parris is consistent in his self-centeredness. No matter what happens to anybody else, he will always be concerned only about himself.
For her part, Abigail at first appears to be humble and repentant. She confesses that they danced, and she’s willing to be whipped for it, even if they did it just for “sport.” But Parris, in his anxiety about his own reputation, insinuates that Abigail’s name is not “entirely white” in the town. Goodwife Proctor, it is said, “comes so rarely to the church this year for she will not sit so close to something soiled,” meaning Abigail, who used to work as the Proctors’ servant.
Abigail tells us a lot: instead of answering the accusation, she attacks the accuser. She says Goody Proctor hates her because Abigail would not be her slave; twice she calls Goody Proctor a liar. (Elizabeth Proctor’s truthfulness will be very important later.) Abigail then turns her wrath on Parris: “Do you begrudge my bed, uncle?” (Later on, in Act II, Abigail will once again be accused of wrongdoing, and she will get out of it in exactly the same way.)
^^^^^^^^^^THE CRUCIBLE: ACT I, SCENE 2
Parris has no chance to recover from this onslaught, for now the Putnams, Ann and then Thomas, come in, full of news. Their daughter Ruth has been stricken as well, and they are certain it’s from “the Devil’s touch.” Parris’ manner changes abruptly: with Tituba and Abigail he was sharp and angry, but now he seems most anxious to please. The Putnams must be important people, and we soon find out why. When Parris pleads with them, “leap not to witchcraft…. They will howl me out of Salem for such corruption in my house,” Thomas Putnam replies, “Mr. Parris, I have taken your part in all contention here, and I would continue.” Putnam is the minister’s ally, and as such has power over him. Putnam will use his power to get his way in this matter, as we shall see.
Goody Putnam then explains how she knows this is witchcraft. Last night she sent Ruth to Tituba to contact the spirits of Ruth’s seven baby brothers and sisters, all of whom had died–”murdered,” according to their mother–before they were a day old.
“It is a formidable sin to conjure up the dead!” Parris cries, and turns in horror to Abigail. Of course, she had nothing to do with conjuring spirits: “Not I, sir–Tituba and Ruth.” Once again, all Parris ca
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