“The Crucible” is a play centred around morals, guilt and good and evil. It portrays these themes through witchcraft and an intensely religious society, set in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The acrimonious and joyless community full of petty jealousies and fear if attack from Native Americans, actually symbolises events in America during the 1950s, of which Arthur Miller was a part of.
He wrote “The Crucible” as an allegory, running parallel with what happened in 1950s America, controlled by Senator Joseph McCarthy and here represented by Salem judge, Danforth. McCarthy was head of the 1950s accusations of communism, making 205 public charges and blacklisting many playwrights, directors and actors from Hollywood Studios, including Arthur Miller. Miller could not directly write about his experiences so instead chose to represent them in Salem. The fact that it is set further back in history also emphasises the stupidity of the situation, and that this kind of modern day witch-hunt belongs in the past.
Right from the symbolic title, Miller makes a statement as to the themes of the play. The scientific meaning of the word “crucible” is a small round dish used, at high temperatures, to purify substances. Irony has been used here, as the “purification” happening in Salem is actually killing innocent people, also indicating a tragic nature to the play. This has an effect upon the audience when they sense the irony, and creates an atmosphere where the audience wonder what exactly is happening in Salem to “purify” a community.
The play, as already stated, is set in Salem, 1692, in a society bursting with paranoia over land, attack from Indians and Christianity. The village is obsessed that God is constantly watching along with the devil, providing not only good, but evil and sin. This has probably resulted from fears of a Native American attack, leading to arguments over individual importance and particularly land ownership, as in the play we see disagreements between men over sections of fields.
The “Big Brother”-like living conditions with both everyone else, and especially God knowing everything, with no freedom of room for privacy can be seen through the power and effectiveness of religious wording, used by Abigail in the courtroom. Language such as “Devil’s people” has a psychological effect and is used to regain the upper hand. The fact that this language is so powerful is because nobody wants to ever be seen as siding with evil or condoning sin by other villagers, God, or his representatives like Reverend Parris. This moulds the scene for an increasing mountain of tension, as everyone in reality, is acting to save themselves from Hell.
Because “The Crucible” is a play, stage directions are hugely important in getting across to the audience the meaning, and particularly in this scene, the significance of how characters behave. A very crucial stage direction in the courtroom is when John and Abigail are told to turn around -though Abigail turns around with “indignant slowness”, defining her character as confident, stubborn and not about to back down just because a judge tells her to – something which becomes extremely influential leading further into the scene. To build up tension, the pausing while Mary Warren tries to faint is also effective as the audience realise that John Proctor’s heroic plight may not be entirely successful.
John and Elizabeth Proctors’ relationship is very important to the story. Elizabeth loves and relies upon John but he has committed the major crime of adultery with Abigail, as he admits with the fateful line, “I have known her”. This indicates how close the relationship is, that he can admit to such a crime. Elizabeth also shows her loyalty by lying to save John, with the roles being reversed – John has lied on the past whilst she remained honest, but now, even though it is against her character, she lies to try and save the name of her husband. This reveals exactly how much is at stake – with a truly honest woman, who is still trying to protect her husband even though he betrayed her, facing death. The closeness of this relationship, yet the fact there are obvious problems leave the reader unsure as to what either party will reveal in the case.
The character of John Proctor is one of a flawed protagonist. His heroic sacrifice of dignity ironically demonstrates bravery and the love for his wife in, “I have rung the doom of my good name”. But he knows some blame lies with him and is therefore tormented with guilt and feels unable to gain forgiveness from God, his wife, or himself. However, in a bid to put right the situation, he gives away his most prized possession – his good name. In the community Proctor is a strong figure, he keeps out of religious feuding and is the first person other people call on for help. The audience therefore fear his sins may be over punished, as although he succumbed to a weakness of lust, his honesty shows he can be depended on.
Proctor’s reliability adds another factor to consider for the audience, in trying to work out whether he will be successful. At the end of the play, Proctor refuses to slander himself by allowing the court to nail his false confession to the church door. This action further exemplifies Proctor’s integrity and although he wants to live, escaping death is not worth basing the remainder of his life on a lie. This realisation, along with Elizabeth’s forgiveness, enables Proctor to forgive himself and finally regain his good name and self-respect, before being hung – a small victory in the midst of this tragic play.