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The Crucible

by Arthur Miller

Oh. Man. I forgot how good this play is. I actually had to go out and buy a copy, which means either my bookcase has begun eating plays or I never took high school English.

I am enchanted by the poetry in the text (shocker, I know.) The subject matter is far from beautiful but Miller just has a way with words.

Everyone knows the story of The Crucible, but for those of you who actually never did take high school English, here's what the back of the Dramatists copy says (best if read in "movie trailer voice" ie: In a world where..):

"This exciting drama about the Puritan purge of witchcraft in old Salem is both a gripping historical play and a timely parable of our contemporary society. The story focuses upon a young farmer, his wife, and a young servant-girl who maliciously causes the wife's arrest for witchcraft. The farmer bring the girl to court to admit the lie - and it is here that the monstrous course of bigotry and deceit is terrifyingly depicted. The farmer, instead of saving his wife, finds himself also accused of witchcraft and ultimately condemned with a host of others."

I find it interesting that John Proctor's name is not mentioned once in that blurb..
In truth, I never think of him as a farmer. His profession is almost irrelevant to the story. When I think of Proctor, I think of his amazing line,
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!
I mean, come on! I want to play Proctor just so I can say that line! Now, he is not a perfect man. He has made mistakes, but he owns up to those mistakes, repents them, and attempts to live a better life having learned from them. His "downfall," if you see it that way, is his pride. To save his life, and see the birth of his child, all he must do is confess to witchcraft. Reverend Hale knows it is a lie, but in his mind it is a lie done for good. The life is more important. But Proctor cannot confess.

But whoa, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I was inspired to re-read The Crucible by my mom. And by my mom, I mean Wendy Merritt, who plays my mother in The Great Divide. She is directing a production of The Crucible this summer for Sink or Swim Rep, so naturally we've been talking about the play a lot in the dressing room. In fact, I've probably said "Because it is my name!" a good five or six times in different conversations. Sink or Swim is producing the play in its "Truth" season, along with Romeo & Juliet.

Truth in The Crucible is an ever-changing creature. Not only do we question 'what is the truth?' but we are left wondering does it even matter?

Things that struck me:

1. Corruption within the church/court. We find out at the beginning of the play that some of the local girls have been caught dancing in the woods, and as a result a few have taken to their beds with illness. Betty Parris, daughter to the local Reverend, is bedridden and thought to be possessed. Her father has sent for Reverend Hale to examine her, much to the chagrin of the townsfolk, who are afraid that Hale will suspect witchcraft. Parris is distraught over Betty, but comforted by Rebecca Nurse:
A child's spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after it; you must stand still, and for love it will soon itself come back.
He is even more afeared because he is a man of God. When Hale arrives to check Betty, Parris asks why his daughter should be taken, when she is so good. Hale responds:
What victory would the Devil have, to win a soul already had? It is the best the Devil wants, and who is better than the minister?
The heart of the play lies undoubtedly in Hale. His journey throughout is the most interesting to me - steadfast and strong in his beliefs at the top, he falls a long way before finding the strength to compromise for what he believes to be the greater good.

As good of a man as Hale is, his opposite is reflected in Judge Hathorne. I was shocked at how maniacal he seemed in his pursuit of the "truth." Bending things to fit your will is not justice. Proctor drives the point home when he asks, "Is the accuser always holy now?" Hathorne is happy to believe everything that Abigail and the girls confess, never questioning their motives or sincerity.

2. Personal vendettas being acted out on a public stage. The entire trial starts because of one girl's lie. This lie gets away from her and snowballs into an outpouring of falsity - aimed at anyone who has ever upset the young girls of the town. What is Abigail's motive? Is it out of love for John that she acts? Perhaps that is her belief by the end, but at the beginning it seems to be vengeance that drives her. She has been rejected by the man she loves and sees an opportunity to hurt him. She takes it. And many people suffer for it. Could this have been avoided?

There is a scene in the play that is sometimes left out (unfortunately, in my opinion) where Proctor visits Abigail and asks her to stop the accusations against his wife. This brings me to my next two thoughts:

3. The thin line between fantasy and reality.

4. The madness of love.

My argument for the necessity of the scene is that we never see them alone together otherwise. The way that the two of them respond to each other when other people are around is very different than when they are alone. Public vs. Private. Up until this point, we have heard about the affair, we have seen the rift it caused between John and Elizabeth, but we haven't seen the energy between John and Abigail. The intimacy of that scene reveals much more than just their sexual connection. At this point in the play, Abigail has been lying for so long, that I think she is no longer aware of what is true and what is make-believe. She has worked herself into such a state that the lines have blurred. Her love for John is mixed with her jealousy, the high she gets when she accuses someone, the power of her position, and all the attention lavished on her - making one dangerous cocktail that has her teetering on the edge of madness.

John is horrified that she has accused so many people, and asks her, "Then there is no one good?" To which, she responds:
Why, you taught me goodness, therefore you are good. It were a fire you walked me through, and all my ignorance was burned away. It were a fire, John, we lay in fire. And from that night no woman dare call me wicked any more but I knew my answer. I used to weep for my sins when the wind lifted up my skirts; and blushed for shame because some old Rebecca called me loose. And then you burned my ignorance away. As bare as some December tree I saw them all - walking like saints to church, running to feed the sick, and hypocrites in their hearts! And God gave me strength to call them liars, and God made men to listen to me, and by God I will scrub the world clean for the love of Him!
Folks, this is what we call 'religious fervor.' As one of the characters in David Hare's Racing Demon says, "You've got the bug. I've seen it before. All you want is to carry the Cross."

John threatens Abigail with exposure in the court, but Abigail is unfazed. When it comes time, however, John is true to his word and tells of their sordid past, therefore criminalizing himself. In one of the best lines of the play he tells the court:

You are pulling heaven down and raising up a whore.
Oh. Snap. 'Lot of good it did though, Proctor ends up in jail, and Elizabeth is in jail, pregnant. Hell, the whole population is in jail. Apparently, the town is going to be run by a bunch of 15-year old girls, as they're the only ones left.

Hale comes back! Lovely man that he is. He comes back a changed man - the effect of the court proceedings is harsh and it is apparent that he has been beaten down by the world. In a last desperate attempt to save John's life, he begs Elizabeth to help her husband:
Life, woman, life is God's most precious gift; no principle however glorious may justify the taking of it. I beg you, woman - prevail upon your husband to confess. Let him give his lie. Quail not before God's judgment in this, for it may well be God damns a liar less than he that throws his life away for pride.
Ah yes, 5. Pride. The theme of the week for this week's plays.

When I read this line of Hale's, it made me cry. It struck a Ruth chord in me, and made me think of a moment in the first act of Great Divide where she chooses life over the alternative, saying "I love my life; I must live. In torment, in darkness - it doesn't matter. I want my life. I will have it!" For Ruth and Proctor, pride is a big issue. To come full circle in this post, ultimately John's pride will not allow him to sign his name to a lie. As much as he may want to save himself, he cannot do it. He's not an ordinary farmer, he is John Proctor, and if what he wants to save is his name, he has surely done it, for it has never been forgotten.

Tomorrow's Play: Our Town by Thornton Wilder

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


5. Forgiveness

John: I would have your forgiveness Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: John, it come to naught that I should forgive you, if you'll not forgive yourself. It is not my soul, John, it is yours. Only be sure of this, for I know it now: Whatever you will do it is a good man does it. I have read my heart this three month, John. I have sins of my own to count. It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery. Better you should know me! You take my sins upon you, John. John, I counted myself so plain, so poorly made that no honest love could come to me. Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love. It were a cold house I kept!

and the last line:

"He have his goodness now, heaven forbid I should take it from him."

ugh! excuse me a minute while I pull my heart out of my stomach.

There are few things more beautiful than that last scene. Probably because I've been over-exposed to it but I get annoyed with this play, particularly everything up to this point with the whiney and revenge driven tweens. And perhaps because scenes up to this point in every version I've seen stay at a 8-10, not to say it isn't unwarranted but this last scene is so intimate and beautiful and quiet. And it is made all the more beautiful of the ugliness of the world around them. To forgive her husband for lechery, especially when he announced it in court and then to understand her part in it is such a hard thing to do, let alone admit. It's much easier to blame another and interestingly, to forgive another but it is infinitely more difficult to accept blame and forgive yourself. Elizabeth forgives John and accepts her own blame and though she encourages him to forgive himself for she has forgiven him, she doesn't really seem to forgive herself. And when he does go to hang, leaving her alone with two boys, one on the way and a farm to run when he had the opportunity to stay alive, she stands behind his decision like a good wife and loves him all the more for it in an act of absolutely unselfish respect. An infinitely fascinating scene. Thank you Arthur.

Go to Lincoln Center and watch Laura Linney do this (2002 Broadway revival) - fucking genius.

PS: cliche though it may be, Our Town is my fave. Have fun!


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