“When the urge comes to be suspicious of our neighbour, or the person fleeing persecution in their own country, we should resist and stay true to more ethically minded principles that uphold our humanity through small but vital acts of respect and kindness.”
In the summer of 1692, an extraordinary sequence of events led to twenty people being executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Another four to thirteen, the records are unclear, died in prison before their potential execution for the same ‘crime’.
Arthur Miller, after considerable research, wrote The Crucible as a dramatic reconstruction of these appalling events. Debate still rages as to the strict historic accuracy, but that was never his goal. His intent was to capture and deliver what he described as the “essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.”1 Courtesy of his playwright’s gift for giving authentic voice to these lost individuals and those that condemned them, The Crucible, since its outset in 1953, has been regarded as a modern classic of literature. The tale of accusations fuelled by mistrust and religious dogma, but most of all the system induced need for self-preservation, is one that still haunts and shocks more than sixty years on. Written as an allegory for McCarthyism, prevalent at the time in the United States, Miller hit upon the perfect vehicle to warn his society of Senator Joe’s dangerous practice of making unfair accusations which turn into prejudiced allegations. McCarthy combined these with improper investigative techniques that led, ultimately, to ‘Kangaroo Court’ styled hearings, which in turn ruined reputations, ostracized, made unemployable, or imprisoned thousands of innocent people. Homosexuals, Hollywood celebrities and state department officials were among those targeted by the ‘Un-American Activities Committee’, as were swathes of the armed forces such as the three thousand sailors who lost their jobs with the Coast Guard at the start of the Korean War after a ‘review’ was carried out.
Miller’s play, although a social comment on contemporary politics, preserved strict artistic integrity in its subject matter and never overtly poked its head from behind the stage curtain with a knowing wink, except once in a strangely developed narrative interlude two-thirds of the way through Act One. Almost concealed, in the middle of Reverend Hale’s introduction, Miller shows his colours and states “in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell.”2 It’s little wonder that in 1956 Miller himself started to be investigated by Un-American Activities Committee.
The plot of The Crucible hinges upon a group of girls, aged eleven to seventeen, caught dancing in the woods with Reverend Parris’ slave-girl, Tituba, whom he brought back with him from Barbados. The problem being that Tituba was seen to be waving her arms over an open fire, possibly incanting and some of the girls were naked as they danced. From the moment of their discovery a spiral of accusation, suspicion, revenge, land-grabbing and a battle between principles and self-preservation emerges, whilst the religious powers that be drove a whole community into a now infamous Catch-22 situation: confess to witchcraft or be executed. In their eyes, of course, this meant being damned to an eternity in hell after, presumably, being driven from their home as a witch, or instant death. Not a great choice and one that shows the pernicious power of an accusation.
Throughout the play, Miller presents the tragic drama though the voices and actions of different characters. In particular, we see John Proctor struggle at the beginning with his inner turmoil, the adultery he committed with his ex-servant Abigail Williams, one of the girls, whom Miller deftly presents as a viciously manipulative and self-interested ringleader. Proctor’s strife continues because, having confessed his sin to his wife, Elizabeth, and wanting to deal with the matter as a personal issue between the two of them, the twist of events forces him to make his adultery public in order to save his wife who was accused of witchcraft by the spurned and vengeful Abigail. Ignorant of her husband’s testament, Elizabeth Proctor is brought into Deputy Governor Danforth’s court to corroborate John’s claim as to what motive lies behind Abigail’s accusations. The proof being that she too must publicly announce her family’s shame and state that John committed adultery with Abigail, whom he now holds nothing but contempt for. Elizabeth is unwittingly reluctant to declare the real cause of Abigail’s dismissal as their servant and is consequently led from the court to prison. As the door closes behind her, John shouts “She only thought to save my name!”3 The spiral unravels further for John, who has just seen his wife effectively imprisoned for witchcraft, because Abigail now initiates a phase of events that seals his fate too.
Affecting sighting of a ‘spirit’ bird sent from Mary Warren, the Proctor’s new servant and whom John convinced to tell the truth in court about the girls lying, Abigail starts to communicate with the ‘spirit’ and become entranced by it. The result being that the other girls in the court join in the affected entrancing and turn upon Mary Warren who then breaks down and performs an about-face on Proctor shouting and pointing “You’re the Devil’s man!”4 Danforth, caught up in whirlwind of events, crystallises Proctor’s fate, in the only way he knows how, by asking him to confess his association with the Devil or become imprisoned.
After three months in jail, Proctor is allowed to see his wife Elizabeth, and in saying that he wants to live is resigned to accept the consequences of this coerced admission. His forced confession, of knowing the Devil, is verbally obtained as a very terse and begrudging statement: “I did.”5 However, this is not enough for Danforth because he wants Proctor to sign a statement to the same effect. Proctor unwillingly does so but then rips it up when he finds out that Danforth wants to display this statement, the spoils, upon the church door for all to see. With this gesture Proctor seals his doom, so that rather than blackening his name and those of his family he is hanged.
Miller further draws out the atrocity when he considers Proctor’s friend, the eighty-two year old Giles Corey, whose fate is tied up with that of Thomas Putnam, the wealthiest man in the village. When Corey recounts an earlier day at court when Putnam’s daughter cried out that a friend of Corey’s was a wizard, who was then duly imprisoned, the issue of land-grabbing comes to the fore. As Corey explains, if someone were to be hanged as a wizard, then his property would be forfeited, his family made homeless, and his land sold to the highest bidder, which in this case would be Putnam. Consequently, Corey accuses Putnam of putting his daughter up to crying out witchery in the court in order to swoop in and buy the land. Corey’s problem, however, is that Danforth wants proof that Putnam has manufactured such a scheme with his daughter. Corey presents the verbal testimony that he acquired it from “an honest man who heard Putnam say it!”6 Without the name of this honest man, Danforth refuses to accept its validity and Corey refuses to give up the name for fear that Danforth will imprison the man, especially after Corey’s own wife was imprisoned because he stated that she reads unknown books and hides them. As Corey saw it he had made the mistake of once naming names and he wasn’t about to commit the same error. Deputy Governor Danforth then holds Corey in contempt of court and has him imprisoned.
Later on, when asked to say “aye” or “nay” to his indictment, Corey protects his family’s property by saying nothing. (One is left to assume whether the murder accusation he levied at Putnam was primary or secondary to his being associated with Proctor and his ‘knowledge’ of the Devil). By remaining mute, Corey effectively choses not to choose (to be hanged as a wizard nor to confess his knowledge of the Devil). Either way he sees the danger of his land becoming forfeited and his family robbed of their livelihood. Danforth, not to be frustrated or outwitted by such a loop-hole decides to invent a third option for those who remain mute when asked to confess their knowledge of the Devil, and has Corey pressed beneath heavy stones until he says “aye” or “nay”. Corey’s only words, however, are “more weight”7 and then he expires.
By crafting his play so tightly as to highlight the power of false accusations and the danger of suspicions, Miller shone a light on one of “the most awful chapters in human history” and also provided a warning flare as regards McCarthyism. However, his own critical analysis demonstrated that there is a broader brush to be applied when viewing events politically. Miller saw that in such climates, political opposition starts to take on an ‘inhumane overlay’ which then for the dominant power justifies the rejection of all normal modes of civilized discourse. “A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a congerie of plots and counterplots, and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.”8
The analysis applied here fits so perfectly with the events in Salem in 1692, and in the United States in the early 1950s, but doesn’t it also resonate with George W. Bush’s foreign policy after 9/11, encapsulated in his 20th September 2001 TV address? “Our ‘war on terror’ begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”9 The scourge of God, it seems is waiting, lurking, and ready to be roused at a moment’s notice, whereby the actions of the few provide excuse for Governments to mobilise their battalions of enforcers.
The problem here, however, is that when a situation starts, panic and ethical blindness take hold and spread like wildfire amid what were robust and healthy communities. At best, anxious individuals became ultra wary of each other and at worst start finger pointing at their neighbours before their greatest fear comes home to roost and they get pointed at themselves. The grip of suspicion infects and runs rampant like a plague, especially when fuelled by those in authority. Malicious behaviour towards the guy who lives three doors down becomes justified with ‘moral right’, as Miller understood, and is in fact the polar opposite of morality. Being buoyed up with ‘right on one’s side’ is rarely, if ever, an ethical place to be, especially when concentrated in a pressure cooker environment created by Governments which seek to quash any non-believers and flex their muscles to demonstrate their power. Suspicions lead to snide comments, allegations and accusations before anyone has realised that their autonomy has been hijacked by a pernicious political plot designed ostensibly to protect, when in reality it actually manufactures fear, anxiety and hatred. This is the great evil which comes from on high and which seeks to eviscerate our delicate ethical leanings when we are least prepared. The task for each of us, of course, is to do all in our power to prevent ourselves from becoming puppets and drones for someone else’s power play that really doesn’t care about the individual level.
Consequently, when the urge comes to be suspicious of our neighbour, or the person fleeing persecution in their own country, we should resist and stay true to more ethically minded principles that uphold our humanity through small but vital acts of respect and kindness. Hopefully, then human dignity will not be pushed face down in the mud and maybe, just maybe, we might suffer better fates than John Proctor and Giles Corey when holding onto such principles.
The outcome is far from certain, but by now the risk of dismissing ethics should be clear, in that there are many and varied potential adverse effects for the individual and humanity in general if one continues blindly not bothering to acquaint oneself with what ethical behaviour is. So let us now get acquainted and begin the task proper…
- Miller, A., The Crucible, 11.
- Ibid., 38.
- Ibid., 100.
- Ibid., 104.
- Ibid., 121.
- Ibid., 87.
- Ibid., 118.
- Ibid., 38.