Mankind’s Crucible: What Arthur Miller’s 1953 Masterpiece Taught Us

Nastia Goddard, Arts Department Co-Editor

The Crucible is one of those titles that almost everyone is familiar with or has at least heard of- and for a good reason. Arthur Miller’s 20th-century classic drama tells a brazenly timeless story, though few truly recognize its candid relevance in the modern world. As society becomes increasingly polarized in the digital age, it is easy to brush off the lessons of the past as inapplicable historical lectures. Such thinking is inherently flawed: how can we move forward if we refuse to acknowledge our past? The answers to some of today’s most pressing questions may lie in the text of a play that most high schoolers begrudgingly skim.

The story of The Crucible is relatively simple, which allows for a complex philosophical undertone to remain undisturbed for the duration of the show. Set in Salem, Massachusetts, at the turn of the 17th century, The Crucible centers on one of the most heinous chapters of American history, the Salem witch trials, which resulted in the deaths of 19 innocent men and women. Although many of the characters are based on true figures of the period, Miller does take some artistic liberties to architect a cohesive storyline. After a group of teenage girls are found dancing naked in the woods and one falls extremely ill, rumors of witchcraft spread around the town. Carried away by the excitement and fear that escalates in Salem, the group of teenage girls accuses several citizens of fraternizing with the Devil and using demonic powers to torture Salem’s youth. Among the accusers is Abigail Williams, who previously engaged in an illicit affair with the respected farmer, John Proctor. As trials and hysteria escalate, Abigail, in an effort to secure John all to herself, declares that Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, exercised witchcraft over her. What follows is a heart-wrenching tale of the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence in a world where neighbors eagerly testify against neighbors, prosecutors ruthlessly convict the innocent, and the democratic ideals of justice and morality are effectively shattered.

Arthur Miller wrote his dramatic masterpiece in 1953. At the time, America was engaged in yet another mass “witch hunt” under the terrifying political reign of Joseph McCarthy. Amid the Cold War, the fear of communism began to spread like wildfire across the United States in the form of the Red Scare. The Age of McCarthyism was plagued by mass hysteria and unfounded accusations that pitted Americans against their parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors in a race to eradicate the supposed “Communist infiltration” of the nation. Under the corrupt rule of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, thousands of celebrities, politicians, and ordinary citizens were blacklisted or lost their jobs as a result of the allegations, leading to the collapse of many lives. In response to the nation’s unruly panic, Miller wrote The Crucible to illuminate the public’s neuroticism and the uncanny similarities the current atmosphere bore the absurd 1692 witch trials. Upon the show’s publication, Arthur Miller was accused of Communist affiliations, imprisoned, and blacklisted until his conviction was officially overturned in 1958. Miller’s work brought awareness to the dangers of “political witch hunts” and the power of mob following, and many historians credit the playwright as an integral part in the termination of the dark McCarthy Age.

The Crucible is a story about the power of fear. Fear is what drives humans to near neuroticism in an attempt to achieve a false sense of security. Fear gives humans the wrongful excuse to forfeit their morality and turn against fellow men. Moreover, fear permits humans to perform crimes against humanity without repercussions. Fear is the fuel for the downfall of democracy and justice, and human beings must do all they can not succumb to its alluring force.

In the age of modern technology, resisting such temptations is growing increasingly difficult. The spread of instantaneous news and international connection has given the world a new, more efficient way to communicate and disseminate information, but it has also led to the startling spread of fake news and hysteria. Today, news of atrocities caused by fellow humans populates at our fingertips every few milliseconds. Moreover, the spread of the citizen journalist culture has given rise to the fake news phenomenon that dominates the digital world. Now, humans are given a fast-track to fear. Every moment of every day, we are exposed to stories of violence, corruption, and injustice that have a serious influence on the ways we perceive and interact with those around us. Distrust and hatred have become ingrained in the human psyche. Targeted advertising and individualized broadcasting have led to the polarization of the world and, more specifically, the United States political system. In a world where no one trusts the “Other Side,” where humans mercilessly kill other humans, and where fake news occupies our information sources, it is easy to shift blame and target specific individuals or groups of people with our anger.

Over 325 years after the end of the Salem witch trials, modern-day ‘witch hunts’ still pervade around the world. Today, a ‘witch hunt’ is a term often used in political environments and is defined as “an attempt to find and punish a particular group of people who are being blamed for something, often simply because of their opinions and not because they have actually done anything wrong.”

What was once a fear of witchcraft and later communism has turned into a modern fear of Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community. With the constant bombardment of news about terrorism, many Americans have found a new outlet for their fear: targeting Muslims as threats to national security. Along with the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus, some have decided to attack immigrants as “job-stealers” who are “taking advantage of the system.” Widespread discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community has only escalated since the terrifying HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. From fear grows hatred, and the only thing that hatred creates is violence and more hatred.

COVID-19 and the influx of fake news that spread along with it gave rise to serious racism in a time where solidarity should have been the world’s main goal. While the world sought a way to cope with the frightening effects of coronavirus, many people tried to find comfort in blaming Chinese people for the pandemic. This gave rise to a social media conspiracy that Chinese products could transmit the coronavirus; in particular, Chinese food was a “spreader” of the virus. What started as social media rumors soon traveled to the airwaves, ultimately leading the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a statement declaring that coronavirus is not transmitted through food. Nevertheless, the damage done to local Chinese businesses nation-wide has been substantial as a result of misinformation and racism.

The recent United States political election saw both parties shifting blame for the nation’s pressing issues rather than trying to come up with a solution. Election officials from both parties and pollsters were threatened as the recent social media craze of blaming the Other Side has grown in popularity, ultimately culminating in the incident that occurred at the Capitol building on January 6. Regardless of political affiliation, it is clear that the increasing polarization of the nation is leading to frantic, unfounded accusations and wide-spread hatred that has resulted in death. As Americans continue to point fingers at opposing sides, political witch hunts have begun to rise once more. Officials and individuals of both parties are under intense scrutiny and social pressure, making the threat of a major disruption practically inevitable.

The Salem witch trials and modern-day witch hunts in society and politics are not the only ways in which The Crucible carries its relevance. The drama also makes an important statement about mob mentality and the power of violent masses. Although the witch trials took place in a traditional court of law, they were anything but civil and organized. Over the past year, violent riots have grown in popularity across the United States and the world. The power of socially sanctioned violence is steadily infiltrating the minds of the people. Yet, the moment a movement or protest becomes fueled by mob mentality, anger, hatred, and brutality, it replaces its potentially “good” intentions with those of bloodshed and harm. This is when a society loses its morality and sense of decency, and it becomes clear that no significant progress can be made. Violence is never the solution, though many use it as a coping mechanism for their fear. Miller’s work highlights the ineffectiveness of such violence and the subsequent destruction it causes.

Additionally, The Crucible ignites an important discussion about women and sexism within the world. The struggle to eradicate “witchcraft” is indicative of a cemented patriarchal culture within America and the world. For one, women were the predominant subjects of accusations, especially those who were poor, unmarried, or well-educated. Such stigmas against women allowed men to exercise their authority over the so-called “weaker sex.” In The Crucible, the witch trials reach a startling climax when respected, married women are accused alongside street urchins. One of the more poignant relationships of the story is that of Giles Corey and his wife, Martha Corey. In the early stages of the trials, Giles is swept away by the hysteria around him and declares that he saw his wife reading a book by herself, which was immediately perceived as a sign of fraternization with the Devil. Once Martha is convicted, Giles tries to appeal to Judge Hawthorne, declaring that he was not used to women of intelligence and that he was sorry for perceiving her intellect as a supernatural power. To this day, there remains a not-so-subtle contempt for women who never marry and for women who show intelligence or expertise. Any woman who strays from the societal norms of the stereotypical female personality, mental capacity, body image, and domestic role is considered to be out-of-place and lost in the world. Behind every successful woman is a society waiting for her to make a mistake so she can be ‘dethroned’ with soul-shattering allegations.

One of the less-discussed elements of the play is the illicit nature of the relationship between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. Although a significant portion of The Crucible discusses Proctor’s guilt and sense of servitude towards his wife after having confessed to adultery, there is no acknowledgment of the inappropriate nature of the relationship between John and Abigail. In the play, Abigail is only 17 (historically, she was about 12 years old at the time of the Salem witch trials) and Proctor is well into his thirties (again, at the time of the trials, he was actually in his sixties). John Proctor has a relationship with an underaged teenage girl, and though he repents for committing adultery, he displays no remorse for his manipulation of a mere child. While Abigail is considered the antagonist of the play, some analysts have come to question the protagonist status of John Proctor. A new play by Kimberly Belflower called John Proctor is the Villain, which follows a modern high school class discussion on The Crucible and sexual assault towards teenagers, is currently receiving significant attention on New Play Exchange. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, this story element is seeing more and more discussion. Miller clearly tried to downplay the inappropriateness of the affair by adjusting the age gap between Proctor and Williams, yet he chose to keep Abigail under 18 years of age. Perhaps Arthur Miller could foresee the development of his script and Abigail’s character in the 21st century, or perhaps this was not on his radar at all. Either way, theaters are beginning to add new meaning to The Crucible with each new production, and many have chosen to create a more muddled sense of “good and bad” through a deeper exploration of the relationship between Abigail and John.

Yet another important theme in The Crucible is the idea of individual crucibles. Just as the town of Salem endures the crucible of witch trials, the individual citizens face their own tests of character. As discussed before, John Proctor faces an important test of his morality as he is forced to live with the fact that he committed adultery. Today, such personal crucibles are constantly publicized to the world. Scandals, divorce, addiction, and gossip flood social media regularly. In modern times, reconciliation with one’s own crucibles is increasingly difficult, as everything has the chance to go viral. This leads to a deeper question that Miller’s play imposes: if one cannot acknowledge one’s crucibles for fear of humiliation or shame, how can you move forward and develop? This major theme maintains its relevance in a small Puritan village in the 1690s just as much as it does in the highly digitized world of today.

A crucible is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “a severe test.” The story of the Salem witch trials is, in an obvious sense, a severe test or trial of witchcraft and religious faith. More importantly, the Salem witch trials were man’s test of morality and the ideas of right and wrong- a test which Salem failed. Each accused “witch” or “sorcerer” must face another crucible: a choice to succumb to societal pressures and “confess” or be hanged. This final crucible is a test of the human spirit, one that determines how far one is willing to go to fight against the ‘mob’ and do what is right and just.

The Cambridge Dictionary also defines a crucible as “a place or situation in which different cultures or styles can mix together to produce something new and exciting.” If we can learn to look past our differences and stop using fear as an excuse to promote hatred and deceit, maybe we can use our test of mankind as a crucible for a new era of compassion, unity, and progress. In a 1953 interview, Arthur Miller said, “The tragedy of The Crucible is the everlasting conflict between people so fanatically wedded to this orthodoxy that they could not cope with the evidence of their senses.” Perhaps if man learned to look past the ideas of stereotypes and normalcy and eradicate the idea of orthodox culture, then it can finally notice the lessons that surround us, and the solutions they provide. The answer to the world’s problems lies within truth, morality, and most importantly, one another. While the power of the masses can be used to destroy, it can also be used to create. As the world seeks to rebuild what has been lost as a result of this global pandemic and the many tragic events of the past year, perhaps it must shift its focus towards a new goal. This past year has been a severe crucible that the world has failed, but perhaps it can give way to a crucible of peace and a brighter future.

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