The Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller that was first produced in 1953, is based on the true story of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Miller wrote the play to parallel the situations in the mid-twentieth century of Alger Hiss, Owen Latimore, Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, and Senator McCarthy, if only suggestively. (Warshow 116) Some characters in the play have specific agendas carried out by their accusations, and the fact that the play is based on historical truth makes it even more intriguing.
The characters in this play are simple, common people. The accused are charged and convicted of a crime that is impossible to prove. The following witchcraft hysteria takes place in one of America’s wholesome, theocratic towns, which makes the miscarriage of justice such a mystery even today. The reasons the villains select the people they do for condemnation are both simple and clear. All of the accusers have ulterior motives, such as revenge, greed, and covering up their own behavior. Many of the accusers have meddled in witchcraft themselves, and are therefore doubly to be distrusted. (Warshow 116)
The court convicts the victims on the most absurd testimony, and the reader has to wonder how the judges and the townspeople could let such a charade continue. The leading character of the play is John Proctor, a man who often serves as the only voice of reason in the play. He had an affair with Abigail Williams, who later charges his wife with witchcraft. Proctor is seemingly the only person who can see through the children’s accusations.
The reader sees him as one of the more ‘modern’ figures in the trials because he is hardheaded, skeptical, and a voice of common sense. He thinks the girls can be cured of their ‘spells’ with a good whipping. (Warshow 114) At the end of the play, Proctor has to make a choice. He can either confess to a crime he is innocent of to save himself from execution, or die proclaiming his innocence.
He ends up choosing death because a false confession would mean implicating other accused people, including Rebecca Nurse. (Rovere 2632) Proctor feels she is good and pure, unlike his adulterous self, and does not want to tarnish her good name and the names of his other innocent friends by implicating them. (Warshow 117) By choosing death, Proctor takes the high road and becomes a true tragic hero.
The reader feels that his punishment is unjust (especially since the crime of witchcraft is imagined and unprovable.) Because the trials take place in a Christian, American town, the reader must then wonder if anything like this could happen in his or her own time. This is particularly true of people who saw the play when it first came out, in the era of McCarthyism. Ann and Thomas Putnam are two instigators of the witchcraft hysteria in the play. Ann Putnam is the one who first plants the idea that Betty is bewitched. Her motivation for lying is obvious; she needs to cover up her own behavior.
After all, she had sent her daughter to Tituba to conjure up the dead in order to find out what happened to her dead babies. She can’t have it said that she, a Christian woman, practices the pagan art with a slave from Barbados, or that her daughter’s illness is her fault because she sent her to participate in the black art, so she blames others. (Warshow 113) Revenge is another motive of hers. Tituba’s tricks led her to the conclusion that her babies were murdered while under the care of a midwife, Goody Osburn. Osburn is later accused of witchcraft. Ann Putnam’s husband also influences her.
(Rovere 2632) Thomas Putman had nominated his wife’s brother-in-law, James Bayley, to be the minister of Salem. He was qualified and the people voted him in, but a faction stopped his acceptance. Thomas Putnam felt superior to most people in the village, and was angry that they rejected his choice for minister. He was also involved in a land dispute with Francis Nurse, whose wife Rebecca is accused of witchcraft. This is detailed in the movie Three Sovereigns for Sarah, which shows basically the same story as the play.
Many people died because of Thomas Putnam’s land hunger. The Putnams, driven by their need for revenge and their greed, contributed to the huge travesty of justice that was the Salem Witch Trials. The motive of Abigail Williams is equally easy to decipher. Abigail is the ringleader of the group of girls who testify in court against those accused of witchcraft. She and John Proctor had an affair previously when she worked as a servant in his home, and she obviously does not want it to be over.
She says to him, ‘I know how you clutched my back behind your house and sweated like a stallion whenever I come near! Or did I dream that? It’s she [Elizabeth] that put me out, you cannot pretend it was you. I saw your face when she put me out, and you loved me then and you do now!’ (Miller 20) Elizabeth, Proctor’s wife, had fired Abigail as their servant because she suspected the affair. Clearly, Abigail despises her. She tells Proctor, ‘She is blackening my name in the village! She is telling lies about me! She is a cold, sniveling woman, and you bend to her!’ (Miller 21) Abigail is obviously furious with Elizabeth because she feels Elizabeth has cut off her relationship with John and soiled her reputation in the village.
Abigail uses the witchcraft mess to get back at Elizabeth. Of course, Elizabeth Proctor is charged with witchcraft. In 1692, the real historical Abigail Williams was about eleven years old. Why, then, does Arthur Miller decide to make her a young woman of eighteen or nineteen for this play? He does this in order to invent an adulterous relationship between Abigail and John Proctor. This relationship motivates her denunciation of John and Elizabeth Proctor. This offers an easily theatrical motive for one of his characters. (Warshow 114)
It also makes Abigail seem like a cold, calculated adult. This is more like an element of twentieth-century entertainment than of a theocracy in 1692, but Miller has to appeal to his audience to make the play popular in 1953. The rest of the girls in the play, including Susanna Walcott, Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren, and Betty Parris, are all covering up for their own actions. Abigail herself admits that they were dancing in the woods, and Parris says they were naked. The girls had been asking the slave, Tituba, to conjure spells, and Parris finds out about it. He says, ‘And what shall I say to them? That my daughter and my niece I discovered dancing like heathen in the forest?’ (Miller 7) And then, ‘My own household is discovered to be the very center of some obscene practice. Abominations are done in the forest–‘ (Miller 8 )
The children know that they are going to be punished for their behavior, and they make up the stories that they were bewitched to place the blame elsewhere. When greedy people like the Putnams start encouraging them, it becomes easier to lie and they begin to enjoy all the attention and power they hold. They are probably also afraid of Abigail. After a while, she makes it impossible for the other girls to retract their accusations. When Mary Warren tries to tell the truth, Abigail accuses her of witchcraft, too.
The girls find themselves stuck in a trap of their own making, and in the witchcraft game until the end. (Rovere 2632) Reverend Samuel Parris allows the witchcraft hysteria to go on because it helps him. At the beginning of the play he asks Abigail, ‘Do you understand that I have many enemies? There is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit. Do you understand that?’ Everyone in the town did not receive Parris well, and he feels like he has ‘fought here three long years to bend these stiff-necked people’ to him. (Miller 9)
The witchcraft charade unites the people of the town to him. In this time of spiritual crisis, they look to their minister for guidance and support. Parris is now getting the following he never had before. It is for this selfish reason that he allows the witch hunt to continue, even though he knows it is not valid. (Warshow 117) The characters in The Crucible are interesting and easy to read. The victims of the witch trials are innocent, spiritual people who are wronged because of their accusers’ greed, vengefulness, and need to cover up for their own actions. The deep involvement of the accusers, especially Abigail, and the lengths they will go to in order to continue their charade make the play absorbing and haunting.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Toronto: Bantam, 1959. Rovere, Richard. ‘Arthur Miller’s Conscience.’ 1957. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Warshow, Robert. ‘The Liberal Conscience in ‘The Crucible.’ 1962. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969.