The Crucible is a powerful play dealing with the Salem witch trials of 1962 when innocent people were condemned on the evidence of the unbalanced hysterical accusers; it was widely interpreted as an attack on the political witch hunting of 1950’s in the U. S. A. Moreover, it is considered as Miller’s response to the growing anti-communist hysteria of the early fifties in America. He equates the then prevailing political witch hunt with the seventeenth century witch hunts in Salem.
In 1962 the inhabitants of the small town Salem, Massachusetts, feared that there had been an outbreak of witch craft in their midst and authorities took drastic methods to locate it and stamp it out. This is followed by widespread hunt for witches and as a result many innocent people were persecuted. There was still the feel of depression, the fear that everything would disappear.
Certainly, Miller himself felt at odds with his own society and was increasingly alarmed at the witch hunt which gathered pace with the rise of the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, whose career like those of certain puritan divines three centuries before was based on his supposed skills in detecting demonic threats to the state. Miller writes: “There was a new religiosity in the air. I saw forming a kind of interior mechanism of confession and forgiveness of sins which until now had not been rightly categorized as sins.
New sins were being created monthly…above all horrors I saw the accepted notion that conscience was no longer a private matter but one of state administration. I saw men handing conscience to other men and thanking other men for the opportunities of doing so. ” The Crucible is set at a time when society was showing signs of dislocating. Back in England a revolution had taken place which for a time had displaced the king as the elect of god. In America, the ordered puritan community was ringed around by an unsubjugated natural world concealing Indian who fitted all too neatly into the iconography of the church.
Threatened from without, they felt obliged to insist in the absolute nature of religious authority. And so persecution was born out of fear, out of a desire to identify and eliminate subversive forces on the assumption that since any failure of will and purpose could not be a product of their own ideological, it most necessarily be evidence of the demonic. Miller himself identifies the real and inner theme of the Crucible as the handing over of conscience to another, be it woman, the state or a terror and the realization that with conscience goes the person, the soul immortal and the name.
Miller was not concerned with the conflict between classes but with a public challenge to the private conscience. In effect the play is an enquiry into the plight of the individual threatened by the perverse logic of the irrational and confronted with what miller could call by no other name but evil. Possibly miller’s greatest achievement in this play is its dramatization of the fact of evil. Thus the credit of being the first dramatist to recognize the fact of evil in society is conferred on him by many critics of his time.
Moreover, it was not at all surprising that in 1957 he was tried to for contempt of congress and found guilty on two counts, though his convictions were quashed in the following year only on a technicality. Miller was clearly interested in the question of authority and the need to define oneself in terms of opposition to that authority. To him the power of authority ultimately derives from the individual’s acquiescence in the idea of his own insignificance. It was a power which could only be broken by re-asserting that significance – significance of the individual.
Thus Procter announces “I like not the smell of this authority” believing by that it is possible for the individual to abstract himself from the world on which that authority has power. The evil becomes simply an implacable force against which the individual defines himself. Another theme that is seen in all Miller’s works is human infallibility. The problem was never capitalism or a coercive conformity, anti-Semitism or totalitarianism, but the very human nature which in other respects is the only possible defense against these reductive forces.
Private and public history alike begins and ends with the individual with the self. The Crucible is also a drama about the dignity of man. Condemned to death, Procter is offered life if he will confess and thus validate the court. That he is able to resist this is evidence and source of his dignity. He destroys the written lie because though it would save his life, it would ruin both his good name and that of his children. For, the notion of one’s name assumes a talismanic power in miller, an outward sign of integrity.
Like everyman who ‘need to leave a thumbprint somewhere in the world’ he can now inscribe his name justly in the family and the society – in short on the text that is history. The question of private and collective guilt is discussed in the play. Individuals strive to conceal the sense of guilt by complying. Generally it was guilt in this historic instance resulting from the awareness that they were not as rightist as people were supposed to be that the tenor of public pronouncements were alien to them and that they must be somehow discoverable as enemies of the power overhead.
In the play, however, there was an attempt to move beyond the discovery and unveiling of the hero’s guilt, guilt that kills the personality. According to Miller public behavior does not corrupt private relations. It is a projection of them. In this play, as in his other plays we see a concern to see in private lives the origins of private issues. The dilemma of John Procter has to do with the substance and integrity of his identity. Yet the battle which he wages with himself is definitely related to larger issues.
Denial and betrayal are marks not only of the individual but of a society whose leaders deny that very mutuality their justification for existence. Throughout this play, we see Miller relating evidently the private dilemma of an individual to the essence of a public concern, as he recognized the present as the price to be paid for the past. Thus we see him discovering in history the key to current dilemmas as well as a connection between ourselves and those from whose past failures we believe ourselves immune.