Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a true work of literary drama at its best, a tense four act theatre experience that is quite gripping and eloquent with occasional blistering dialogue and heartfelt moments that are quite transportive.
The setting is 1692 in woodsy and agricultural Massachusetts Bay where a passively aggressive divided colony is at each other’s throats. The only unifying factor that keeps Miller’s wobbly Puritans together is work and the church; they go hand-in-hand. And when one equation is missing from the whole, the horns of the characters slowly begin to spike up, and Hell and Satan are more present than they themselves even realize.
The Puritans, who live a life of uncompromising religiosity based solely on the Good Book, the Bible, are subjected to unpredictably brutal attacks from the natives who are an ever-present enemy and who stealthy lurk in the outer fringes of their community. They are an unspoken yet known danger, a forceful essence that can and will absolutely strike terror. As with the natives, there are a myriad of other unspoken causal issues that Miller doesn’t address in respects to the witchcraft nightmare, but those are matters that are to be understood beforehand. Amidst all this, there is heated animosity between Salem Village and Salem Town, two warring factions who are locked against each other. At the play’s beginning, there is already a strained air as suspicion mounts and accusations fly, for misfortune simply does not happen to those who are devout. There must be a manifestation of the dark supernatural involved: incantations, diabolical covenants, ritual dancing and specters of an odious sort. With the heavy pall in the air, it is not simply one or two characters who convey the story of the play but many, albeit they are in a more supporting capacity. And while the complaints of the accusers are directed towards those who are deemed to not have lived a Gospel life, their malcontent, though blended with theology and the paranormal, shows a deeper hatred that is more of an earthly realm. The primary focus really centers on John and Elizabeth Proctor as well as a grouping of others who hold any caliber of economic and political sway but who are not fully conformed and aligned with the community at large.
On the surface, The Crucible reads like just a stellar story about witchcraft and of the primitive thinking of our New England ancestors who were genuinely afraid of being caught up in the Devil’s snare. On that front, it is great campfire storytelling. But, when one delves deeper into the ethos of individuality versus another group’s inherent philosophical belief that communal living is the supreme, and there is a clash between the two ideologies (the successes versus the failures), can reason prevail? Sadly, The Crucible tells us that more-often-than-not, that is the least likely scenario that will arise. Arthur Miller, while pointing out the obvious, does a fantastic job of honing in on that very specific point. If there is not a physical death that arises, as in the Salem cases, then there is an economic and career death, as was manifested in Miller’s own time during the era of McCarthyism and of naming names. What will people be liable to do if they don’t get their own way? And what would the ramifications be for those who disobey and do not “adjust” their inner thinking to that of everyone else’s? Miller, while not the first one to do so, puts forth examples of the past to help us address issues of the present. The drama of The Crucible is an extreme case. And yet, it is true nonetheless. However, it is not always an either/or scenario. Rather it is an intermixture of the two that make a society function, a marrying of the conformity and of the independence. Superb play. Highly recommended.
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