Inspired by the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, focuses on the inconsistencies of the Salem witch trials and the extreme behavior that can result from dark desires and hidden agendas.
Miller bases the play on the historical account of the Salem witch trials. In particular he focuses on the discovery of several young girls and a slave playing in the woods, conjuring — or attempting to conjure — spirits from the dead. Rather than suffer severe and inevitable punishment for their actions, the girls accused other inhabitants of Salem of practicing witchcraft. Ironically, the girls avoided punishment by accusing others of the very things of which they were guilty. This desperate and perhaps childish finger-pointing resulted in mass paranoia and an atmosphere of fear in which everyone was a potential witch. As the number of arrests increased, so did the distrust within the Salem community. A self-perpetuating cycle of distrust, accusation, arrest, and conviction emerged. By the end of 1692, the Salem court had convicted and executed nineteen men and women.
Miller creates an atmosphere and mood within the play reminiscent of the historical period and of Puritan culture. The inhabitants of Salem lived in a restrictive society. Although the Puritans left England to avoid religious persecution, they based their newly established society upon religious intolerance. The Puritans demonstrated their faithfulness, honesty, and integrity through physical labor and strict adherence to religious doctrine. They considered material and physical wants — especially sexual desires — as the Devil's work and a threat to society. The Bible and the minister's interpretation of the Bible determined what was considered socially acceptable behavior. The Puritans had no tolerance for inappropriate or unacceptable behavior and punished individuals publicly and severely if they transgressed. Miller captures the intolerance and religious fanaticism of the period and effectively incorporates them into the play.
Reading about the Salem witch trials and the paranoid frenzy going on at the time is one thing, but witnessing the trials first hand is quite another experience. Miller permits the audience to do just that by transforming the faceless names from history into living, breathing characters with desires, emotions, and freewill. Miller did make adjustments to the ages, backgrounds, and occupations of several of the individuals mentioned in the historical records, however. For example, he lowers the age gap between John Proctor and Abigail Williams from sixty and eleven, respectively, to thirty-five and seventeen, enabling the plot line of an affair between the two. Proctor and his wife Elizabeth ran an inn as well as a farm, but Miller eliminates this detail. Proctor's friend Giles Corey was actually pressed to death a month after Proctor's execution; however, Miller juxtaposes his death and Proctor's. Finally, Miller chose to omit the fact that Proctor had a son who was also tortured during the witch trials because he refused to confess to witchcraft.
Although no one can know for certain what the actual individuals thought, felt, or believed, Miller's incorporation of motive into the play's characters provides his audience with a realistic scenario that is both believable and applicable to society. For example, when the play was first produced during the 1950's, as McCarthyism submerged America in paranoia and fear, audiences could relate to the plot because Americans were turning in their friends so they would not be labeled as Communists. Although today's society may not be engaged in so-called "witch hunts," stories of an individual attempting to reestablish a relationship with a former lover by eliminating what he or she perceives to be the only obstacle — the person currently involved in a relationship with the former lover — are not uncommon. This classic love triangle appears repeatedly in literature, not to mention the supermarket tabloids.
Miller's exploration of the human psyche and behavior makes the play an enduring masterpiece, even though McCarthyism has faded into history. On one hand Miller addresses a particularly dark period in American history — a time in which society believed the Devil walked the streets of Salem and could become manifest in anyone, even a close neighbor or, worse yet, a family member. On the other hand, Miller moves beyond a discussion of witchcraft and what really happened in Salem to explore human motivation and subsequent behavior. The play continues to affect audiences by allowing them to see how dark desires and hidden agendas can be played out.
Abigail is a young woman who seizes an opportunity to reverse fate. She has had an affair with Proctor, who now refuses to continue the affair out of a mixture of guilt and loyalty to his wife. Abigail takes advantage of the chance to eliminate Proctor's wife by accusing her of witchcraft, giving Abigail the opportunity to marry Proctor, while elevating herself within the Salem community. Although Abigail enjoys being the chief witness of the court, her chief desire is to obtain Proctor, and she will do anything to bring this about, including self-mutilation and murder.
The Putnams also seize opportunity. The Royal Charter was revoked in 1692 and original land titles became invalid, creating a crisis of property rights. Individuals no longer felt secure with their landholdings because they could be reassigned at any time. As a result, neighbors distrusted one another and feuds broke out regarding property rights and clear deeds of ownership. Miller incorporates this aspect of the period into the play through the character of Mr. Putnam. Like Abigail, a hidden agenda guides Putnam, namely his greed for land. He too, will stop at nothing to satisfy his desire, even if attaining his goal means murdering his neighbors by falsely accusing them of witchcraft so he can purchase their lands after their executions.
Miller's title, The Crucible, is appropriate for the play. A crucible is a container made of a substance that can resist great heat ; a crucible is also defined as a severe test. Within the context of the play the term takes on a new meaning: not only is the crucible a test, but a test designed to bring about change or reveal an individual's true character. The witch trials serve as a metaphorical crucible, which burns away the characters' outer shells to reveal their true intentions and character beneath. Throughout the play, Miller carefully peels away the layers of each character so that the audience not only can identify the character's motivation, but also can reevaluate the character through his or her actions. In other words, the audience observes the character as he or she is tested, and the audience ultimately determines if he or she passes the test.
Proctor provides an excellent example. His affair with Abigail results in a fall from grace, not only with his wife Elizabeth, but also within himself. Proctor believes he is damned and cannot possibly regain Elizabeth's love and respect, not to mention his own self-respect and moral uprightness. Proctor is tested severely when he goes to the court to defend Elizabeth. In order to save his wife, he must publicly announce his sin and, therefore, lose his good name. Although he gives up his good name in court, he regains it at the end of the play by destroying his signed confession. The audience watches Proctor as the play progresses and judges his actions according to his motivations and reactions to the various "tests" through which he passes. As the audience observes the characters, the audience itself is tested and forced to acknowledge that desire — whether positive, such as the desire for pleasure, or negative, such as lust, greed, or envy — is a realistic part of life. The realization that desire affects individuals and their behavior keeps the audience engrossed in the play. The Crucible is divided into four acts; however, Miller does not include scene breaks within the play. It is possible to break each act into several scenes based upon shifts in location, and the entry and/or exit of characters.
The original version of the play included an encounter between John Proctor and Abigail in the woods; however, Miller chose to remove Act II, Scene 2, as it changed the dynamics of the play. This scene is generally included in the appendix of publications, but is rarely included in production of the play.