Many critics, as E. Miller Budick reminds us,
believe that “Miller’s Crucible…fails
to reach the social, historical and (therefore) moral depth
of a great work of art." Budick records one such view
in his article “History and Other Spectres in Arthur
Miller’s The Crucible": “In his Defense
of Historical Literature, David Levin has argued that
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible fails to achieve
artistic profundity because of Miller’s inability to
project seventeenth-century sensibilities and thus to sympathize
with them. The play, in Levin’s view, and in the views
of many other critics as well, is not seriously historical
and, therefore, not seriously literary or political."
For the play to be considered “a great work of art,"
a critic like Levin wants Miller to create a realistic representation
of the time period in which the play takes place, a forward
projection of a hypothetical seventeenth century.
Other critics have also rallied for a realistic representation
of the past. For example, Edmund S. Morgan in “Arthur
Miller’s The Crucible and the Salem Witch Trials:
A Historian’s View" argues that the profounder
implications of the work are darkened by the identification
of Puritanism as the antagonist. He concedes that if “the
artist binds himself too closely to known factual details,
the result may bring aesthetic disaster…And the historical
record is almost never sufficiently full to equip the artist
with the details he needs for persuading [the audience], details
of things said and seen and heard, without which his enterprise
is doomed. Although he does not mind that Arthur Miller, after
studying the “massive two volume record of the trials
located in the Essex County Archives at Salem, Massachusetts,"
changed the eleven-year-old Abigail Williams from a child
into a woman or that he manufactured her love affair with
John Proctor (actually sixty years older at the time of the
trials), a love affair, as William J. McGill notes, that exists
nowhere in the records, Morgan feels that the partial identification
of Puritanism as antagonist allows us to flatter ourselves
and miss the hard and valuable lessons history has to teach
Specifically, he states: “Man is the antagonist against
which human dignity must always be defended: not against Puritanism,
not against Nazism or communism, or McCarthyism, not against
the Germans or the Russians or the Chinese, not against the
Middle Ages or the Roman Empire. As long as we identify the
evil in the world with some particular creed or with some
people remote in time or place, we flatter ourselves and cheapen
the dignity and greatness of those who resist evil. The Germans,
we say, or the Russians are inhuman beasts who trample humanity
in the mud. We would never do such a thing. Belsen is in Germany.
Salem Village is in the seventeenth century. It is a comforting
and specious thought. It allows us to escape from the painful
knowledge that all of us are capable of evil. The glory of
human dignity is that any man may show it. The tragedy is
that we are all equally capable of denying it."
Here Morgan argues that Puritanism did not cause the Salem
witch trials; all different kinds of people did – humans
are equally capable of committing such atrocities. By 1692,
he explains, the witch-hunting craze was sweeping Europe:
“During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries some
thousands of witches were executed in the British Isles, an
estimated 75,000 in France, 100,000 in Germany, and corresponding
numbers in other European countries." In fact, the Salem
trials ended relatively quickly and with far fewer casualties,
a testament, he believes, to the Puritan conscience. Also,
the temptation in reviewing the trials in our country is to
blame the Puritan clergy which Morgan believes is “all
nonsense." Prosecutors and defendants alike were Puritan,
and the role of the clergy was mostly a deterring one. Although
the clergy was not loud enough soon enough, the protest against
the legitimacy of “spectral evidence" eventually
ended the Salem hysteria. The people realized the trials were
unfair. On January 15, 1697, they even set aside a “day
of fasting, in which the whole colony might repent."
As we well know, Aristotle explains in the Poetics
that the best writers touch universal human experience through
the telling of a particular event. This is the “moral
depth" in a work of art that critics like Edmund S.
Morgan and David Levin try to find in The Crucible
– and cannot. For Morgan in particular, the juxtaposition
– Proctor vs. Puritanism – allows us to identify
with the flawed Proctor and to distance ourselves from Puritanism.
Thus the author offers “his audience an escape they
do not deserve." We do not recognize ourselves in Miller’s
Puritans, Morgan argues, so we are deprived of the shock of
recognition from which we learn the great lessons of history.
Once we recognize the universal truth that we are imperfect,
only then, his reasoning goes, can we work toward achieving
perfection in what Perry Miller termed “this world of
imperfections." According to Morgan, Arthur Miller let
this point slip right through his fingers.
Another critic, John Gassner, notes that the “Broadway
production of The Crucible…was received with
qualification." Indeed, Gassner himself points out problems
he sees in the play. He states that it “had a little
too much pomp at times that better dramatic poetry might have
transfigured, and too much stiffness that the author might
have avoided had he dealt with his own times and been less
conscious of period"; there exists a “certain
stiffness in the characterization"; the play is, indeed,
“imperfect." Gassner concludes his critique by
observing the following: “My major regret about this
writer is that he is not enough of a poet. I doubt that any
post-Shakespearean dramatist could have solved the problems
inherent in Miller’s material, but a true poet could
have transcended them. He could have placed the play beyond
time and locality and carried us into the center of tragic
vision. A more poetic playwright could also have economized
on those parts of the plot that are necessarily merely transitional
and supplementary and therefore are relatively flat."
Walter Kerr, in his 1953 review in the New York Herald
Tribune, wrote, “The Crucible, which opened
at the Martin Beck Thursday,…seems to me to be taking
a step backward into mechanical parable, into the sort of
play which lives not in the warmth of humbly observed souls
but in the ideological heat of polemic." For Kerr, Miller’s
play is an analytical argument, a treatise, rather than a
heartfelt play about human lives. He asserts: “Salem,
and the people who live, love, fear and die in it, are really
only conveniences to Mr. Miller, props to his thesis. He does
not make them interesting in and for themselves, and you wind
up analyzing them, checking their dilemmas against the latest
headlines, rather than losing yourself in any rounded, deeply
rewarding personalities. You stand back and think; you don’t
really share much."
Kerr views The Crucible as a sort of research paper
on a topic; he doesn’t feel that Miller is sympathetic
with his characters which, in turn, disallows the audience
to be sympathetic toward them. Rather, Miller and the audience
coldly dissect the political message of the play and never
feel for the characters and their situation.
Many critics offers negative comments like those I have just
recounted. “The first act is too diffuse," John
Ferres might say, or the “treatment of the plot is too
conventional after Death of a Salesman." Despite
this barrage of criticism leveled at the play, it was revived
off-Broadway a few years after it originally opened where
it ran for a remarkable 500 performances; it played in France
for several consecutive seasons; it maintains a permanent
place in the repertories of illustrious companies like that
of Sir Laurence Olivier’s National Theater in England;
next to Death of a Salesman, it remains Miller’s
most popular play both in the classroom and in the theater.
Since it off-Broadway revival, Ferres notes, it has been in
continuous production in the countries and overseas; published
copies of the play fly off bookstore shelves; in 1996, The
Crucible was even made into a film starring such Hollywood
notables as Winona Ryder, Daniel Day Lewis, and Joan Allen
who received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting
actress for her portrayal of Elizabeth Proctor.
So why, despite savage censure, do audiences, theater groups,
and filmmakers still appreciate this work?
The answer may reside in the fact that the protagonist, John
Proctor, represents the postmodern condition of humanity.
In him, audiences may have found the anxieties and pressures
that comprise what Fredric Jameson in “Postmodernism
and Consumer Culture" calls “a new type of social
life and a new economic order – what is often euphemistically
called modernization, postindustrial or consumer society,
the society of the media or the spectacle, or multinational
capitalism." The individual in this society is overwhelmed
by “internal contradiction and by external resistance"
which, and I am still following Jameson, result from societal
conditions like the following: “New types of consumption;
planned obsolescence; an ever more rapid rhythm of fashion
and styling changes; the penetration of advertising, television,
and the media generally to a hitherto unparalleled degree
throughout society; the replacement of the old tension between
city and country, center and province, by the suburb and by
universal standardization; the growth of the great networks
of superhighways and the arrival of automobile culture."
Although Miller’s play does not literally and directly
cope with the anxieties Jameson lists, anxieties that construct
the schizophrenic, postmodern self, Miller’s Proctor
is deeply divided and overwhelmed. Audiences may appreciate
Proctor because they watch him struggle with his divided moral
conscience and an overwhelming institution. These struggles
are postmodern struggles. Proctor is the quintessential postmodern
In our limited time together, I want to examine just two characteristics
relating to Proctor that are the most strikingly postmodern:
schizophrenia and anxiety over repressive institutions.
Schizophrenia, as Jameson uses the terms in Postmodernism,
or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, does not pretend
to be a literal diagnosis of a severe psychological disorder.
Rather, the term is appropriated from psychoanalysis because
it provides a loose approximation of a less severe psychological
phenomenon that occurs in the postmodern psyche. Here, Jameson
summarizes the elements of Lacanian and Saussurean theory
that comprise this problem: “Lacan describes schizophrenia
as a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking
syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitute an utterance
or meaning … His conception of the signifying chain
essentially presupposes one of the basic principles (and one
of the great discoveries) or Saussurean structuralism, namely,
the proposition that meaning is not a one-to-one relationship
between signifier and signified, between the materiality of
language, between a word or a name, and its referent or concept.
Meaning on the new view is generated by the movement from
signifier to signifier. What we generally call the signified
– the meaning or conceptual content of an utterance
– is now rather to be seen as a meaning-effect, as that
objective mirage of signification generated and projected
by the relationship of signifiers among themselves. When that
relationship breaks down, when the links of the signifying
chain snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble
of distinct and unrelated signifiers."
The breakdown of the signifying chain causes the breakdown
of a coherent self. The postmodern individual, as a result
of overwhelming stressors, is unable to unify here or his
own biographical experience, psyche, or moral existence. Objective
reality disintegrates; ideologies are rattled. The “heterogeneity
and profound discontinuities" attack the subject and
cause a fragmentation of the personality. So profound is this
break down, in fact, that many postmodern theorists declared
the death of the subject itself, the end of the ego, the decentering
of the psyche.
While this idea is still controversial and difficult to prove,
the more conservative observation Jameson makes in “Postmodernism
and Consumer Society" conveys more closely the idea
of schizophrenia appropriate for my purpose. He states that
the schizophrenic does not know personal identity since the
feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence
of the “I" and “me" over time. This
stable identity is shaken by such societal evolutions as industrial
momentum, general concepts of speed, overpopulation, technological
advance in transportation and communication (collapsing distance
and time), and movement to urban centers, as Jameson reminds
us in The Seeds of Time. In addition, the proliferation
of television, newspapers, magazines, email, the internet,
movies, television, faxes, long distance calls, cell phones,
etc., exposes the subject to myriad religious, political,
moral views further destabilizing the ideological foundations
of an identity. Terrorism, of course, further contributes
to this unwinding.
The anxiety caused by repressive institutions brings us to
another element intrinsic to the postmodern condition in our
late capitalist period. Jameson even roots the term “late
capitalism" in this system of bureaucracy, big government,
and big business. He explains:
“As far as I can see, the general use of the term late
capitalism originated with the Frankfurt School; it is everywhere
in Adorno and Horkheimer, sometimes varied with their own
synonyms (for example, “administered society")…which,
derived essentially from Grossman and Pollack, stressed two
essential features: (1) a tendential web of bureaucratic control
(in its more nightmarish forms, a Foucault-like grid avant
la lettre), and (2) the interpenetration of government
and big business (“state capitalism") such that
Nazism and the New Deal are related systems (and some form
of socialism, benign or Stalinist, also seems on the agenda)."
Although Jameson believes the use of the term accepts “the
expansion of the state sector and bureaucratization"
as a natural fact of life, I would argue the “emergence
of new forms of business organizations" like multinational
corporations, international banks and stock exchanges, and
a global, interrelated media-computer network continues to
provide overwhelming anxiety and palpable forms of oppression.
Thus, in revised form, the Kafkaesque web of bureaucratic
control and the penetration of multinational corporations,
for example, continue to subsume individuals whose needs are
placed behind those of the institution (as certain accounting
scandals have clearly shown us), i.e. behind the institution’s
Jameson does concede, however, that the enormous scale of
multinational capitalism does, in itself, represent a psychological
strain. Comprehending the vast global market and communications
systems can, indeed, be overwhelming. He acknowledges that
this network can be “difficult for our minds and imaginations
to grasp." This apprehensiveness, in turn, manifests
itself in a “whole mode of contemporary entertainment
literature – one is tempted to characterize it as ‘high
tech paranoia’ – in which the circuits and networks
of some putative global computer are narratively mobilized
by labyrinthine conspiracies of autonomous but deadly interlocking
and competing information agencies in a complexity often beyond
the capacity of the normal mind" – the films of
Will Smith, Steven Spielberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the novels
of Dean Koontz and Tom Clancy, indeed The Matrix,
all come to mind.
In these narratives, individuals struggle to find a place,
ideological or otherwise, within the matrix, but this project
is not limited to fictional cultural narratives. Individuals
struggle with this mental chaos in the lived world, daily.
Jameson even calls for a “new political art" that
will help the postmodern subject draw a clarifying “cognitive
map" that will “hold to the truths of postmodernism,
that is to say, to its fundamental object – that is
to say, to its fundamental object – the world space
of multinational capital – at the same time at which
it achieves some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing
this last, in which we may, again begin to grasp our positioning
as individual and collective subjects and regain our capacity
to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our
spatial as well as out social confusion."
This is the daily struggle. Individuals strive to find a sense
of place within a vast and terrifying landscape. They fight
to break through the oppressive framework of this system and
find their position. The social confusion, Jameson suggests,
can only be resolved through a new kind of cognitive mapping.
In this process, individuals would have to consider their
own ideological framework and examine government, religious,
and corporate institutions. They would then have to map their
ideological place within that network.
Thus the institutional oppression of the postmodern world
forces the individual to search for an identity that can cope
with this pressure. The subservience of the individual to
the larger institutions and the anxiety over comprehending
such a vast system increases the feeling of isolation and
loneliness. Postmodern subjects must fight to maintain an
identity and an ideological stance within this threatening
web. If they do not, they risk being subsumed by the system
and losing their identity – in essence, losing their
name. Certainly, the protagonists in DeLillo and Ellis and
Pynchon novels have shown us little else.
In the early 1950s, in New York City, Miller was already sensing
much of the disturbing truth I have been discussing, and he
packed it into Proctor. Postmodern audiences may be fascinated
with this protagonist because they recognize in him the postmodern
schizophrenic struggling with hegemonic institutions –
damn the seventeenth century, they might say, what can I learn
from Proctor when I sit down to watched him in the late twentieth
century or when I watch him today? Of course, even the most
lax student of history could argue repression has always existed.
Indeed. As we all know, The Crucible’s main
purpose was to satirize McCarthyism. But there is something
that intensifies in and disintegrates the postmodern psyche,
and it is this increase, this stepping up that Miller captures
so well in his play and to which later audiences respond.
In the second prose insert of the first act, Miller describes
Procter: “He is a sinner, a sinner not only against
the moral fashion of his time, but against his own vision
of decent conduct … Proctor … has come to regard
himself as a kind of fraud." He’s internally divided.
His affair with Abigail Williams has violated the theocratic
rules under which he lives, and it has violated his own personal
sense of right and wrong. This struggle, between the side
of him that desires Abigail and the side of him that loves
his wife, causes a split within him. The split destabilizes
his identity by shaking his ideological foundations. He is
left off balance searching for a stable sense of self.
Later in the first act, Proctor comes to visit the sick Betty
Parris and discover the truth about the witchcraft rumor.
After he enters Betty’s room, all of Abigail’s
friends leave, and the two are left alone with the unconscious
Betty. When Proctor leaves, Abigail “springs into his
path." We can see Proctor’s fragmentation very
clearly in this scene. He “clutched" Abigail’s
back “behind the house" once, but now he tries
to resist her “concentrated desire." Even his
resistance is complicated, however, when we learn that he
didn’t sever the relationship himself; rather, his wife
found out about the affair and “put" Abby out.
Only now, after his wife has taken a stand, is Proctor able
to say, “Put it out of mind, Abby." Additionally,
Proctor never denies Abigail’s last statement, “You
loved me then and you do now!" He admits he has stood
under her window some nights, but he says, “Abby, I
may think of you softly from time to time. But I will cut
off my hand before I’ll reach for you again. Wipe it
out of your mind. We never touched." Abigail retorts,
“Aye, but we did." The deeply divided Proctor
answers, “Aye, but we did not." First, he denies
something he knows to be true. Then his last sentence is oxymoronic.
One half replies with an affirmative “aye" while
the other replies with a negative “we did not."
Proctor battles his conscience, religion, neighborhood, wife,
and Abby. These pressures, coupled with his libidinal desire,
shatter him, breaking him into contradictory elements.
Later, Putnam accuses Proctor of missing too much church.
Proctor relies, “I have trouble enough without I come
five mile to hear him preach only hellfire and damnation.
Take it to heart…there are many others who stay away
from church these days because you hardly ever mention God
anymore." Here, Proctor takes a stand against the hegemonic
ideological state apparatus: the church. He also challenges
the economic order arguing: “You cannot command Mr.
Parris. We vote by name in this society, not by acreage."
Abundant capital may rule, but Proctor resists that system
and asserts the rights of the individual.
Again, Proctor turns his attention to Parris who angrily accuses
him of starting a faction. “Against you?" Proctor
asks. “Against him and all authority," Putnam
interjects. “Why then I must find it and join it,"
Proctor taunts. He underscores this point later announcing,
“I mean it most solemnly…I like not the smell
of this ‘authority.’" Proctor is angry with
the constraints that religion and class order place on him.
On another level, as Wendy Schissel points out, he may also
be rebelling against the societal sexual mores that prevent
him from enjoying his relationship with Abby. As the scene
closes, Proctor again argues with Putnam over land, borders,
willed property; Proctor is unwilling to let legal complexities
and property rights dictate his behavior.
When Mary Warren returns to the Proctor home, she tells John
and Elizabeth that Elizabeth has been accused. With no further
details, Elizabeth knows that Abigail has accused her of being
a witch. She begs John to talk to Abigail, explaining that
Abby intends to have her hung and take her place as John’s
wife. Proctor answers, “She cannot think it!"
Miller follows this comment with the stage direction: “He
knows it is true." The divided Proctor says one thing
and believes another.
Single handedly, Proctor attempts to defy the authorities
that come into his house. He reasons with them explaining
that the accusation is fueled by revenge. They don’t
listen, and Elizabeth goes peacefully. Proctor has lost his
battle with the bureaucratic machine, but he gathers strength
for the next round yelling, “I will fall like an ocean
on that court!"
As the curtain falls on the second act, Proctor commits himself
to the coming conflict. He is strong, determined, ready to
take on the theocratic monster. Miller emphasizes Proctor’s
strength and commitment by contrasting her to the spineless
Mary Warren prostrate, sobbing, “I cannot." Proctor
has begun the process, described by Deleuze and Guattari,
of breaking through the capitalist barrier, picking up the
broken pieces of himself, and building a new identity from
The third act brings Proctor to court where he must face Danforth
and Hathorne. Proctor loses patience, calls Abby a whore,
and confesses. Stripped bare, he stand exposed with the weight
of Danforth’s court pressing down upon him. He supplies
Danforth with the reason for Abigail’s behavior, but
the bureaucratic machinery rolls forward.
In “Arthur Miller’s ‘Weight of Truth’
in The Crucible," Stephen Marino observes that
Miller uses the idea of weight ten times throughout the play.
Marino believes the playwright reveals the central theme of
his play through this device: “How an individual’s
struggle for truth often conflicts with society." The
most memorable mention of weight comes in the last act when
Elizabeth recounts Giles Corey’s death. This image of
stones crushing an individual serves as an excellent image
for the point I have been discussing.
When audiences first saw The Crucible in the 1950s,
the first fissures were beginning to show in a predominantly
conformist society, knitted together in order to face two
world wars and a depression as a united front. The 1960s saw
incredible social change and marks, according to many theorists,
including Derrida, the beginning of the postmodern period.
As already noted, anxieties result from the oppressive matrix
of bureaucratic control, government intrusion, religious oppression,
and corporate domination. This anxiety, in turn, leads to
a fragmented identity, crashing into competing ideologies.
For Deleuze and Guattari, the subject that does not split,
or become schizophrenic, falls victim to capitalist brainwashing
and becomes part of the system. However, the subject that
does split reveals a rebellious streak within and has at least
a fraction of a self that resists societal bondage and can
rebuild a cohesive identity. This fraction is the only chance
individuals have to be free and “keep their name"
– Proctor’s struggle near the end of act four.
C. R. Visweswara, one critic who admires the play, explains:
“Slowly, he [Proctor] comes to realize that his soul
and his name are virtually synonymous…John Proctor refuses
to sell his friends by naming them and tears up his confession
and goes to execution but preserves his soul from corruption.
He thus attacks the whole system that the court represents.
His protest against theocracy’s repressive, irrational
use of authority and against the judges, who abnegate the
most common sense rules of evidence while they intimidate
the community into accepting a self-serving view of justice
ends in frustration. It is again this conflict between the
rights of individuals and corrupt society which gives The
Crucible its universality, its contemporaneity."
Many hope to overcome their postmodern struggles in a manner
as admirable as Proctor’s.
Critics are touch on Miller’s play. They want a realistic
representation of the 1690s; they want Puritanism to be treated
fairly; they want a little less pomp; they want a little more
poetry; they want a little less polemical heat; they want
a little more delicate, humble feeling. By dwelling on their
perception of the play’s weaknesses, however, many of
these critics may be failing to recognize what is obvious
to the lay audience.
Many see Proctor as a metaphor for their own condition in
the postmodern era. As a result of conflicting allegiances,
to himself and to his society, he displays schizophrenic tendencies;
in addition, a quasi-corporate entity threatens to engulf
him. By the end of the play, he transmogrifies the fragmentation
into a positive experience by latching on to the pieces of
himself he likes and rebuilding his identity outside of the
rules and regulations of the repressive ideological state
Miller’s play just may be the “new political art"
Jameson calls for, helping the postmodern subject draw a clarifying
“cognitive map." His success becomes a model for
us. We admire his newfound clarity and become inspired to
draw our own cognitive maps. We respect his integrity and
hope to find this same characteristic within ourselves.