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Miller, Arthur. The Crucible.

Historical Background

Salem Witch Trials

Several factors are thought to have contributed to the outbreak of the trials:

1. Political instability: The Glorious Revolution of 1689 deposed King James II and consequently the governor of New England who was installed by the King. William of Orange and Mary II of England ascended to the throne. Simon Bradstreet and Thomas Danforth were elected governor and deputy governor. King William’s War erupted (1689-97), fought between the French and the English and their respective Indian allies. Local politics in Salem was torn in two fractions, one supporting their first ordained minister Samuel Parris and his demand to be granted the deed to the parsonage as a part of his compensation, the other opposing the choice.

2. Economic reasons: The economy of the settlement was based on agriculture and as such depended on the ownership of land and was affected by changes in the weather or blights. The already cultivated land soon ceased to be sufficient for the increasing number of the population and there was a need to push the frontier westwards. The witch trials also served as a means to get at the property of the land-owning victims.

3. Religious and social causes: It is to be noted that to Puritans the Devil and witchcraft were as real as their own world. All misfortunes, as loss of crops, livestock, or children, were normally inscribed to the wrath of God and to unnatural causes. The witch trials also reflected the feuds and alliances among the village inhabitants, the trials were also used as a brutal means of getting rid of one’s hated neighbour.

An Overview of Personae

Reverend Samuel Parris: In his mid-forties. A widower with no interest in or talent with children. He believes he is being persecuted despite his best efforts to win people and God to his side.

Tituba: In her forties. Reverend’s black slave from Barbados. Simple-minded but good-natured and devoted to children.

Betty Parris: Aged ten. Reverend’s daughter.

Abigail Williams: Aged seventeen. Reverend’s orphaned niece whose parents were killed by Indians. Strikingly beautiful. With an endless capacity for dissembling. A skilful trickster and manipulator.

Susanna Walcott: A little younger than Abigail. Nervous and hurried.

Mercy Lewis: Aged eighteen. A servant of the Putnams. Fat, sly, merciless.

Mary Warren: Aged seventeen. A servant of the Proctors. Subservient, naïve, lonely.

Thomas Putnam: Nearing fifty. A well-to-do landowner. Deeply embittered. He resents Rev. Parris because his own candidate to become the minister of Salem was turned down and Parris was elected instead. As one of the richest man in Salem, deeply interested in parish affairs, Putnam feels offended by the failure of the parish to accept his candidate.

Ann Putnam: Aged forty-five. Putnam’s wife. A death-ridden twisted soul. She successively lost seven babies at child-birth, the only to survive was daughter Ruth.

John Proctor: In his mid-thirties. A strong man in his prime, reasonable and matter-of-fact. Under the surface of a quiet confidence, he is troubled by his conviction of being a sinner not just against the creed of the time but also against his own vision of decent conduct. He has a sharp and biting way with hypocrites.

Elizabeth Proctor: Proctor’s wife. Sickly, cold and detached, concealing her emotions.

Francis Nurse: A venerable and respected man. He does not enjoy good opinion only with the Putnams, with whom he fights a land war and whom he offended by having rejected Thomas Putnam’s candidate for the Salem ministry office.

Rebecca Nurse: Aged seventy-two. Nurse’s wife. A good Christian woman, highly regarded among all neighbours.

Giles Corey: Aged eighty-three. Still powerful and inquisitive. A crank and a nuisance, blamed for everything that goes wrong in the village, but withal an innocent and brave man. A comical character, often gives cause to laughter.

Martha Corey: Corey’s third wife.

Reverend John Hale: Nearing forty. A specialist in witchcraft. An eager intellectual devoted to his learning.

Ezekiel Cheever: A clerk and copyist at Salem trials.

Marshal Herrick: In his early thirties. A prison warder during Salem trials.

Judge Hathorne: In his sixties. Bitter, remorseless. Prosecutor in the trials.

Deputy Governor Danforth: In his sixties. A grave man of some humour and sophistication which however do not interfere with his position.

Sarah Good: An old and poor begging woman.

Summary

‘A Note on the Historical Accuracy of This Play’

The play is not an accurate history. Dramatic purposes required slight alternations, especially in reducing the number of characters. Each of the characters however follows exactly the fate of his or her historical model. Little is known about the characters of the persons, they are therefore the creation of the author who portrayed them in accordance with their known behaviour.

Author’s Comments

Salem Settlement: Salem had been planted hardly forty years before the witch trials began. To the European eye the village ‘was a barbaric frontier inhabited by a sect of fanatics’ (p. 4). The Puritan creed forbade anything resembling ‘vain enjoyment’, including theatre or dance (4). The wilderness of the forest was regarded as the citadel of the Devil. The settlers held it necessary to deny any other belief than their own, lest their society be corrupted by it. Minding other people’s business was considered honourable, as well as informing on one’s neighbour. There was a theocratic government established to keep the community together. The repressions of the rule however came to be regarded as disproportionate to the benefits it provided and there were bids for greater individual freedom.

Political Persecution: The author regards the Devil as a necessary part of our cosmology. The Devil regularly serves as a weapon to bring people to obedience to a particular religious or political body. The Devil is politically motivated: ‘A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence’ (p. 34). The Salem witch hunt is explicitly compared to the communist hunt during the 1950s Red Scare in America: ‘In the countries of the Communist ideology, all resistance of any import is linked to the totally malign capitalist succubi, and in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell’ (34). As to the Salem witch hunt, the author believes that people in Salem did commune with the Devil, and thinks it no extraordinary occurrence in human history.

‘Act One (An Overture)’

Salem, Massachusetts, spring 1692. The house of Reverend Parris.

Reverend Parris kneels praying beside the bed of his daughter Betty who lies inert on the bed. Susanna Walcott brings the news from the doctor who cannot find any explanation for Betty’s sickness in medical books and thinks there might be an unnatural cause. Rev. Parris denies this possibility because he fears that his many enemies would make use of the chance to drive him from the pulpit.

Last night Rev. Parris caught Abigail, Betty, and other girls dancing in the forest. He saw Tituba waving her arms over a bowl and gibbering as if she were conjuring spirits and he also saw one of the girls running naked through the trees. Abigail denies all but that they were dancing to Tituba’s Barbados songs and is ready to accept the punishment of whipping.

Ruth, the only daughter of Ann Putnam and her husband Thomas Putnam, fell sick similarly as Betty the same night. She walks like dead and does not talk. Last night Mrs Putnam sent Ruth to Tituba, who knows how to speak to the dead, to conjure up the spirits of her seven still-born babies and inquire who murdered them. Mrs Putnam believes that the sickness of the girls is a work of a witch who haunts the village.

The rumour of witchcraft spreads and villagers gather in the house of Rev. Parris. He goes down to lead them in a psalm. Abigail remains alone in Betty’s room together with the other girls who were present at the conjuring, Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren. They try to wake Betty up, believing that she is only frightened of punishment for the dancing. Betty suddenly leaps up from the bed, calls for her dead mother, and runs to the window to fly to her.

During the short time when she regains consciousness, Betty mentions that Abigail drank blood last night as a potion to kill the wife of John Proctor. Abigail threatens her and warns her not to dare say it again. Abigail orders the other girls not not confess anything else but the dancing and conjuring of spirits, otherwise she swears to punish them. She appeals especially to the timid Mary Warren who would prefer rather to confess.

Seven months before Abigail attended as a servant to the Proctors until the lady of the house, Elizabeth Proctor, dismissed her from the service. The master of the house, John Proctor, was lost to Abigail’s charms and seduced her. Abigail fell in love with him and she is still waiting for him to come to her at nights. John Proctor regrets his ill conduct and warns Abigail that their affair is over. Abigail refuses to accept this.

Words of the psalm sung by the parishioners downstairs reach Betty lying again inert in the bed. She suddenly covers her ears and starts screaming as if she could not bear to hear the Lord’s name. Rebecca Nurse is among those who rush up to Betty’s bed. By simply standing beside her and letting her gentleness exuding, she manages to calm the girl. She speaks calmly and wisely and as a mother of eleven, she does not blame the Devil and thinks that the child will recover by herself. Mrs Putnam disagrees and blames the spirits for the deaths of her own children.

Local politics in Salem in an entangled web of feuds and alliances based on various reasons. Rev. Parris for instance raises indignity by his demand to be granted the deed to the house he occupies. John Proctor publicly rebels against Reverend’s authority. Proctor himself is in war with Putnam over a piece of forest. Old Giles is loyal to Rev. Parris but warns all the neighbours against what he sees as everybody suing everybody else.

Rev. John Hale arrives from Beverley to examine Betty. He is a man devoted to the study of supernatural forces. Old Giles makes use of the chance to ask Rev. Hale about his own queer experience. He complains of his wife Martha who reads strange books secretly. Last night he could not pray and was able to do so only when Martha closed her book and walked out. In fact he learned any prayers only recently and was likely to stumble over them.

Rev. Hale questions Abigail about what happened the last night. Abigail finally points at Tituba and blames the woman for haunting her and making her drink blood and laugh at prayers. Tituba is shocked and terrified, in fact it was Abigail who begged Tituba to conjure. The two ministers make Tituba confess to witchcraft and give names of those whom she saw with the Devil. Looking as if inspired, Abigail joins Tituba’s confession and so does Betty.

‘Act Two’

Scene 1

Eight days later. The house of John Proctor.

A court sitting takes place with the women charged for witchcraft. Nearly forty people are in jail and their number is rising. Abigail leads a group of girls in pointing at witches and she becomes celebrated as a saint. Those who do not confess to witchcraft are sentenced to hanging, those who do confess are sentenced to prison. Sarah Good, a local beggar, is among the first victims. She is accused by Mary Warren, who acts as one of the officials at the court. Sarah Good allegedly attempted to kill her even at court by sending out her spirit to choke Mary.

John and Elizabeth Proctor have become strangers in their marriage. Elizabeth suspected John’s involvement with Abigail and when she struck at her husband, he confessed. It has been seven months now and since then John has been doing all to please his wife, but she cannot forgive him. Elizabeth presses John to put an end to the madness of the witch hunt by declaring openly what Abigail told him, that is that the mischief of the girls has nothing to do witch witches. John hesitates and Elizabeth suspects him from being still loyal to Abigail.

Rev. Hale pays a visit to the Proctors to test the Christian character of the house. The Proctors rarely attend the church on Sabbath Day and the youngest of their three sons is not baptised. Proctor explains that he does not see the light of God in their new minister Parris. Rev. Hale test John Proctor’s knowledge of the Commandments and John recites all but for one, adultery. Rev. Hale questions John whether he believes in witches and John prefers to answer that he does. Elizabeth however claims that she does not believe in them if she is accused to be one herself.

Rebecca Nurse, the pillar of the church, is arrested for the murder of Goody Putnam’s babies. Martha Corey, another respectable old woman, is arrested for bewitching Walcott’s pigs with her books. Elizabeth Proctor is arrested for attempting to murder Abigail by stabbing a needle into her belly. A poppet is found in Proctors’ house with a needle stuck in its stomach. The poppet was made by Mary Warren who gave it to her mistress the same evening but Rev. Hale and others see it as a proof of Elizabeth’s guilt. John Proctor sees it as vengeance.

Scene 2

Note: This Scene was performed in the original production but dropped in later printed versions.

John Proctor visits Abigail and finds her entirely changed. Abigail claims that John’s love opened her eyes and threw light on the hypocrisy around her. She seeks to cleanse the village from the hypocrites and when her task is over, she will replace Elizabeth as John’s wife because herself and John are the only good persons. John warns Abigail that he is ready to reveal her to be a fraud at court and confess to fornication in order to save his wife. Abigail, entrapped in her godly visions, does not believe him and promises to save him from himself.

‘Act Three’

The next day. Salem meeting house.

General Court is being held with Judge Hathorne serving as a prosecutor. Giles Corey interrupts the session in which his wife Martha is accused and claims that the accusation is a plot devised by Thomas Putnam in order to get hold of Corey’s land. Putnam allegedly prompted his daughter to cry witchery on George Jacobs, presently in jail, so that he could get at his land. An anonymous witness heard Putnam talk about it. Corey refuses to give the name of the witness so as not to put the person in danger, on which he is arrested for contempt of the court.

John Proctor hands over to the court a list of over ninety signatures of neighbours who confirm their good opinion of the accused Rebecca Nurse, Martha Corey, and Elizabeth Proctor. Judge Hathorne orders to have all these people called to court for examination. Proctor brings Mary Warry and she confesses that she bore false witness at court as well as the other girls. Rev. Parris refuses to hear such an accusation but Rev. Hale and Deputy Governor Danforth concede to consider it.

Mary Warren is confronted with Abigail who indignantly denies the accusation. Judge Hathorne orders Mary to pretend fainting as she claims she did at court sessions. Mary is unable to do so. Suddenly Abigail leads the other girls in a fit, crying that Mary has sent out her spirit in the form of a bird which threatens her. Proctor calls Abigail a whore and confesses his lechery. His wife, who has been several times mentioned to be incapable of lying, is sent for to the jail to confirm or deny Proctor’s story. In order to protect her husband, Elizabeth denies John’s infidelity.

Abigail and the other girls continue in indicating Mary as a witch despite her desperate pleads. Mary breaks down and suffers an evident fit of mad screaming and crying. Proctor attempts to comfort her but Mary shrinks before him and calls him a servant of the Devil. Danforth asks Proctor to make a confession of his alliance with the Devil. Proctor reacts wildly by announcing that ‘God is dead’ (p. 119) and Salem is ‘pulling Heaven down and raising up a whore’ (120). Rev. Hale, now convinced that Proctor is telling truth, denounces the court and quits the session.

‘Act Four’

Autumn of the same year. Salem jail.

The prison is crowded with those accused of witchcraft. Many children have become orphans. Cattle strides unattended on the roads, crops rot on the fields. It is the morning of another series of hangings and Marshal Herrick, drunk and heavy-footed, goes to fetch the ragged prisoners. Rev. Hale and Rev. Parris, both sobered from their former devotion to witch hunting, pray with those sentenced to death and try to move them to confess and save their lives through the lie. Rev. Parris, now turned gaunt and unstable, begs Deputy Governor Danforth to put off the hanging as there is a chance that Rev. Hale will make some of the prisoners confess. Danforth refuses.

News spread of the rebellion in Andover where the people have thrown out the court and refused to have anything in common with witchcraft. Also in Salem a faction is forming which seeks to rise up against the hanging of those citizens who have always enjoyed high respect among the neighbours. Abigail and Mercy Lewis have disappeared on board of a ship, probably out of fear on hearing about the Andover uprising. Both Rev. Parris and Rev. Hale are haunted by a sense of responsibility for the suffering to which they contributed. Rev. Hale claims: ‘I come to do the Devil’s work. I come to counsel Christians they should belie themselves. There is blood on my head’ (p. 131)!

Rev. Hale summons Elizabeth Proctor, who was spared due to her pregnancy, and appeals to her: ‘cleave to no faith when faith brings blood. It is mistaken law that leads you to sacrifice. Life, woman, is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it. I beg you, woman, prevail upon your husband to confess. Let him give his lie. Quail not before God’s judgment in this, for it may well be God damns a liar less than he that throws his life away for pride’ (132). Elizabeth hesitates to give such an advice to her husband but she wishes to talk to him and is allowed to do so.

Both the husband and the wife repent what they have done wrong in their marriage. Proctor pleads for Elizabeth’s forgiveness but she refuses to judge him and urges that he should forgive himself above all. She regrets that she never knew how to express her love and takes on herself her part of guilt: ‘It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery’ (137). Elizabeth leaves the decision up to John but assures him that whatever he does, she will think him still a good man. John does confess but he denies having seen anyone else with the Devil and then he refuses to sign the confession. When he does sign it, he thinks better of it and tears the document into peaces.

In the climactic moment, John explains his movement passionately: ‘Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name’ (143)! Together with others, including Rebecca Nurse, Proctor is lead away to the scaffold, reconciled with himself: ‘I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs’ (144). Elizabeth accepts his decision: ‘He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him’ (145)!

‘Echoes Down the Corridor’

Soon after the witch trials ended, Rev. Parris was voted from office, left the town and was never heard of again. According to the legend, Abigail turned up later as a prostitute in in Boston. Elizabeth Proctor remarried four years after the death of John Proctor. Some of the farms belonging to the victims were left to ruin and no one would live on them for more than a century. Twenty years after the last execution, the government awarded compensation to the surviving victims or their families. The excommunications were rescinded. The powerful theocracy in Massachusetts collapsed.

Basics

  • Author

    Miller, Arthur. (1915 - 2005).
  • Full Title

    The Crucible.
  • First Performed

    NY: Martin Beck Theatre, 1953.
  • Form

    Play.

Works Cited

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. 1953. New York: Penguin, 1985.

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