Hysteria and Ideology in The Crucible (1953)

by Richard Hayes from: Richard Hayes, "Hysteria and Ideology in The Crucible," Commonweal 57 (February 1953), p. 498.

It is altogether possible that Mr. Arthur Miller was prompted to the composition of his latest play by the malign politico-cultural pressures of our society, but whatever the impulse, it has issued in a drama of arresting polemic distinction.

The Crucible does not, I confess, seem to me a work of such potential tragic force as the playwright's earlier Death of a Salesman; it is the product of theatrical dexterity and a young man's moral passion, rather than of a fruitful and reverberating imagination. But it has, in a theatre of the small success and the tidy achievement, power, the passionate line--an urgent boldness which does not shrink from the implications of a large and formidable design.

With the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 as a moral frame and point of departure, Mr. Miller has gone on to examine the permanent conditions of the climate of hysteria. The New England tragedy was for him, dramatically, a fortuitous choice because it is accessible to us imaginatively; as one of the few severely irrational eruptions American society has witnessed, it retains still its primitive power to compel the attention. And it exhibits, moreover, the several features of the classically hysterical situation: the strange moral alchemy by which the accused becomes inviolable; the disrepute which overtakes the testimony of simple intelligence; the insistence on public penance; the willingness to absolve if guilt is confessed.

It is imaginative terror Mr. Miller is here invoking: not the solid gallows and the rope appall him, but the closed and suffocating world of the fanatic, against which the intellect and will are powerless.

It is a critical commonplace that the commitments of Mr. Miller's plays are ideological rather than personal--that he does not create a world so much in its simple humanity, or its perceptible reality, as in its intellectual alarms and excursions. The Crucible reinforces this tradition.

Despite the fact that he is often at his best in the "realist" vein, Mr. Miller, like any good heir of the thirties, is preoccupied with ideology. He has a richer personal sense of it than comparable writ- ers, but the impulse remains unaltered. His characteristic theme is integrity, and its obverse, compromise. In earlier plays, Miller frequently brought to this subject a distressing note of stridency; one often felt that, really, the battle had long since been won, and that this continued obsession with it was an indication not of seriousness, but perhaps of some arrested moral development.

In The Crucible, however, he has stated his theme again with a wholly admirable concision and force. His central figure is John Proctor, another spokesman for rational feeling and the disinterested intelligence. Proctor is so patently the enemy of hysteria that his very existence is a challenge to the fanatic temperament, and he is consumed by its malice. What gives the situation a fresh vitality is Miller's really painful grasp of its ambiguities: the dilemma of a man, fallible, subject to pride, but forced to choose between the "negative good" of truth and morality, and the "positive good" of human life under any dispensation. Around this crisis of conscience, Mr. Miller has written an exhaustive, exacerbated scene-one of his most truly distinguished, and one which most hopefully displays the expanding delicacy of his moral imagination.

It is difficult, however, to feel that the political complexities inherent in The Crucible have been approached by Mr. Miller with any comparable sensitivity. He has, admittedly, disclaimed intent of contemporary reference in the play, choosing to see in it only the tragedy of another society. But it would be fatuous of Mr. Miller to pretend that our present cultural climate had not always a place in the foreground of his mind. Surely then, he can see that the Salem witch-hunts and our own virulent varieties are parallel only in their effects, not in their causes.

Dramatically, The Crucible maintains always that provocative interest and distinction one has come to associate with the work of this playwright. Mr. Miller has, on the whole, handled the Puritan idiom discreetly, despite the somewhat "official" taint of the weak prologue, and several unfortunate lapses into the contemporary. Mr. Miller will have his poetry, though; in Death of a Salesman he often resorted to a kind of bastard Whitman rhetoric, while The Crucible, especially in its hysterical imagery, owes an inordinatedebt to the King James Bible. But language is handled here generally with considerable skill and sensibility.

Of the production at the Martin Beck, one can have very little criticism. Arthur Kennedy plays Proctor with all his assured style and intense virility, while Walter Hampden, Beatrice Straight and E. G. Marshall lend a grave and sober excellence to other figures in this Salem landscape. Mr. Jed Harris has directed boldly, with no shyness of scenes and curtains operatic in their intensity (and what a splendid opera might be made out of the Salem trials, incidentally). What The Crucible enriches and again asserts is the range, the variety and continuing interest of the American polemic tradition....

  • For more, see an excerpt from Leonard Moss's introductory book on Miller. Also have a look at this web site designed for high school students: http://www.shawsheen.tec.ma.us/crucible/main3.htm


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