The Crucible, a film released in 1996, was based on the play of the same title by Arthur Miller, which was first performed and published in 1953. The play is based on historical events known as the Salem witch trials, which took place in Massachusetts in 1692. In the trials, more than 150 people were arrested and imprisoned for witchcraft, nineteen of whom were hanged. The play's events are set in motion when a young girl who is infatuated with a married man accuses his innocent wife of witchcraft.
Miller wrote the play at a time in American history characterized by an intense anticommunist suspicion that came to be known as McCarthyism. The events of The Crucible are symbolic of the so-called Red Hunts perpetuated by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his colleagues. More generally, the play is an indictment of intolerance. It quickly became a classic of American literature and is widely studied in schools and colleges. It won an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award and a Donaldson Award in 1953, an Obie Award from Village Voice in 1958, and a Tony Award nomination for best play revival in 2002.
Miller adapted his play into the screenplay of The Crucible. The film, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams, is true to the story line of the play, with much of the dialogue repeated word-for-word. The film met with a largely positive critical response, though it Page 26 | Top of Article fared poorly at the box office. Miller was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The film contains brief scenes of nudity and portrays the aftermath of an adulterous relationship.
The Crucible opens in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. It is night. The girls of the village creep out of their houses and meet in the woods. The slave Tituba leads them in a voodoo ritual to make the men that they wish to marry fall in love with them. Abigail Williams, who has brought a cockerel to the ritual, does not want to reveal the name of the man she is thinking about. The other girls say she is thinking of the married John Proctor. Abigail whispers to Tituba. Tituba, shocked, rebukes Abigail. Abigail grabs the cockerel, smashes it against the ground, and drinks the blood. The girls are hysterical and dance. The meeting is broken up by the unexpected arrival of the Reverend Parris, Abigail's uncle. The girls run off screaming. Parris's daughter, Betty, falls unconscious. This scene is not included in the play.
In Parris's house, Abigail tries in vain to wake Betty Parris, who has gone into a coma-like state. Ruth Putnam also cannot wake since the ritual. The girl's mother, Ann Putnam, is terrified that she may lose her one surviving child, whom she believes has fallen victim to the devil. Her husband, Thomas Putnam, shares her belief, as do some villagers.
Parris demands of Abigail whether the girls were conjuring spirits, but Abigail insists that they only danced. Parris, suspicious, asks Abigail why Elizabeth Proctor, for whom Abigail used to work, fired her. He asks Abigail whether rumors that she had an affair with John Proctor are true. Abigail accuses Elizabeth of spreading lies.
Parris announces that he has invited the Reverend Hale, an expert on witchcraft, to Salem to investigate recent events. Abigail runs with the other girls to Parris's home. They know that people convicted of witchcraft can be hanged. Abigail tries again to wake Betty. Betty wakes and, under the delusion that she can fly, tries to jump out of the window. She accuses Abigail of drinking blood, an activity associated with devil worship, and of making a charm to kill Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail threatens to kill the girls if they tell anyone that they did anything in the woods except dance. Betty goes into convulsions.
Rebecca Nurse arrives and calms Betty just by sitting with her. She believes that the girls are playing a silly game and will soon tire of it. Ann Putnam says that witchcraft must be responsible for the fact that she only has one surviving child left out of eight, but Rebecca believes that only God has the answer to this.
Abigail waits for John Proctor and they talk. Skeptical about the claims of witchcraft, he is amused to hear about her escapades, which she says involved only dancing. Abigail begs him for a kind word and reminds him that he loved her once, before his wife found out about their affair and dismissed her. Proctor insists that their affair is over. He even denies that it happened, but Abigail insists that it did, and she kisses him. He pushes her away. Abigail bitterly complains that Elizabeth is blackening her name. As Proctor walks away, Abigail says that she knows he loves her.
Hale arrives in Salem with a pile of books on witchcraft. Rebecca warns Hale that seeking out evil spirits is dangerous. Hale examines Betty and Ruth for the marks of the devil.
Parris admits to Hale that he found Abigail dancing in the woods (dancing was forbidden by the Puritans). Hale questions Abigail and finds out that at the dance there was a cauldron and a "witches' stew" with a live frog in it. Hale summons all the girls who danced and tells them that they can save themselves by telling him who invoked the devil. When a girl points to Abigail, Abigail accuses Tituba.
Tituba is whipped to force a confession from her. Abigail accuses Tituba of sending her spirit into her and forcing her into devil-worship. Hale asks Tituba when she compacted with the devil. Tituba protests innocence, but as the whipping continues, she breaks down and gives the men the confession they require. Hale and Parris ask Tituba whom she saw with the devil, and Tituba names some village women. Abigail and the girls then call out the names of women whom they say they saw with the devil. The arrests begin.
Judge Danforth is invited from Boston to take charge of the witchcraft trials. Judge Hathorne imprisons and condemns fourteen people to death unless they confess to bewitching the children.
Elizabeth encourages Proctor to tell the court that Abigail told him that what happened in the woods had nothing to do with witchcraft. He is reluctant to denounce Abigail as a fraud because he fears that their affair will be revealed. Elizabeth learns that her husband spoke to Abigail alone, and is suspicious that they are continuing their affair. John is angry that Elizabeth judges him, but she replies that the judge is within his own heart.
Judge Danforth arrives in Salem, and the trials begin. Sarah Osborne is brought into court. She is told that Sarah Good has confessed and so will not be sentenced to death. Sarah Osborne accuses Abigail of making up stories. Ruth Putnam accuses her neighbor, George Jacobs, of being in league with the devil.
Proctor rebukes his servant, Mary Warren, for attending the trials when he forbade her to do so. Mary gives Elizabeth the gift of a doll that she has made. She tells Proctor that she cannot work in the house for a while because she is now an official of the court. She adds that Elizabeth has been accused, but that she defended her. She refuses to name Elizabeth's accuser. Mary informs Proctor that she will not be ordered around. Elizabeth believes her accuser was Abigail, who wants her dead.
Proctor meets Abigail in the forest and tells her to inform the court that her accusations of witchcraft are lies. Abigail accuses Elizabeth of sending her spirit to attack her. Proctor tells Abigail that if she accuses Elizabeth in court, it will be the end of her.
Hale calls on the Proctors and says that Rebecca Nurse is suspected. He questions the Proctors to find out if they are properly Christian. He accuses Proctor of infrequent church attendance and of not baptizing his youngest son. Proctor replies that he does not like Parris's greedy behavior. Hale asks Proctor to recite the Ten Commandments. Proctor forgets one: the prohibition against adultery. Proctor tells Hale that Abigail told him that the children's afflictions are nothing to do with witchcraft. Hale replies that they have already confessed, but Proctor points out that they would be hanged if they did not confess.
Giles Corey and Francis Nurse arrive and tell Proctor that their wives, Martha and Rebecca, have been arrested. Rebecca is charged with the supernatural murder of Ann Putnam's babies. Proctor is incredulous and asks Hale if he still believes these accusations.
Ezekiel Cheever arrives with a warrant for Elizabeth's arrest. Abigail has accused her in court. For the first time, Hale seems doubtful. Cheever asks to see any dolls that Elizabeth keeps, but she says she has not kept dolls since she was a child. Cheever sees the doll that Mary Warren made for Elizabeth. It has a pin stuck in Page 29 | Top of Article its abdomen. Cheever says that Abigail fell to the floor earlier that day. A needle was found in her abdomen, and she claimed that Elizabeth had sent out her spirit to stick it into Abigail. Proctor asks Mary how the doll came to be in his house. Mary says that she made it for Elizabeth and put her sewing needle into the doll for safekeeping. Proctor orders Hale out of his house, demanding to know why the accusers are always assumed to be innocent. Proctor says they are merely settling old scores and vows not to give his wife up to vengeance. Elizabeth is led away.
Proctor orders Mary to tell the court that she made the doll and stuck the needle in it. Mary says if she does, Abigail will turn on her and accuse Proctor of adultery.
In court, Martha Corey is accused of bewitching some pigs that she sold to a man and that had died. Martha says that the pigs died because the man did not feed them. Suddenly, Proctor, Giles Corey, Francis Nurse, and Mary Warren enter. Corey says they have evidence to prove the girls are frauds and that Mary will tell the court the truth. Danforth asks Proctor whether he is trying to disrupt the court, but Proctor says he is only trying to save his innocent wife and friends. Danforth says Proctor need not worry about Elizabeth's immediate execution because she is pregnant and by law cannot be hanged until she has given birth. Proctor shows Danforth a deposition signed by many villagers testifying to the good characters of Elizabeth, Martha, and Rebecca. Danforth responds by ordering the arrest of all those who signed so that they can be examined.
Thomas Putnam is summoned to answer Corey's claim that Putnam praised his daughter Ruth for accusing George Jacobs of witchery because this would win him some land. If Jacobs were hanged, his land would be forfeit, and Putnam would be able to buy the land. Corey says that an unnamed man heard Putnam say this. Corey refuses to name the man, and Danforth arrests him for contempt of court.
Proctor gives Danforth Mary's deposition swearing that she and the other girls lied about the witchcraft. Danforth summons Abigail and the other girls into court. While Proctor and Mary look on, Danforth tells the girls that Mary has sworn that she and the other girls were only pretending about the witchcraft. Abigail says Mary is lying about this and about how the doll came to be in the Proctors' home. Abigail repeats her claim that Elizabeth sent her spirit out to stab her. Danforth says if Abigail is lying, it can only be because she wants Elizabeth to be hanged. Proctor says Abigail does want this.
Judge Hathorne challenges Mary: If she was pretending before, can she pretend to faint now, for the court? Mary cannot, saying that she has no sense of it now. Danforth suggests that this might be because there are no spirits loose at the moment, whereas there had been before. He asks Abigail to look into her heart and say whether she is lying about the witchcraft. Abigail begins to shiver and accuses Mary of bewitching them all. The other girls hysterically join Abigail in shivering. Abigail prays to God for help. Proctor confesses to their affair and tells how Elizabeth dismissed her when she found out. He says Abigail's stories of witchcraft are a whore's vengeance and that she means to replace Elizabeth in Proctor's home.
Danforth summons Elizabeth to confirm or deny the truth of Proctor's assertion. Proctor has told Danforth that Elizabeth has never lied. Danforth orders Proctor and Abigail to turn their backs so that they cannot signal to Elizabeth how she should reply. Elizabeth is brought in and Danforth asks her why she dismissed Abigail. Elizabeth does not know that her husband has already confessed to his affair. She says only that she felt that he fancied Abigail and so fired her. Danforth asks her if Proctor committed adultery. For the first time in her life, Elizabeth lies. Trying to save her husband's reputation, she says no. Proctor tells Elizabeth that he has already confessed to the affair. Elizabeth realizes that she has vindicated Abigail and condemned herself and the other accused persons. Hale tells Danforth that Elizabeth has understandably lied, that private vengeances are behind the accusations of witchcraft, and that Abigail is lying.
Abigail screams, pretending that Mary has sent out her spirit in the form of a yellow bird that is sitting on the ceiling rafter. The girls join in the drama, screaming and running from the courtroom into the river. Mary recants her testimony, claiming that Proctor came to her in spirit form and threatened to murder her if his wife was hanged, forcing her to bear false testimony. Hale says that Mary has lost her reason, but Danforth believes her and says that Proctor is in league with the devil. Proctor shouts out that Page 30 | Top of Article God is dead. Proctor means that good and evil have become confused in the witchcraft saga, but Danforth interprets his words as a sign that Proctor has renounced God for the devil. Proctor is arrested.
Parris announces from the pulpit that all those convicted of witchcraft by the court, including Sarah Osborne, Rebecca Nurse, George Jacobs, Martha Corey, and John and Elizabeth Proctor, are excommunicated from the church.
Some of the supposed witches are hanged publicly, watched by a mob that includes an exultant Abigail and the other girls. Corey is tortured by being pressed under a pile of stones but refuses to give the name of the man who accused Putnam. He asks his torturers to pile on more stones and is pressed to death. This and all the other executions by hanging are shown in the film but not the play, in which they are reported by other characters as having taken place.
The next round of hangings is greeted with silence from the crowd and seems to subdue even Abigail.
Abigail complains to Danforth that Hale's wife is sending out her spirit to attack her. This is too much even for Danforth, who says that the wife of a minister is too pure to do such things. Many villagers have turned against Abigail and the hangings because respected people have refused to confess to witchcraft, thereby saving themselves.
In a scene that does not exist in the play, Abigail visits Proctor in prison and begs him to run away with her to Barbados. She says she only acted out of desire for him and adds that the jailer will let him escape. She asks him to meet her on the ship. Proctor replies that they will meet in hell, and Abigail runs off alone.
Parris tells Danforth that Abigail stole all his money before running away. Parris asks Danforth to postpone the executions of Proctor, Martha, and Rebecca, as they are well respected and the people might take revenge upon Danforth. Danforth realizes that Proctor must confess to witchcraft. Hale begs Elizabeth to persuade her husband to confess and save his life. Hale feels that life may be more important in God's eyes than any principle.
Elizabeth asks to be allowed to speak with her husband alone. In a final, loving meeting, Proctor asks Elizabeth what she thinks of his idea of giving the court the confession they want. Elizabeth replies that she cannot judge him but that she wants him alive. Proctor says that now his affair is publicly known, he has little to lose in the way of reputation. He asks Elizabeth's forgiveness, but she replies that it is he who must forgive himself. Whatever he does, she knows he is a good man. She blames her own coldness for prompting his adultery, saying that it stemmed from her feeling that she was so plain that no man could truly love her. She asks him to forgive her.
Proctor, overcome with love for his wife, shouts to the waiting men that he wants to live. Danforth asks him to write his confession so that it can be posted on the church door as an example to Rebecca and Martha, who have not confessed. Proctor gives a verbal false confession of binding himself to the devil but will not admit to seeing anyone else with the devil. He signs a prewritten confession but then rips it up. He has decided that he cannot, after all, bear the public shame of his name being posted on the church door. He has chosen death over dishonor. Proctor and Elizabeth kiss, and he is led away. Hale asks Elizabeth to go after him and persuade him to recant, but she says he knows that he is good and she will not take that from him.
Proctor, Martha, and Rebecca ascend the scaffold. The crowd is silent, and some people are weeping. The three condemned prisoners recite the Lord's Prayer. Proctor is the last to hang; his recitation of the prayer is missing only the final word, Amen. This scene is not in the play, which ends with Elizabeth Proctor's gratitude for her husband's knowledge of his goodness and does not show his execution. The inclusion of the execution scene reinforces the sense of injustice that is one of the themes of the play and film.
A note before the final credits says that the Salem witch trials ended after nineteen people were hanged, as more and more people refused to give false confessions.
Ezekiel Cheever (played by John Griesemer) is a resident of Salem who acts as a clerk of the court.
Giles Corey (Peter Vaughan) is the husband of Martha Corey. He is the first to voice suspicion Page 31 | Top of Article to Hale about his wife involving herself in witchcraft, though his fears stem from ignorance: He blames his wife's reading of books other than the Bible for his own difficulty in praying. He later comes to regret his words when Martha is arrested as a witch.
Corey is a litigious man who has successfully launched several lawsuits and prides himself on his knowledge of law. He says that someone told him he heard Thomas Putnam praising his daughter Ruth for accusing George Jacobs of witchery, an accusation that allowed Putnam to buy up Jacobs's land. However, Corey refuses to name the man who told him this, and he is therefore held in contempt of court and pressed to death under a heap of stones.
Martha Corey (Mary Pat Gleason) is the wife of Giles Corey. Giles raises suspicions about Martha when he unwisely asks Hale about her habit of reading books that are not the Bible, which he says prevents him from praying. She is accused of witchcraft after she sells some pigs that later die. Martha becomes an example of how the most innocent activities, such as reading and selling pigs, became traps in the hysterical atmosphere of Salem. Along with Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor, Martha is hanged for witchcraft in the final scene of the film because she courageously refuses to confess to a crime she did not commit.
Judge Danforth (played by Paul Scofield, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for Best Supporting Actor) is the deputy governor of Massachusetts and the presiding judge at the witch trials. He prides himself on his scrupulous and thorough commitment to correct judicial procedure and to uncovering the truth. However, his bias becomes evident when he generally assumes the accusers to be telling the truth and their victims to be liars. He is unrepentant to the end, perhaps suppressing any doubts about the truth of the accusations in order to save face.
Reverend Hale (Rob Campbell) is a learned young minister who is invited to Salem to ascertain whether there is witchcraft going on. He arrives with an enormous pile of books on witchcraft and evidently prides himself on his precise knowledge of the subject, which he is keen to distinguish from mere superstition. He undertakes his task with zeal, examining Betty and Ruth for marks of the devil, questioning Abigail and her troop of girls, and even interrogating people of good reputation like the Proctors. He begins to doubt the reliability of the accusations of witchcraft when Rebecca and Elizabeth are arrested: He knows them to be good people. His keen intellect cannot support the clear foolishness and hysteria that drive the trials.
As people begin to hang as a result of the trials, he turns against the process and tries to save the lives of the condemned. He decides finally that life is more important than principle, and for that reason vainly tries to persuade Elizabeth to talk Proctor into giving a false confession and saving his life.
Judge Hathorne (Robert Breuler) is a judge who assists Danforth in presiding over the witch trials. He delights in catching out accused people by twisting their words against them.
Marshal Herrick (Michael Gaston) is a marshal (law enforcement official) in Salem.
George Jacobs (William Preston) is an old man and a major landowner who is accused of witchcraft by Ruth Putnam. Giles Corey accuses Thomas Putnam of prompting his daughter to falsely accuse Jacobs of witchcraft so that he can buy up Jacobs's land after he has been hanged. Putnam is the only person in Salem who is wealthy enough to buy such a large tract of land.
Jacobs reveals the absurdity of the girls' accusations of witchcraft because he is obviously too old and infirm to enter Ruth Putnam's bedroom through the window and attack her, as she claims. However, this objection is evaded by the introduction of spectral evidence, in which it is assumed that someone can send out their spirit to attack someone through supernatural means.
Francis Nurse (Tom McDermott) is the husband of Rebecca Nurse and a wealthy and respected resident of Salem. He is disliked by Thomas and Ann Putnam on the grounds of land disputes and because the two families disagreed on the choice of minister for Salem.
Rebecca Nurse (Elizabeth Lawrence) is an elderly woman who enjoys great respect in Salem society. Rebecca is a wise and pious woman who, along with John Proctor, is the voice of reason in the film. She believes that seeking loose spirits is dangerous and disapproves of Hale's being brought in to lead the witch hunt; she correctly feels it will cause divisions in local society. She is proved right about this and everything else on which she expresses a view.
A mother and grandmother many times over, she takes a practical attitude to the behavior of Betty Parris and Ruth Putnam. She believes that the girls are indulging in silly games that they will soon tire of, a belief that is borne out by the fact that she is able to calm the hysterical Betty simply by sitting quietly with her. This suggests that she may occupy the role of a healer in Salem society, though Ann Putnam takes it as evidence of evil at work.
The fact that even someone as well liked and respected as Rebecca can be accused of witchcraft shows how extreme and hysterical the prevailing culture in Salem has become. This is emphasized in Hale's first glimmerings of disbelief when he hears that Rebecca has been arrested as a witch.
With Martha Corey and John Proctor, Rebecca is hanged in the final scene because she refuses to make a false confession.
See Sarah Osborne
Sarah Osborne (Ruth Maleczech), also called Goody (short for Goodwife, a title that was used in the same way as the modern Mrs.) Osborne in the film, is a resident of Salem who is accused by the girls of witchcraft. She refuses to confess and is hanged.
Betty Parris (Rachael Bella) is the daughter of the Reverend Parris. She is one of the two girls who fall into a coma-like state after attending the voodoo ritual in the woods and being caught by her father.
Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) is the minister of the church in Salem. A faction in the village opposes him as minister. This fact adds to his sensitivity over the implications that his daughter Betty and niece Abigail have involved themselves in witchcraft: it is bad enough, for a Puritan minister, even to believe that they danced, as dancing was forbidden. His defensiveness fuels his zeal to join in the witch hunt with Hale and Danforth.
Proctor dislikes Parris because he views him as a worldly and greedy man who is concerned more with ownership of the minister's house and having gold candlesticks in the church than with God.
Elizabeth Proctor (played by Joan Allen, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and won a Best Supporting Actress award from the Broadcast Film Critics Association) is the wife of John Proctor. She dismissed Abigail Williams from her job working in the Proctor household when she found out about her affair with her husband. She sometimes appears cold, a quality remarked upon with some frustration by her husband.
Elizabeth, unlike her husband, is as virtuous at the beginning of the film as she is at the end. However, she goes through her own journey of self-discovery. At the film's end, she realizes that her husband genuinely loves her. For the first time, she is able to overcome her insecurity, which she realizes has been the source of her seeming coldness. She was always convinced that she was plain and that no man could honestly love her. She expresses her love for her husband and tells him that she knows he is a good man. She is fulfilled by the fact that he also knows himself to be a good man, doing the right thing in standing by the truth and refusing to make a false confession.
The farmer John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) is the protagonist and hero of the film. He is honest and plain-speaking, and he dislikes hypocrisy in all forms. However, he has a dark secret that drives much of the film's action. Before the film opens, Proctor gave way to lust and had an affair with Abigail Williams when she was working in the Proctor household. He now regrets this and feels he made a mistake. Initially, he tries to deny to Abigail that the affair happened, though she will not accept his fabrication. Subsequently, he realizes that he can stop Abigail from ruining any more innocent people by exposing her as a fraud—but Page 33 | Top of Article this strategy will likely bring his affair to public knowledge. He holds back from telling the truth because he wants to protect his reputation.
Proctor's maturation and redemption are shown when he eventually faces up to his sin of adultery and then admits it publicly. His personal drama parallels the public and societal drama of the witchcraft accusations and trials.
Proctor loves his virtuous wife, Elizabeth, but at the same time he feels judged by her for his transgression. He tries to please her but becomes frustrated when she reminds him of his affair. This creates a tension between the two that is resolved only in the film's final scenes, when she acknowledges the unparalleled good that she sees in him. Paradoxically, though on the surface he has lost his public good name by open admission of his adultery, he has gained something far more precious: his conviction of his inherent goodness and truthfulness. Consistent with this alliance with goodness and truth is his final refusal to sign the false confession of witchcraft, even though doing so would save his life and enable him to live on with Elizabeth and the child she is carrying.
Proctor is a flawed hero: he has done wrong, but he tries hard to be a good man and finally succeeds.
Ann Putnam (Frances Conroy) is the wife of Thomas Putnam. She is an angry and embittered woman who dwells upon the fact that seven of her eight babies died soon after birth. She chooses to blame witchcraft for her misfortune and specifically accuses Rebecca Nurse of supernaturally murdering her babies. Her main motivation is jealousy, as Rebecca has many living children and grandchildren. A secondary motivation is the hostility that simmers between the Putnam and Nurse families.
Ruth Putnam (Ashley Peldon) is the sole surviving child of Thomas and Ann Putnam. She is one of the two girls who fall into a coma-like state after the voodoo ritual in the woods. She accuses other residents, including George Jacobs, of witchcraft, leading Giles Corey to claim that she is being manipulated by Thomas Putnam to serve his own ends.
Thomas Putnam (Jeffrey Jones) is a wealthy landowner in Salem. He is engaged in a land dispute with Francis Nurse and also has a grudge against Nurse for preventing his brother-in-law from being appointed minister of the church. He and his family therefore have a vested interest in accusing people such as Rebecca Nurse of witchcraft. According to Giles Corey, Putnam thanks his daughter for accusing George Jacobs because he plans to buy up Jacobs's land once he has been convicted and hanged. Putnam's greed and materialism prompt him to use the witch trials to enrich himself.
Judge Sewall (George Gaynes) is one of the judges who preside over the witch trials. He expresses doubts about the reliability of the accusations of witchcraft.
Tituba (Charlayne Woodard) is a black slave from Barbados who belongs to Reverend Parris. She leads the voodoo ritual in the woods for Abigail and her troop of girls.
Mary Warren (Karron Graves) is a servant in the Proctors' household. She is weak and easily influenced. She is one of the girls who took part in the voodoo ritual and is terrified when the talk of witchcraft begins, as she knows people who are convicted of being witches are hanged. She goes to the witch trials in defiance of Proctor's order that she stay in the house. As one of the girls who accuse others of witchcraft, she quickly becomes full of her own importance when she tells Proctor that she is now an official of the court and will no longer be ordered around by him. Proctor temporarily wins her over to the idea of telling the court truthfully that the girls are frauds. However, in court, she cannot stand up to Abigail's attacks and changes sides, retracting her testimony.
Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) is Reverend Parris's niece and the villain of the film. Duplicitous and vindictive, she initiates the accusations of witchcraft as a way of deflecting blame from herself for the voodoo ritual in the woods. She is motivated by her desire for John Proctor, following their affair when she was working in his house, and her accompanying jealousy of his wife, Elizabeth Proctor. She wants to take Elizabeth's place in their house.
Abigail is an intelligent and manipulative opportunist, who is repeatedly able to turn events to her own advantage. An example of this is the scene in which Mary Warren testifies that Abigail and the other girls are frauds. Abigail pretends convincingly that Mary is at that moment bewitching the court.
The characters in the film are all fictionalized versions of historical characters who were involved in the Salem witch trials. There is one character in the play who does not appear in the film, though her role in the play is insignificant. This is Susanna Walcott, a younger companion of Abigail. A character who appears in the film but not the play is Judge Sewall, a fictionalized version of a historical figure who helped preside over the Salem witch trials and later recanted and apologized for his part in them.
While the play of The Crucible had as its main theme the injustice of the McCarthy Red Hunts of the 1950s, by the time the film was made in 1996 these events had faded from public awareness. The film shifts the emphasis toward the theme of temptation and illicit sexual desire. As Shannon M. Clark points out in her essay "The Floating Paranoia in American Society," Bob Miller, the son of Arthur Miller and one of the producers of the film, said, "The story is really about sex. It's about relationships, it's about betrayal, it's about forgiveness."
This shift in emphasis is marked by several additions to the film that are not in the play. The opening scene of the film shows a group of girls driven to the edge of hysteria by their desire for certain men in the community. Their excitement rises as each girl names the man of her dreams. Abigail is unable to name her beloved, John Proctor, as he is married. After Abigail smashes the cockerel to the ground and drinks the blood, some of the girls begin to take off their clothes and dance.
This scene is not in the play. Its addition in the film enables viewers to judge for themselves the extent and nature of the girls' involvement in forbidden activities of dancing and witchcraft rituals. Many modern viewers will conclude that this is a trivial incident in the time-honored tradition of amateur witchcraft with which countless children experiment, and that it has more to do with an obsession with men than an obsession with devils.
The scene frames repressed and thwarted sexual desire as a chief motivation of the film's action. This is confirmed by the addition toward the end of the film of a scene not in the play between Abigail and John Proctor. Abigail visits Proctor in prison and begs him to run away with her. Clearly in love with him, she explicitly states the motivation for her behavior: She wanted him.
Similarly, the final scene between John and Elizabeth Proctor has an extra emotional dimension in the film that is not in the play. In the play, after Elizabeth unexpectedly asks her husband to forgive her for her coldness, Proctor tells his accusers that he chooses to have his life and confess. The stage direction says that he makes this statement in a "hollow" voice and that he is "off the earth," in other words, that he belongs more to death than life. Perhaps his decision to confess comes from a realization of his duty to his wife and family, even if this means losing his good name. The sense is that he has murdered his spiritual integrity in order to keep his bodily life.
In the film, the motivation for Proctor's decision is presented quite differently. Proctor is so moved by his wife's revelations about the reasons for her coldness that his shouted declaration to his accusers that he wants to live becomes an ecstatic celebration of the couple's newfound love. Though he does not explicitly answer Elizabeth's request for forgiveness, he does not need to. Love has filled the gap that guilt and suspicion had opened up between them. When Proctor changes his mind, tears up his false confession, and submits to execution, there is a sense that he has sacrificed his bodily life in order to save his spiritual integrity.
The film shows how easily and quickly a society can lose rationality and descend into hysteria and madness. In this crazed atmosphere, whatever nonsense Abigail and her troop dream up is taken as divinely inspired truth. Conversely, any rational defense that an accused person puts up is assumed to be lies.
This hysteria is at the opposite pole to the repression of Puritan society, and it is tempting to blame the ease with which that hysteria takes over on the extremity of the repression. Perhaps if the inhabitants of Salem were not such Page 35 | Top of Article strangers to the more earthy, sensual, and irrational aspects of human nature, they would be less susceptible to believing the girls' foolish utterances.
This interpretation is backed up by the two voices of common sense, John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse. The former has given way to lust and had an affair; the second has had many
children and gained wisdom from the experience. Perhaps partly as a result of their experiences, both are more fully human than the rigid Puritans such as Danforth and Parris, who are appalled even at the possibility that the village girls danced. Neither Rebecca nor Proctor takes the accusations of witchcraft seriously, and both maintain an accurate moral compass. Although Proctor falls short of his own and society's moral standards, he is aware of what he has done wrong and struggles successfully to set his path straight. Proctor and Rebecca have a balanced view of what it means to be human, lending them an immunity to the hysteria of the witch hunt.
The opening credit sequence is a montage consisting of many close-up and blurred motion shots of the Salem girls rushing out of their houses in the night to attend Tituba's ritual. The effect is of hurried movement, effectively conveying the girls' excitement. The low lighting of this scene is symbolic of secrecy and of occult matters.
Lighting and Setting
In the opening sequence, the low lighting makes it hard to make out faces and reflects the furtive nature of the girls' activities. Darkness also symbolizes the way the witch hunters are trying to peer into hidden, mysterious, and forbidden activities. In a wider sense, it also comments on the darkness of the worldview of the Puritans of Salem, who chose to see witches and devilry in places where it did not exist. Darkness often symbolizes ignorance, whereas light symbolizes reason and knowledge, as is shown by its incorporation into our word enlightenment.
The lighting is increased slightly in subsequent scenes of the interiors of the houses and church of the Salem residents, but it is still low, and the color palette is somber, dominated by browns and black. As the people's clothes and the buildings share the same dull colors, the effect is that the people merge into their surroundings. This reflects the repressive Puritan society, which Page 37 | Top of Article emphasized modesty and disapproved of sensuality, individual expression, and standing out. The latter behavior was linked in the Puritan mind with the sins of vanity and pride.
A more brightly lit exterior scene is the one in which Abigail and John Proctor talk privately. The brighter lighting and more open setting reflect the brief period of sensual exploration and breaking of boundaries that the two experienced before their affair turned sour.
The lighting is brighter still in the scene that shows John Proctor working in his hay field. A wide horizon and an expanse of golden corn are shown under a brilliant blue sky. The effect on the viewer is like the proverbial breath of fresh air. The setting reflects the commonsense, enlightened attitude of Proctor, who is a voice of reason in the film. Unlike many of the residents of Salem, he does not naturally inhabit dark and claustrophobic interiors. While the tense scene between him and his wife takes place in the dark interior of their house, Proctor is not at ease. He complains to his wife that it still feels like winter in the house and says he will cut some flowers to bring inside. This remark allies him with the blue sky and golden corn of the previous brightly lit exterior shots rather than with the dark interior.
The scene in which Proctor stands in the river like the biblical prophet John the Baptist, amid a crowd of accusers, also uses lighting and setting to make a point. Here, the dark obsession with witchcraft and devilry, in the form of a baying mob of witch-obsessed girls and men, has invaded an Edenic landscape, with its purifying water. Notably, however, Proctor is left standing in the river while the hysterical girls and judges scream from the banks. They do not quite belong in the purity of the river, but Proctor does, with the bright blue sky illuminating his figure.
A setting including water is also used in the reconciliation scene between Proctor and his wife, which takes place against the well-lit background of the sea. The unsullied vastness of the ocean reflects the expansion that has taken place in the awareness of these two characters. For the first time, they accept and love one another for who they truly are, with no suspicion or jealousy polluting their perception.
It is fitting that the final execution scene, in which Proctor, Martha, and Rebecca are martyred for their adherence to the truth, is shot against a bright and clear blue sky. The three are also elevated above their accusers because they are standing on the scaffold. The effect is to show that their perceptions are unclouded and that they stand for truth and purity.
The play does not make use of the contrast between interiors and exteriors in the same way as the film because it is entirely set in interiors. Symbolic effects using lighting may be used by theater directors, but the Edenic settings of the Massachusetts landscape would be harder to reproduce or suggest in a theater.
After Elizabeth Proctor perjures herself in court to save her husband's reputation, Abigail whips up the girls into a frenzy over her pretence that Mary is bewitching them, and they all run to the river and plunge in. Danforth accuses Proctor of being in league with the devil. The visual symbolism shows the truth, however. At this point, Proctor is the only person still in the river. The image symbolically recalls the biblical image of John the Baptist, who predicted the coming of the Messiah (later interpreted in the Gospels as Jesus Christ), promised God's justice, and baptized people in the river to purify them of sin.
Proctor's choice of this moment to proclaim that God is dead underlines the biblical symbolism and creates situational irony. This is a literary device in which the outcome of events proves to be opposite to the one that was intended, expected, or deserved. Whereas John the Baptist promised God's justice, Proctor is lamenting the apparent absence of God's justice in a world turned upside down by hysteria. A further ironic twist lies in the fact that Danforth and the hysterical girls take Proctor's words to confirm their notion that he is in league with the devil, whereas to the viewer, his words testify to his alliance with the truth.
Christian symbolism recurs in the scene of Proctor's execution. Proctor's position on the scaffold between Martha and Rebecca symbolically recalls the crucifixion of Jesus Christ between two other people. This symbolic connection with Christ gives Proctor an aura of holy innocence. The fact that he recites the Lord's Prayer shows his alliance with God rather than the devil. The fact that he hangs before he can finish the prayer symbolically shows the tragedy of a life brutally cut short. It also strikes the viewer as sacrilegious, as to cut people short before they finish a prayer shows disrespect for their religion and for the god to whom they pray. It tells the viewer that Page 38 | Top of Article the true lover of God (Proctor) has died on the scaffold, while those who persecuted him have done evil in God's name.
The portrayal of Proctor as the Christ figure makes a moral point. Proctor was tortured, during his life, by the knowledge of his sinful affair. His persecutors, on the other hand, believe that they are on the side of purity and truth. The symbolism cuts through such delusions and draws the moral landscape precisely for the viewer, showing who is right and who is wrong.
Spectral Evidence and Other Legal Anomalies
In the film The Crucible, most of the accusations of witchcraft depend upon spectral evidence. Spectral evidence is evidence based on dreams and visions. A person giving spectral evidence might testify that the alleged witch had sent out his or her spirit in the form of a bird, animal, or other creature. Spectral evidence is impossible to disprove because no witnesses are required and the accused does not even have to be physically present at the scene of the alleged crime. Because the spirit can take any form, it does not even have to look like the alleged witch.
All that is required in the way of spectral evidence is for someone to denounce someone else. As is pointed out in the film of The Crucible by several characters, this opens the door for people who wish to take revenge on people against whom they harbor grudges. For example, Rebecca Nurse is accused by the Putnams due to bad feeling over the minister, land, and Ann Putnam's dead babies.
In the historical Salem witch trials, spectral evidence was allowed in a court of law by the presiding judge, William Stoughton. A precedent was cited from a 1662 witch trial in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England. Stoughton does not appear as a character in Miller's play or film, though many of his questionable legal decisions are transferred to the character of Judge Danforth.
According to Stoughton's biography on the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law Web site, Stoughton had no formal legal training, and his degree was in theology. The biography notes that he "allowed many deviations from normal courtroom procedure during the witchcraft trials. In addition to admitting spectral evidence, the court allowed private conversations between accusers and judges, permitted spectators to interrupt the procedures with personal remarks, [forbade] defense counsel for the accused, and placed judges in the role of prosecutors and interrogators of witnesses."
The main legal problem with the Salem witch trials was that once people had been accused of being witches, it was difficult for them prove their innocence and be set free. The penalty for witchcraft was hanging, and the only way to escape hanging was to confess to being a witch. Therefore, an accused person had the choice between denying the charge and being hanged, or confessing and living with the stigma of being a self-confessed witch.
Senator Joe McCarthy and the Red Hunts
Miller wrote the play The Crucible as an indictment of the anticommunist hysteria that gripped the United States in the 1950s. Its most prominent proponent and public face was U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Because of the Cold War (the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that grew after WorldWar II), some Americans in government and elsewhere feared that communists were infiltrating and attempting to subvert American society. A large number of politicians, artists, writers, actors, intellectuals, government employees, and other Americans were interrogated by government and private industry committees and investigated for alleged communist sympathies. People lost their jobs, and some were even imprisoned, frequently on the basis of flimsy evidence and dubious legal procedures.
The hearings later came to be known as Red Hunts and subsequently as witch hunts, in reference to the Salem witch trials. The term McCarthyism has passed into the language to describe any reckless and unsubstantiated allegations against a set of people.
Many of Miller's friends and colleagues were summoned to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a Congressional committee that investigated alleged communists and fascists. This committee, which was not directly connected with McCarthy, began its activities in 1947. Among those who were called to testify before the HUAC was the theater director Elia Kazan, who had directed many of Miller's plays. Kazan appeared before the committee in 1952. In an attempt to avoid being blacklisted
and banned from working in Hollywood, he named eight people as one-time members of the Communist Party. Miller spoke to Kazan about his testimony immediately before traveling to Salem to research The Crucible. In 1956, Miller himself was called to testify before the HUAC but refused to name names. As a result, in 1957 he was convicted of contempt of Congress, though the ruling was overturned in 1958.
Public Outrage in Modern Society
By the time Miller adapted his play as a film in 1996, Soviet communism had collapsed and McCarthy's Red Hunts had faded from public awareness. However, prurient interest in other sorts of behavior commonly thought to be deviant from the cultural norm was lively. Media reports proliferated about the sex scandal involving President Bill Clinton and Paula Jones, which went to court in January 1997, two months after the film's release. The focus of public outrage at this time was not witchcraft or communism but extramarital affairs. Reflecting this cultural shift, the theme of illicit sexual desire is more to the forefront in the film of The Crucible than it is in the play.
Modern Witch Hunts
While fear of communists has receded, fear of the devil has not vanished from contemporary society. Thus the film The Crucible is able to tap into this lingering fear. In the 1980s and 1990s, in the United States and other countries, there was a rash of child abuse trials in which children and adults accused day-care center workers, parents, and others of crimes from molestation to Satanic ritual abuse. The phenomenon came to be known as day-care abuse hysteria. Some of the accused were given long prison sentences on flimsy evidence. In many cases, their convictions were subsequently overturned when aspects of the trials were questioned.
Legal anomalies in these cases included the acceptance of hearsay evidence; the acceptance of evidence from unreliable witnesses, including mentally ill and alcoholic people; the assumption of the truth of the psychological theory of repressed memory, in which traumatic events become unavailable to recall until they surface under certain circumstances; the assumption that any child who said that abuse had not taken place was in denial and therefore wrong; interviewer bias; and coercive questioning and leading of witnesses by the prosecution.
The Crucible was in general well received by film reviewers. James Berardinelli, writing for Reel-Views, notes that the universality of the play makes it particularly suitable for adaptation to film at this later date. He writes that although the play was written as an allegory on the McCarthy period, "its true power lies in its ability to be re-interpreted to fit any time period." Berardinelli explains that its themes—''the lure of power, the gullibility of those who believe they have a moral imperative, the need to accept responsibility for the consequences of all actions, and the nature of truth—are universal in scope." As proof of this thesis, Berardinelli adds that events such as those depicted in the play "have recurred with alarming predictability throughout human history."
Berardinelli singles out the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis (John Proctor), Karron Graves (Mary Warren), Joan Allen (Elizabeth Proctor), and Paul Scofield (Judge Danforth) for praise. He sums up the film as "a motion picture of surprising emotional and intellectual impact."
Jeff Strickler, reviewing the film for the Star Tribune, agrees that it has much contemporary relevance: "While the 17th century and the Red Menace are long gone,Miller and director Nicholas Hytner have had no trouble finding other contemporary veins. This is a story about fear, the corrosive power of bigotry and the abuse of power."
A reviewer for Rolling Stone calls The Crucible "a seductively exciting film that crackles with visual energy, passionate provocation and incendiary acting." The reviewer writes that Miller's screenplay is "a model of adventurous film adaptation, showing a master eager to mine his most-performed play for fresh insights instead of embalming it." The reviewer considers the standout performances to be those of Ryder, Day-Lewis, Scofield, and Allen.
Victor Navasky, writing in the New York Times, believes that the Salem witch hunts provide the basis of a film with great contemporary relevance: "As I think about the sex, supernatural religion, politics and paranoia that boil and bubble in the Miller and Hytner brew, it occurs to me that The Crucible was probably destined for Hollywood all along."
Robinson holds a master's degree in English. In this essay on The Crucible, she examines how the film and play explore the relationship between power, responsibility, and intolerance, and she discusses the relevance of these topics today.
Although the Puritans who founded Salem were fleeing religious persecution in England, they established a society that was equally intolerant. This time, their society was in line with their beliefs. The oppressed became the oppressors. The play and film of The Crucible show how the rigidity built into every level of Puritan Salem society gave birth to the witchcraft hysteria that destroyed it.
The new society of Salem was a theocracy. A theocracy is a government that claims to rule by divine authority, as opposed to a secular state, in which the state and religion are separate. Anyone who disagreed with elements of Salem's governance was thus seen as opposing God and supporting the devil. Similarly, anyone who disagreed with the theology laid down by the governing authorities was seen as a subversive who threatened the social order.
In Salem, things were seen in terms of right or wrong, good or evil. As Danforth says of the witch trials in the film of The Crucible, a person is either with the court or against it: there is no road in-between. People could be tried in court and executed for having the wrong ideas or transgressing against the edicts of the officially sanctioned religion. The authorities claimed that they ruled with divine sanction, and their power was absolute. The individual had little say in how society was run.
Rigidity of belief was reflected in strict rules for behavior. Any deviation from correct behavior was viewed as a sin against God, as well as an act against local authority. The Puritans viewed
material and sensual desires and individuality of thought with suspicion, believing that they were the devil's work. Children, and to a great extent women, were expected to be seen and not heard. They were expected to dress modestly, to walk along the street with eyes downcast and arms Page 42 | Top of Article demurely by their sides, and not to speak unless asked. Dancing and any hint of lascivious or flirtatious behavior was forbidden. Dabbling in witchcraft rituals was seen as deliberately invoking the devil himself. Thus, in the eyes of Salem's authorities, the girls who dance are doubly guilty, and Abigail is thrice guilty: her adulterous affair, if known, would mark her as an outcast.
The social structure, too, in a Puritan society such as Salem was highly stratified, with almost all the power concentrated at the top and the rest of society relatively powerless. Near the bottom of the social hierarchy were unmarried girls like Abigail and her companions. The girls who become the accusers in The Crucible are both children and female, and so are doubly powerless. Below the unmarried girls were slaves like Tituba, who had no power or rights. A person could not do much to change his or her position in the hierarchy. Marriage would marginally improve a woman's social position, but generally speaking, this would mark the limit of social mobility.
The witchcraft hysteria in The Crucible turns Salem's rigid power structure on its head. When the girls are discovered dancing in the woods and dabbling in witchcraft, the full force of society's disapproval is set to descend upon them. Like all Salem residents, they are aware that they face disproportionately severe punishments for relatively minor transgressions. By accusing others of witchcraft, the girls escape punishment for their own transgressions and make others appear to be the sinners. In a wider sense, they are able to off-load responsibility for their actions. If witches and the devil, acting through apparently respectable members of society, are to blame for the forbidden voodoo ritual—not to mention for many of the everyday misfortunes of Salem residents—then the girls are innocent. Accused of any transgression, they can simply say that the devil made them do it.
Furthermore, because the girls claim to be able to see spirits, they are instantly elevated to the privileged position of holy prophets or seers who have direct communication with the divine. It is perceived that their word is identical with God's word, and those who defend the people accused of witchcraft ally themselves with the devil. The girls are able to enjoy a sense of great power over others, perhaps for the first and last time. As their leader, Abigail has gone from outcast adulteress to God's representative on earth in one ingenious stroke.
Other characters also evade responsibility for their actions through accusing others of being witches. Ann Putnam is able to shift responsibility for her inability to bear healthy children or to keep them alive once born by accusing Rebecca Nurse of murdering them. Abigail is able to avoid answering Mary Warren's testimony that she is making fraudulent claims about witchcraft by pretending that Mary is bewitching the court. Thomas Putnam is able to avoid the effort of acquiring land by honest means when his family accuses landowners like George Jacobs and the Nurses of witchcraft: They will be executed, their land will be forfeit, and he will be able to buy it.
Accusing others thus becomes an attractive option with no downsides except bad conscience—and this can be silenced by the prevailing ideology that the accusers are aligned with God whereas the accused are aligned with the devil.
As a black woman, a foreigner, a person brought up in a non-Christian religion, and a slave, Tituba occupies the lowest position in the social hierarchy of a seventeenth-century white Puritan town such as Salem. It would be natural for her to relish the temporary increase in status and power that she would enjoy as priestess of the voodoo ritual.
Tituba's relatively innocent foray into a powerful role takes a tragic turn when she is made a scapegoat by Abigail. Abigail shifts suspicion of witchcraft from herself by accusing Tituba of summoning the devil. Tituba is whipped mercilessly until she begins naming names of supposed witches.
In the play, Tituba is interrogated but not whipped. This difference in the film strengthens the theme of racial and class prejudice and makes clear the psychological process through which she becomes a false informer. When she tells the truth and protests her own or others' innocence, she is tortured. When she lies and begins denouncing others as witches, the whipping stops and she is praised and blessed. By contributing to the witch frenzy, she is able to transform herself from a powerless victim to someone who wields the power of life and death over others.
If less rigid people—for instance, John Proctor or Rebecca Nurse—had been in charge in the Salem of the film, things would have turned out Page 43 | Top of Article differently. Proctor and Nurse take a realistic and practical view of things. Realistically viewed, even to the present day, occult rituals have provided a fertile field of experimentation for young people who want to attract the attention of a member of the opposite sex. For example, many women alive today will remember childhood adventures such as staring into a mirror flanked by two candles on the eve of May Day (May 1) in the hope that their future husband's face will be revealed to them, or consulting a Ouija board for the name of a future lover. The girls of Salem, if spared the fear of being whipped or hanged for dancing and taking part in a love ritual, would have moved on from experimenting with the occult to other ways of attracting lovers, just as millions of young people of all historical periods have done.
The written coda at the end of the film of The Crucible explains that as fewer people were willing to give false confessions, the witch trials died out. Thus, the scene was set for a more liberal society to take form in the United States, complete with constitutional safeguards on freedom of belief and expression. The witch trials, a suppression of individuality with few historical precedents, helped lay the groundwork for an age in which individuality is prized and defended.
Because of these developments, it is tempting to assume that the modern secular and democratic state is free from the intolerance that afflicted Salem. However, this assumption is not borne out by the evidence. As many commentators point out, the message of The Crucible has as much relevance today as it ever did.
On matters of religion and belief, in theory, the secular state is neutral. It guarantees freedom of religion and belief and treats all people the same regardless of their beliefs. Nevertheless, most officially secular states do involve themselves to some extent in the religious affairs of the individual. For example, since President George W. Bush pronounced that the United States was involved in a war on terrorism following the attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been increased state surveillance of people and operations identified with what are described as extreme forms of Islam. In some situations, people do not have to have been convicted of a crime to be placed under surveillance. It can be argued that this development has led to certain religious beliefs becoming criminalized and that the old assumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty has been set aside.
States also attempt to stamp out radical and unorthodox ideas and activities. In the United States, in the wake of the war on terrorism came the concept of the domestic extremist. According to a report by FOXNews.com, in March 2009 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released the "Domestic Extremism Lexicon," which details activist groups working in areas as diverse as animal rights, environment, tax resistance, alternative media, antiabortion, and Cuban independence, and analyzes "the nature and scope of the threat" that they pose. The report draws a link between so-called extremism and terrorism. FOXNews.com says the report was withdrawn within hours of its release and the DHS claimed that a "maverick" division of the agency had released it without authorization. As laws already exist against acts of terrorism and violence, placing such groups under surveillance based on the possibility that they might commit such illegal acts would appear to criminalize unorthodox ideas.
In a review of the film of The Crucible in the New York Times, Navasky writes: "The old nativist impulse that identified the foreign with the radical and the immoral is ever present in The Crucible and speaks to a theme in American history that includes not only Salem and McCarthyism but the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Palmer raids and countless other mobilizations grand and mini—in the face of the unfamiliar." Navasky adds, "There may not be any more domestic Communist menace, but ‘Arab’ is in too many quarters a code word for ‘terrorist.’"
The film's director, Nicholas Hytner (quoted by Edward Rothstein in a review for the New York Times), also finds no shortage of contemporary subjects that the drama speaks about: "the bigotry of religious fundamentalists across the globe," "communities torn apart by accusations of child abuse," and "the rigid intellectual orthodoxies of college campuses."
Miller gives his own explanation for the universality of The Crucible in an interview with Navasky in the same New York Times review: "I have had immense confidence in the applicability of the play to almost any time, the reason being it's dealing with a paranoid situation. But that situation doesn't depend on any particular political or sociological development. I wrote it blind to the world. The enemy is within, and Page 44 | Top of Article within stays within, and we can't get out of within. It's always on the edge of our minds that behind what we see is a nefarious plot."
Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on The Crucible, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
In the following review, the 1996 film is described as a "play that actively invites transformation into a film."
"[O]ne of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history" is how the playwright Arthur Miller describes the Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft persecution, that profoundly disturbing moment in our early history which many Americans today perceive entirely through the medium of The Crucible. This is a play that actively invites transformation into a film. It is a classic courtroom drama. There are subtly drawn characters whose imperfections and manipulability are displayed on every hand, characters engaged moreover in bringing about reversals of fortune: the humble drag down the proud; children humiliate parents; women strip men of power; persons of mean intellect bamboozle learned jurists and clergymen. Belief in supernaturalism cuts a wide swath through the drama, contesting every scene with its opposite number—social psychology. And, like all theatre of the bench and bar, it raises fundamental questions of fairness and propriety in the cumbersome mechanisms of the legal system and the blinkered men sworn to uphold it.
The setting—Hog Island, a nature preserve off the coast of Ipswich, where the film's makers threw up a convincing replica of a Puritan village—is a study in chiaroscuro. Ubiquitous pigs and goats, bristly creatures with spindly shanks, are animals now seen only in the turf-and-byre settings of farm parks devoted to endangered livestock. Four-square buildings with intricately laid stone foundations and handsomely thatched roofs are so comely in their spartan appointments as to take one's breath away. Gardens abound with the herbs and roots that would have been used by Puritans to physick themselves. Complexions are careworn, marred by smuts and scars; fingernails are begrimed, teeth stained and snaggled. Rubbed garments are handstitched and vegetable-dyed to reproduce a New England boiled dinner palette, varied a little by faded crimson and Prussian blue. Only men in authority are garbed in black, with steeple-crowned hats and Geneva bands.
To say that this is a sumptuous undertaking hardly does justice to the production values of The Crucible. To say that this is repertory acting of a high calibre cannot convey the emotional richness and intelligence of the performances. Daniel Day-Lewis, Rob Campbell, Winona Ryder, and Jeffrey Jones lend the film resonance and honesty. It is, however, Paul Scofield, playing Deputy Governor Danforth, Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor, and Karron Graves as the dim maidservant who give truly impressive performances. Scofield's Danforth is a man resolute for truth, having to ransack his intellect and learning in circumstances where testimony is bogged in credulity and extra-legal procedures in a community wracked by vendettas, land grabs, and the litigious strife we have come to associate with New England Puritanism. As Proctor's wife, Joan Allen, with silences more reproachful than speech and glances in which blame and pity are terribly mingled, makes us understand how the bond between man and wife, strained through sexual infidelity, can withstand every test placed on it by a vengeful community. Grave's handling of the difficult role of reluctant recruit to Abigail Williams's cadre of accusers is the most convincing detail in what is shown to be a reign of terror.
Comparison of the text of the 1953 play with the screenplay finds the author opening up his story. How he re-conceives the play is made clear from the outset. Repressed sexuality breaking out of bounds will drive the action of the film more explicitly than it did the play. A nocturnal gathering of Salem's adolescent females in the forest sets the tone for the new Crucible. Gleefully entreating the slave Tituba to distribute charms and work spells to draw in their intended Page 45 | Top of Article lovers, the girls appear to be out for a heathenish good time. The Reverend Samuel Parris bursts in upon the revelers just as Abigail slashes the throat of a cock, sending Parris's daughter into a mysterious swoon. This new scene replaces the play's first commentary. There Miller explains that "the virgin forest was the Devil's last preserve" and goes on to assert that "for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power" (The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts [New York, 1953], pp. 3, 5)—a gross misconception of remarkable staying power. This fateful, and lethal, intermingling of worldly and otherworldly power is central to Miller's vision of a society badly out of joint and peculiarly prone to catastrophic imaginings.
Given sufficient ambiguity, indeterminacy, and the kind of ironies historians delight in, any drama will crash of its own intellectual weight. Miller and Hytner have not encumbered the film in this fashion. They telescope the witchcraft hysteria into (apparently) a few weeks and misrepresent the legalities of the case—John Hale is made by Miller to serve double duty in the roles of clergyman, expert witness, and special prosecutor. This tightens up the play and film considerably, sparing us longueurs of exposition. Even so, a historian is bound to ask what is going on when filmmakers creatively develop a notorious historical episode as a means of interpreting, and explicitly universalizing, the American psyche and character. Because the new Crucible is so determinedly not-a-play, the director and screenwriter have excised Miller's historical commentary and chosen not to employ voice-over narration to clear up confusions. To the extent that the actors' intelligence convinces us of the calamitous destruction of trust, the result is all to the good. And yet, insofar as we are meant to see the Salem episode whole, the film creates its own puzzles, mysteries that are not resolved by recourse to the screenplay. To choose one example, why is Samuel Sewall—absent from the play—inserted into the film? He seems peripheral to the proceedings, a whingeing spectator, not the honest man of God who would later offer public contrition for his role in the witchcraft hysteria. And what of the Reverend Hale, a man who begins as a case-hardened witch-smeller but emerges as the sole clerical dissenter from the fell work of Governor Danforth? His conversion to the role of critic is based on scattered indications that the accusers are not what they say they are and on a palpable fear of being on deck when the cannon tears loose from its carriage. What are we to make of poor Giles Corey, here depicted as a somewhat addle-pated bruiser, addicted to litigation and sufficiently cunning in the law to dig a pit for himself? The pseudo-legal justification given by Danforth in the film for subjecting Corey to pressing under slabs of granite makes nonsense of the historical Corey's principled refusal to plead before the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Instead, Miller has Danforth kill Corey because he refuses to name the villager whose hearsay testimony Corey cites in hopes of discrediting Thomas Putnam, whose grasping ways and excessive influence with the inquisitors are shown to fuel the tragedy.
The storyline of The Crucible is as straightforward as anyone could ask. Indeed, some plot devices that are meant to move the story along smack of contrivance. We are shown a proud Tituba screaming defiance at Samuel Parris, who plies a rope to her back to coerce the initial confession of dealings with the devil. But then, like Sewall, Tituba does a fast fade. Despite the filmmakers' insistence that this is a film about sexuality seeking dark outlets, what we are shown of the accusers' gabblings and posturings does little to convey sexual or erotic yearnings. The sexuality on view here is that of Abigail Williams, who instigates and artfully channels the rantings of her girlish coterie as a means of punishing John Proctor. And lest anyone be inclined to think that the Salemites have a plausible reason for their wholesale scape-goatings of the unpopular and unhinged amongst them, Williams, who has defamed dozens so as to secure the conviction of Proctor's wife, conveniently declares herself false. She flees the jurisdiction after rifling her master's money box to steal the fare for a ship making for Barbados, the very place from which Tituba was carried away a slave years before.
Though we are to imagine ourselves in a world where superstition presses in upon the steady practices and rigorous mentality of these Puritans, the sources of the fears rousting the phlegmatic yeomen and sanctimonious notables remain obscure. We see that the people are scared, but the orchestrated howls and twitches that make up the bewitchment scenes, while unseemly, are far from terrifying. The intent is to demonstrate the malleability of people in the Page 46 | Top of Article mass, bent on working off the old grudges of an insular community. This is because the cards are stacked so heavily in favor of rationalism and empiricism, specifically, social psychological models of crowd behavior. We are meant to think not only of the Army-McCarthy hearings but also of the McMartin child molestation trials. Or perhaps the Tawana Brawley incident will come to mind.
Tellingly, what there is of God in the Salem of witchcraft times is formal and pat. The clergy are shown as self-deluded and cowardly, while the accusers are prompt to invoke God and his blessings upon their vaporings and caperings. A climactic scene presents a "mass exodus" where "unbounded hysteria sweeps the CROWD of people who … run after the GIRLS" into the sea, a kind of parody of group baptism. Mary Warren, the house servant whom Proctor is counting on to expose the accusers' fakery, shrieks, "You're the Devil's man! I go your way no more, I love God," while the villagers chant their approval of her pious expostulations. Her master, seeing how easily swayed his people are, proclaims, "I say you are pulling Heaven down and raising up a whore! I say God is dead!" (The Crucible: Screenplay [New York, 1996], pp. 78-79). Downright blasphemy, as this speech plainly is, would have shaken and angered the Puritans of Salem as much as, if not more than, vague allegations of witchcraft. Yet Proctor's shocking declaration goes unpunished, though he is hanged on the other charge.
This declaration of the death of God is the ultimate message of The Crucible. Proctor, having snatched at freedom through a lie, tears up the confession that would have blackened his name. He is left in the end only with personal loyalty, loyalty to his good name and to the married love he shares with Elizabeth. That he, and the women who share the gallows with him, die with the Lord's Prayer on their lips does not prove that God is, after all, alive in Salem. The Miller-Hytner collaboration is an absorbing film framed around a whole-souled secularism. We are brought, through the glamour of exceptional acting and direction, to see what a given community, in the throes of a given hysteria, can be cozened into believing, repudiating in the process any notions of propriety, safety, or the right of private judgment. Over against the paranoia, the mob mentality, and the colorable arguments for perverting justice, Miller and Hytner give us not the redemptive power of faith but the refusal to purchase freedom with a lie.
Source: Marie Morgan, Review of The Crucible, in New England Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 1, March 1997, pp. 125-29.
Alicia A. Herrera
In the following review, Herrera believes that Miller's play plot makes The Crucible a successful film.
After the debacle of the completely rewritten Demi Moore film, The Scarlet Letter, the idea of Hollywood presenting yet another historical drama focusing on intolerance and set in the time of the Puritans is somewhat unpleasant to contemplate. But The Crucible has a very powerful plus on its side—the screenplay was written by Arthur Miller based on his own powerful play, and thus the story was saved from the possibility of suddenly getting a happy ending just to satisfy the ideas of studio honchos on what makes a good story.
The Crucible tells the tale of the Salem witch trials. It starts with a group of girls going into the woods in the dead of night to dance and brew up love spells. Things go bad when they are seen by the town's preacher, who catches his daughter and niece participating in the illicit activities.
The following day, two of the youngest girls become "afflicted," and do not wake up. The idea that they are bewitched gains credence, and the whole mess escalates when the girls as a group start accusing townspeople of consorting with the devil—as victims of bewitchment, they are safe from prosecution of witchcraft for which they could be hanged. This quickly degenerates into an orgy of accusations as greed and revenge start to color the proceedings and accusations. And in the perverse logic of witch hunting, those who confess to being witches are released while those who profess their innocence are killed.
The main accuser, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), is the parson's niece and is deeply in love with John Procter (Daniel Day-Lewis), an upstanding and God-fearing farmer for whose family she used to work and with whom she had a short affair. She was dismissed by his sickly wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen), when this was discovered. Abigail accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft, hoping to gain John if his wife is no longer in the way, but he quickly becomes implicated himself.
He finds himself faced with a dilemma—lie, confess and live, or be truthful, keep his good name and die.
Arthur Miller wrote the play in the '50s as a reaction to the McCarthy witch hunt for communists which he equated with those of Salem centuries earlier—all it took was an accusation without evidence to do the damage.
The film is less powerful than the play on which it is based. While being faithful to the original, the very setting of the movie works against it. The play is claustrophobic, set in the closed tight rooms of Salem, focusing attention on the conflict between truth and the lie. Simply by having so much of the film outside in the open, this claustrophobic atmosphere, which heightened the paranoia of the story, is weakened.
Miller also shows what happened in the woods, a scene which is talked about in the play but which is not shown. Simply by not being shown in the play, it keeps an air of the mysterious—nobody really knows what happened and this makes the subsequent accusations more frightening. But showing it in the film, the mystery is erased, leaving the audience less of an understanding of how terrified people at that time were of the devil and his associates.
And somehow the focus of the film, instead of being on the community's frightened reaction to having witches in its midst, is moved to the personal conflict between John, Abigail and Elizabeth. But this does not really detract from the story, unless one has seen the play done beforehand.
Daniel Day-Lewis does a fine job as Proctor, giving his patented tortured passionate act which he does so well (think of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father). Winona Ryder takes the antagonist's role in the film and shows that her reputation as the finest actress in her generation is deserved. But again, this is not a stretch for her.
Outstanding is Joan Allen as Elizabeth. Giving a much more subdued performance compared to the other two, she comes out the stronger presence. Just by standing quietly erect in the background of a scene, she draws the audience's attention.
Director Nicholas Hytner, in his Hollywood film debut (he is well-known in the Philippines as the director of the Cameron Mackintosh musical Miss Saigon), shows a definite talent for filmmaking. His powerful visuals move the story along and heighten the tension in a tale that to the thinking person is much more frightening than any slasher film.
Source: Alicia A. Herrera, "Arthur Miller's Play Gets Hollywood Nod: The Crucible," in Business World, May 2, 1997.
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