Saturday I went to The Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Old Vic in London. The production was very well staged and well acted, but the play itself is problematic. As many readers of our blog will know, the play loosely recreates the Salem Witch trials in which a variety of hysterical young women accused their elders of being witches. The result was that twenty blameless people, mostly women, were hanged after relatively summary trials.
The Crucible has some undoubted power, beginning with the baseless accusations and building toward a crescendo of condemnations of an ever wider group of innocents. The last scene focuses on whether John Proctor will confess to the crime of witchcraft in order to save himself from execution. He refuses to testify to a lie that will legitimize the trials, thereby redeeming a life that had been blemished by adultery with one of the accusers.
The principal aesthetic problem with the play is that it veers to unrelenting melodrama without the leavening humor that even the greatest tragedies in our language incorporate. Critics have compared it instead to a Greek tragedy, but Hegel correctly noted that the great Greek political tragedies feature “a clash of right with right.” There is no such clash here with all the martyrs except John Proctor portrayed as saints and the accusers and judges as either hysterics or villains.
Politically, the play is more troubling. As we know from his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller intended it to be an allegory for the “red scare,” where many communists and fellow travelers were summoned before Congress to name names. The difficulty with this analogy is clear. There were no witches. On the other hand there undoubtedly were communists.