In 1956, Miller was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to admit to signing petitions. This reminded him of the Salem witchcraft trials from two centuries ago, where people were forced to publicly confess and name names. These trials served as the inspiration for his play, The Crucible.
The McCarthyism can be seen as a modern-day version of the witch hunts that took place in the 20th century. In the United States, Senator Joseph McCarthy led a committee with the power to deport people who were deemed a threat to national security. During a period of five to ten years starting around 1945, the U.S. and USSR were involved in a conflict over communism’s expansion. This created fear among Americans about communism spreading. Similar to the Salem trials, this fear caused panic and resulted in many individuals being summoned before the committee for questioning. Those accused often faced long-lasting professional consequences.
Like many playwrights, Miller transformed a historical event into a work of fiction, using evidence and real-life responses to shape his story. However, Miller’s personal involvement in McCarthyism played a crucial role in his writing process. He believed that this experience provided him with unique insight into the emotions of those involved in the Salem witch trials, lending authority to his play. By drawing from his own experiences, Miller turned his play into an allegory.
When Miller testified before the committee in 1956, he never admitted to signing. Despite Miller’s personal doubts, this act of bravery could have led to imprisonment. Some may consider this courageous act as him being a martyr, similar to the character John Proctor in The Crucible. The relationship between John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth is crucial to the play’s main themes. Miller uses John to showcase integrity, and through John and Elizabeth’s bond, he demonstrates his belief in the power of love and its ability to conquer.
Transitioning from the bustling events in Parris’s house in Act 1, we now find ourselves in Act 2 within the tranquil common room of the Proctor’s residence. Though unoccupied, we can hear Elizabeth gently serenading the children, which provides our initial image and impression of her as a tender, kind, and affectionate woman. “Soon after, the door opens and John Proctor makes his entrance.” From a previous scene, we are aware that John commands respect, possesses good manners, and exudes self-assurance. However, it is important to acknowledge that he is not without faults and has committed adultery with Abigail Williams.
We observe that “he is not entirely satisfied” when he samples the contents of the pot, implying that Proctor may be a difficult man to satisfy. Additionally, even before we meet Elizabeth, we already empathize with her.
Although Elizabeth’s suspicion is evident in her question, “what keeps you so late?”, she is also strategically avoiding direct eye contact with John as she stays busy around the room. However, she pauses momentarily to observe his reaction to his meal, indicating a desire to please him. Their conversation about the weather and the farm remains somewhat polite, yet there is a subtle bitterness present. It is clear that something is missing between them, and they do not appear to be comfortable in each other’s presence. The room itself lacks warmth, magnifying the coldness that exists in Elizabeth and John’s relationship.
Despite being too weak to argue, Elizabeth still cannot forgive John for his actions. She “receives” John’s kiss, but he sits back down with a certain disappointment.
The tension between Elizabeth and Proctor intensifies when she encourages him to go to Salem and confess that “it is a fraud.” As they engage in a heated debate, Elizabeth grows more courageous while Proctor becomes angry. It becomes apparent that there is an undisclosed matter at the heart of their argument, with the specific points of disagreement being irrelevant. They are both avoiding a topic they cannot confront, yet they are fully aware of its existence. Nevertheless, these underlying issues must be addressed openly. In this process, Elizabeth discovers that Proctor was alone with Abigail and refuses to let it pass. This revelation becomes the catalyst for both characters finally expressing their repressed emotions. The mounting tension between them reaches its breaking point as all their feelings come pouring out.
John tells Elizabeth that she never forgets and never forgives and that her heart is constantly surrounded by mourning. Proctor asks Elizabeth to occasionally seek the goodness in him and not pass judgement. Miller uses a strong metaphor when Elizabeth replies that there is a magistrate in her heart that judges John. She considers him to be a good man, but John can only judge himself and Elizabeth cannot forgive him until he has forgiven himself internally.
In Act two, the tension between Elizabeth and John is palpable, as their relationship has been irreparably damaged by John’s infidelity with Abigail, an act that cannot be dismissed.
In Act 2, Hale visits the Proctor house to inform them that Elizabeth has been mentioned in the court. Proctor and Elizabeth are already aware of this as their servant, Mary Warren, has told them. Hale questions the “Christian character” of their house, even though their relationship is strained. Elizabeth assists John when he struggles to recall all the commandments, ironically including adultery. This demonstrates Elizabeth’s lingering care for him, which she cannot openly show. Hale views this mistake as a vulnerability in their defense. However, Hale and others who were swept up in the hysteria fail to realize the flawed nature of their approach. Confessing would allow them to live, even though it would be a false admission since there were no actual witches in the community. They would be branded a witch but would survive. On the other hand, if they refused to confess, they would die for telling the truth. Only John and Elizabeth grasp this dilemma at that time.
In the final scene, Elizabeth is accused of “conjuring bad spirits” and is sent to prison, causing an emotional moment as she is separated from her family. John expresses his dedication to bringing her home, proclaiming, “I will bring you home. I will bring you home soon.” He assures Elizabeth that he will fight for her, stating, “I will fall like the ocean on that court. Fear nothing, Elizabeth.” This displays John’s deep love for her. Proctor becomes enraged when he hears the clank of chains and confronts the man responsible, exclaiming, “Damn you man! You will not chain her!” He cannot bear to see Elizabeth suffer because he knows that she is being punished for his own sins. Later in Act 3, when Elizabeth is called to testify, she enters the room in silence. Danforth instructs her to only look at him, not her husband. However, Elizabeth cannot help but gaze at Proctor, suggesting that she has missed him greatly and relies on him to guide her words.
Elizabeth is unaware of what Proctor has revealed to the court, so she informs them that Abigail was dismissed because she had displeased both her and Proctor. When Danforth questions Elizabeth if her husband had actually abandoned her, he reaches out and touches her face. Elizabeth is too shocked to respond. The room falls silent, eagerly anticipating her words. In a faint voice amidst the silence, she finally answers, “No, sir.” In a twist of irony, this marks the first time Elizabeth has ever lied, unknowingly making things worse. Proctor desperately yells, “Elizabeth, I have confessed!” but it is too late. The words have been spoken and the door has closed behind her. Unintentionally, Elizabeth has sealed John’s fate while only intending to preserve his reputation.
In Act 4, a calm atmosphere prevails, accompanied by silence. However, amidst the silence, the sound of dragging chains is heard. Anticipating the arrival of the strong-minded and respected John Proctor from the side of the stage, instead, we are greeted by an unfamiliar figure described as “another man.” Unclean and sporting a beard, he is barely recognizable to both us and Elizabeth. Is this the same man who previously urged us not to be afraid?
With the stage emptied, we now focus on the main protagonists of the play, who are husband and wife. The “emotion flowing between them” is so intense that it captures our attention.
Proctor approaches Elizabeth, stunned by the presence of her. He reaches out to touch her, as if not quite believing she is real. In this intense moment, a soft sound is heard, almost like a sigh of relief that she is truly there. They sit facing each other, unaware of the world spinning around them. These may be their final words, and Proctor asks a simple, gentle question: “What about the child?” Elizabeth responds, “It is growing.” Perhaps the child is their last glimmer of hope.
The current moment is intensely different from their previous encounter, as it has made them realize their true love for each other. Miller has managed to make this initial moment enthralling, with the audience eagerly awaiting their first sounds or words. Through the use of monosyllabic words, the emotions conveyed are heightened, as there is no need for additional words. The actions and tone of Elizabeth and John speak volumes, evoking a profound sense of empathy within us.
Proctor inquires about the boys, and although Elizabeth is on the verge of tears, she admits to him that she has not seen them. However, she manages to suppress her emotions, as it appears imperative for her to remain strong for John.
Elizabeth expresses her concern by asking if he has been tortured. This genuine worry indicates that Elizabeth now cares for him and any bitterness she had previously has vanished.
There is a significant pause in this particular part of the play. The pauses in this scene hold great importance as they create a sense of anticipation. This pause is different from the one we witnessed when Elizabeth and John were first seen together. In this moment, we sense that the pause is meant for Elizabeth and John to cherish this moment together, possibly because it could be their final one.
John Proctor, strong and esteemed, confesses to her, “They are now coming for my life.” This revelation is almost unbelievable.
Elizabeth attempts to console John by saving him from getting too upset when she gently informs him about the death of his friend, Giles. She factually narrates what happened and adds with a smile, “Yes, it was a terrifying man, Giles Corey.”
John pleads with Elizabeth, expressing his desire to make her happy and be with her. He asks her a question, saying “I would confess to them, Elizabeth. (She shows nothing) What say you? If I give them that?”
Elizabeth consistently responds, as she always has, saying “I cannot judge you, John.” This recalls the moment in Act 2 when she stated that he judges himself.
Proctor is desperate for an answer. He tells Elizabeth that his honesty is shattered and he considers himself unworthy. He believes confessing his sins is pointless because he is already a sinner. However, Elizabeth refuses to accept this and forgives him. She points out that he has not confessed until now, which shows that he has goodness within him. She explains that it takes a distant wife to encourage infidelity, implying that her lack of warmth contributed to his actions. It becomes clear that she not only forgives him but also feels partially responsible for his guilt.
“Forgive me John! I never knew such goodness in the world!” Elizabeth pleads with John to recognize the goodness within himself. John, feeling “off the earth” and with a “hollow” voice, cries out, “I want my life!” This marks a sudden shift in roles between John and Elizabeth. John now appears weak and helpless, while Elizabeth displays strength. She admits, “I counted myself so plain, so poorly made,” revealing her vulnerability and humanity. This is a stark contrast to our initial perception of her as a saint-like figure, and signifies a moment of complete honesty for Elizabeth in the play.
In the final images, the ultimate climax occurs. Despite his decision not to confess and destroying his confession, John seals his fate while also acknowledging a remaining goodness within him. Conversely, Elizabeth undergoes intense emotions as she anticipates losing her beloved and never seeing him again, leaving her to raise their two sons alone without a father figure. Nonetheless, if John were to survive, he would be transformed into an unrecognizable shattered individual incapable of finding inner peace.
Elizabeth, filled with fear, rushes to him, unveiling the John Proctor we are familiar with – a confident and self-assured man.
“Show honour now,” he bellows, “demonstrate a heart of stone and drown them with it.”
With intense passion, he kisses her, making us sense the deep love that exists between them and evoking sympathy for both characters. As the protagonists of this play, their love is the victorious force that prevails.
From outside, we hear a drum roll that signals John’s impending death. This startles both Elizabeth and the audience. Amidst all the chaos happening around her, Elizabeth remains still. She remembers the true nature of John Proctor – a kind and compassionate man. Overwhelmed with emotion, she leans against the bars, unable to stand. As the play reaches its climax, we feel a profound empathy for Elizabeth. She exclaims, “He has his goodness now. May God forbid that I take it away from him!”
A new life for Elizabeth is revealed as a drum roll rings out, with the light streaming through the window illuminating her face. Their love has become even more powerful, unshakeable by anyone. Love has prevailed through every obstacle. Furthermore, John has displayed his integrity, much like Miller did many centuries later.