In 1956 when Miller was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee to confess to signing his name to petitions he began to think back to the witchcraft trials in Salem two centuries before. Miller saw these public confessions like the naming of names in Salem in 1692. This was the start of inspiration for his play The Crucible.
The McCarthyism was what one might call a twentieth century version of the witch hunting. Since 1938 the committee, run by a man called Senator Joseph McCarthy, existed in America, they had the power to remove anyone from the country who was threatening the safety of America. In 1945 during the next five or ten years the United States and the USSR fought over the rise of communism. American feared it was spreading and just like the Salem trials this fear sparked off the panic in which so many witnesses were brought before the committee to confess, some who’s name were blackened could never work again.
Like many writers of plays Miller used a historical situation and transformed it into a fictional writing. By using a historical situation writers are able to draw upon documented evidence and real-life reactions to situations. Most importantly though for Miller was his experience in his involvement in the McCarthyism, this would have led him to feel he had an insight into the feelings of those involved in the Salem witch trials and he would have felt he was writing the play authoritatively. Using the situations that had happened to him meant the play could be read as an allegory.
When Miller stood before the committee in 1956 he did not ever confess to signing. Although Miller himself did not believe he was so, this was a very courageous thing to do and he could have been sent to prison, this heroic act was what some might say being a martyr, just like the character in The Crucible, John Proctor. John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth are the principle characters and their relationship plays a very big part in the key ideas of the play. Miller portrays his integrity through John, and through John & Elizabeth’s relationship he showed that he believed that love and its conquering strength are what is important.
Moving from the frenetic happenings in Parris’s house in Act 1 we are now in Act 2 in the quiet common room of the Proctor’s house. It is empty, but we hear Elizabeth “softly singing to the children” and our first image and impression of Elizabeth is portrayed here, a soft, kind and loving woman. “Presently the door opens and John Proctor enters”, we already know from a previous scene that John is a respected, well-mannered and self-assured man. But of course he is no saint and has sinned. We know he has committed adultery with Abigail Williams.
We see ” he is not quite pleased” when he tastes what is in the pot. Suggesting Proctor may be a man hard to please and even before we have met Elizabeth we feel this pity for her.
We feel Elizabeth’s suspicious as she asks “what keeps you so late?” but she is also avoiding the spots where they have to look at each other as she busies herself around the room only stopping to watch his reaction to his meal implying she wants to please him. Their somewhat polite conversation of the weather and the farm has a slight bitterness and we feel there is something missing, they are not easy together. The room and the atmosphere have no warmth expressing the coldness in Elizabeth and John’s relationship.
Elizabeth is too weak to argue, but still cannot forgive him for what he has done and “receives” John’s kiss and John with a certain “disappointment” sits back down.
The tension rises when Elizabeth wants Proctor to go to Salem to confess “it is a fraud.” Elizabeth’s courage mounts as she argues with him and this angers Proctor. We feel that this argument has something behind it, the arguments surface is not important, they are edging from a subject they cannot face, and they both know what it is. But we find these things must come to the surface and Elizabeth finds out Proctor was alone with Abigail. She will not leave it alone and this is where both characters let go, the tension between them has got too much and all their feelings come out.
John tells Elizabeth how she “forgets nothin’ and forgives nothin ” and “an everlasting funeral marches round your heart.” Proctor asks Elizabeth to “look sometimes for the goodness in me, judge me not.” Miller uses the very powerful line using a metaphor for Elizabeth’s response “The magistrate that sits in your heart that judges you” she tells him she thinks of him as a “good man” John can only judge himself and Elizabeth will not. She cannot forgive him until he has forgiven himself inside.
In Act two we feel such unease between Elizabeth and John, their relationship has been broken by the act of adultery between John and Abigail which cannot be forgotten.
Later in Act 2 we see Hale come to the Proctor house. Hale has come to tell them Elizabeth has been mentioned in the court. Proctor and Elizabeth already know this from being told by their servant, Mary Warren. Hale questions Proctor and Elizabeth on the “Christian character” of their house. Although their relationship is somewhat broken we see a point where Elizabeth helps out John when he cannot remember all the commandments, ironically it is adultery! This makes us feel Elizabeth still does care for him, she just cannot show it. Hale believes this mistake is a “crack in a fortress”. What Hale and many of the others that were drawn in by the hysteria could not see that the way they going about the situation was wrong. If one was to confess, and surely it would be a lie as really in the community there were no witches, they would stay alive, but have the reputation of being a witch. Yet if they were to not confess they would die and they would be dying for saying the truth? Only John and Elizabeth could see this at the time.
The very last scene is emotional as Elizabeth has been accused of “conjuring bad spirits” and is torn from her family and sent to prison. We see a very heroic John ” I will bring you home. I will bring you home soon” we hear John say as Elizabeth is led outside. ” I will fall like the ocean on that court. Fear nothing, Elizabeth” He reassures her. We see John is trying in the best way he can to show he loves her dearly. The clank of chains is heard and Proctor rushes out “damn you man! You will not chain her!” He cannot bear to see Elizabeth being chained because he knows that she is only being chained for his sins. Later on in Act 3 when Elizabeth is summoned to testify. She enters and the room silent, Danforth tells Elizabeth “look at me only, not at your husband” Elizabeth obviously cannot contain herself from looking at Proctor, this making us feel that Elizabeth has missed him very much and depends on him for what she should say.
Elizabeth’s does not know what Proctor has told the court and she tells them that the reason they threw out Abigail was because she “dissatisfied” her and Proctor. ” Your husband- did he indeed turn form you?” Danforth asks Elizabeth he reaches out and holds her face, Elizabeth is in too much shock to speak. The room holding their breath to hear her speak, in the midst of silence faintly she replies “No sir.” Elizabeth for first time in her life has lied and the irony of this is that she has only unconsciously has made things worse. Proctor cries out “Elizabeth I have confessed!” but its too late, whats said is said the door has closed behind her. Elizabeth has decided the fate of John when she only “thought to save his name.”
In Act 4 now there is silence, the atmosphere is calm, but in the midst of the silence we hear the dragging of chains. We wait, assuming to come from the side of the stage the strong minded, respected John Proctor. But “another man” enters the stage. Bearded and filthy, we can hardly recognise him neither can Elizabeth. Is this the man that told us not to fear?
So much “emotion flowing between them” we hardly realise now the stage has emptied and all that is on stage are, as we know now, the main protagonists of the play. Husband and wife.
Now alone Proctor walks to Elizabeth, but halts he can hardly believe she is there. And as he touches the “embodiment not quite real” the first sound from this intense moment is heard “a strange soft sound” almost a sigh of relief that she is there. There they sit facing each other still, while the world around them spins. This maybe their last words and Proctor asks two, simple gentle words ” the child?” Elizabeth replies “it grows.” Maybe the child is all they have left to hope for.
This moment so intense, is such a change from when we last saw them together. The thought of death has made them realise they truly do love each other. Miller has made this first moment so captivating, the silence leaves us the audience on the edge of our seats just waiting for the first sounds or first words they say to each other. By using monosyllabic words, we feel such emotion for there is no need for any more. Elizabeth and John’s movements and tone show more than their words, we can feel such depth of empathy for them.
Proctor asks of the boys, Elizabeth can hardly contain her emotion, as she is about to cry she tells him she has not seen them. But she swallows it. We feel she must stay strong for John.
Elizabeth asks, “you-have been tortured?” we feel Elizabeth is now genuinely worried and cares for him, the bitterness has disappeared.
There is a pause; the pauses in this part of the play are such an important point. It gives us a feel of anticipation, and this is a different pause to the first scene we saw them together, we feel this pause is for Elizabeth and John to just savour this moment together, this may be their last.
John tells her “They come for my life now.” We can hardly believe we are hearing what John is saying. John Proctor is strong and respected, never defeated.
Elizabeth trying to keep this moment contented saves John from becoming too upset when she tells him his friend Giles has been killed “(gently) he was pressed, John”, factually she tells him what happened and with a smile says “Aye. It were a fearsome man, Giles Corey”
Wanting to make Elizabeth happy, wanting to be with her and pleading for what Elizabeth has to say John asks Elizabeth “I would confess to them, Elizabeth. (She shows nothing) What say you? If I give them that?”
Simply Elizabeth replies, as she always has “I cannot judge you John” we look back to when she said he judges himself in Act 2.
Proctor frantic for an answer “my honesty is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man.” He feels he might as well confess, as he is already a sinner. But Elizabeth is having none of it, she has forgiven him ” and yet you’ve not confessed till now. That speak goodness in you.” She is showing him she sees the goodness in him. ” It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery” she tells him. We now know not only has she forgiven him, but has taken some of his guilt upon herself.
” Forgive me John! I never knew such goodness in the world!” cries Elizabeth, almost pleading him to now look for the goodness inside him. John “off the earth” and his voice “hollow” he cries ” I want my life!” We now see a sudden change in role between John and Elizabeth. John now the weak helpless one, Elizabeth strong, she says ” I counted my self so plain so poorly made” we see a more human Elizabeth. We see this real woman now. In contrast to when we first met her, we saw her as a saint not quite real. But in this part of the play it is moment of total honesty for Elizabeth.
Here in the final images the final climax arises. After John has decided not to confess, torn his confession up and sealed his fate, John finally sees there is “some shred of goodness in John Proctor.” We see this is a very emotional time for Elizabeth she is losing the man she loves and she is never seeing him again, she is gong to be left to look after her two sons alone with no father. Yet if he were to stay alive John would never be the man she once knew and loved he would be a broken man, a man not at ease with himself.
Elizabeth now in a “burst of terror” runs to him and here we see the John Proctor we know, the strong man, now at ease with himself.
“Show honour now” he bellows “show a stony heart and sink them with it.”
And with “great passion” he kisses her, we now feel there is so much love between them and at that moment feel so much sympathy for both characters. They are the heroes of this play; their love is what has triumphed.
From outside we hear a “drum roll strike the air” like a beckon for John it’s time for him to die, this startles Elizabeth and us. And as all the chaos around Elizabeth continues, she stands still. She knows the real John Proctor, the good warm-hearted man. Supporting herself against the bars, too hysterical to stand, the play now at its highest point and us, the audience, feeling such emotion for Elizabeth, she cries “He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!”
A drum roll crashes and we see a new life for Elizabeth as the light pours through the window upon her face. Their love is now stronger than ever, and no one can take that away. Love has triumphed over all. And John has shown his integrity just like Miller did centuries after.