Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Red Scare, Purple Prose

My job, as an editorial assistant at an educational publishing company, has got me reading a lot of things I hadn't read in a while or had never read at all. One of the things I reread is The Crucible. (Mmmm, spoilertastic.) This post is lifted and expanded from an Email exchange Katie and I had upon my rereading.

The Crucible is a story of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, wherein a group of young women living in Salem Village began to denounce other villagers as witches, a process that rapidly mounted to hysterical and led to the execution of more than fifty people who would not confess to witchcraft when accused. Miller's play follows the story of John Proctor, who once had an adulterous affair with Abigail Williams (leader of the accusing young women) and who, because he does not buy into the concept of witchcraft and fights the court when his wife is accused, is eventually convicted as a witch (wizard) himself. Also, The Crucible, as I imagine most of you know, was Arthur Miller's response to McCarthyism, to being asked to name names during the Red Scare. Miller's own response to his interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee was, "My conscience will not permit me to use the name o another person and bring trouble to him." Arthur Miller was eventually cited for contempt by the HUAC. John Proctor is hanged at the end of the play.

Now, contrary to pretty much everything I've ever said, I go in for melodrama. Well, rather than going in, I am taken in by melodrama--against my will perhaps, but nevertheless I end up in. The power of such stories, no matter how over the top, tends to get me. The Crucible is an inordinately powerful story, a story with injustice, martyrdom, the powers of sexuality, love and hysteria, a delicate exploration of some relationships and of disguised mob rule. But the piece, particularly in the latter acts and even more particularly in Act IV, is painful in its inflated language, its roaring, sound-bitey sturmunddrang. However powerful the story, its most interesting and moving points remain those more complex, and those points are those where Miller falters in the comparison to McCarthyism. But it is *hard*, given the context in which the play is almost always presented, to look beyond its metaphorical context.

In searching on the web for articles that will accompany the play in the textbook, I've found a number of conservatives who argue that the comparison does not stand simply because witches did not exist and communists did. That's not the point at all; the point is based on belief. After a point it became--in Salem, in McCarthyism, in day-care scandals of the 1980s--irrelevant whether the deviants existed. The stories, both fictionalized and not, are about the power of belief therein. Whether there were communist spies in the U.S. or not, and obviously there were, there existed a desperate social need for that common and concrete enemy, and McCarthy's (and Hoover's, and Cohn's, and, you know, half the government's) declarations and beliefs that communists were everywhere and threatening us at every turn fed those needs. Salem, a frightened, fledgling colonial community still young enough that it felt isolated from what it knew as society, needed an enemy as well, and witches served that need. Hearing the accusations come from young girls (where Miller's Abigail Williams is 17, old enough to have had an adulterous affair, the real-life Abigail Williams was eleven years old in 1692) allowed residents of Salem to see their own motives as pure--that advantage, for example, is one that those who believed in the HUAC did not have. This is not the aspect of the metaphor that stretches my credulity. It's rather the end, the notion that being hanged for a sin you did not commit is analagous to being blacklisted.

In this, I find Miller somewhat presumptuous. In the first three acts, the play does not establish simple patterns of right and wrong: it shows that many, like the Reverend Hale, do believe in witches and mean well, and that the image of the Devil holds its own independent and dramatic power even when not directly associated with a particular witch. While these girls are deceitful, Mary Warren's perspective also tells the truth about hysteria, about the possibility that it's not lying in that lying implies deliberation and conscious choice. But in the end there is only one right answer, and as Katie so eloquently put it, the reason for that is not based on the plot or characters of the play as previously established, but based on the fact that Miller sees himself as having made the supreme sacrifice that Proctor makes, as being the same honorable martyr. I cannot help but find that egotistical. McCarthyism was horrible, unquestionably, but the impotence of being blacklisted pales in comparison to the Salem Witch Trials, and rather than seem like simply a use of symbolism to justify the grandiosity of emotions, it seems that Miller thought his sacrifice equally important, both to himself and to his world. Therefore the end of the play seems much more black and white than the story we've followed throughout the piece.

There are, I cannot deny it, situations that are in the end black and white, situations in which you either choose to do something or you don't and that's all there is--your reasoning behind making such choices is a level down. I think it's fair to say that signing a false confession when you believe you'll be further damned by lying, both in life and death, when the other choice is to die, qualifies. But it also makes the play less interesting.

What in the play can save it from this polarity? Perhaps the character of Reverend Hale. Hale comes in as a reputable expert in the supernatural; the fact that there is someone honorable at the core of the play with real belief in and knowledge of witchcraft makes the piece substantially stronger. In this world, witchcraft (yeah, yeah, yeah, like Communism) exists. It's studied, its tenets are known, and though this truly learned and studied man, Reverend Hale, is at first satisfied to see his theories made manifest (can you be "made manifest"?), he acknowledges and is duly horrified when he sees it go out of control--along the Niels Bohr lines, I would think. By the end of the play, though, we're made to feel that there aren't really witches--that those who confessed to it, such as Tituba and Sarah Good, are truly just lazy, drunken layabouts who now find their position laughable. Certainly that's not what we saw of Tituba at the beginning of the play--has the witchcraft been taken out of her by means of her imprisonment? Did people lose their communist leanings when blacklisted? Reverend Hale, by the end, seems like he's recanting his theories and scholarship altogether--we're made to believe that the accusations, such as those against Giles Corey, are predominantly economically motivated, and that given what we saw of the Putnams at the beginning (a greedy landowning couple whose daughter is one of those who cries witch), that they were from the start. And it's true that witchcraft accusations the world around, from Salem to Nigeria to South Africa, always have some economic bent to them, but nor is it by any means limited to that. As Katie put it, Hale, by the end, loses his earnestness and is bitterly cynical, while John Proctor gains "earnest conviction"--but what's the use of having a play where Proctor was right all along? He considers changing his story briefly in the fourth act, and Miller makes a histrionic scene of it. That aspect of the piece hardly qualifies as a journey.

Then, of course, there are the women. In most productions, Elizabeth Proctor is cold, distant, a woman whose "justice would freeze beer," a "cold wife [who] prompt[s] lechery," and only in admitting that "it were a cold house I kept" is she redeemed and allowed to be loved. Abigail, sexually powerful and in the throes of her first lover's rejection, is fiery and flaunts morality. It's all very Madonna-whore. But Abigail, as most productions miss--and, I found to my surprise, the script does not miss--is *seventeen* years old (the historical figure was eleven at the time, but the script knowingly and admittedly takes many liberties with history), a charismatic, confused leader who's been rejected by her first love and can't accept it. Lose that youth, that vulnerability--as most productions do--and you've pretty much lost the play. That element, too, cuts down on the frustrating moralism, as does thinking that Mary Warren, too, is in love with John. But then, what of Elizabeth? Katie, who played her in a U of C production, takes issue with the notion that Elizabeth is cold, and I think that's fair. The only evidence of "coldness" we see is in her first scene with John, wherein I hope none would deny she had a right to be angry. After that we see a woman who's seen the unfairness and outrageousness of a situation and hopes to protect the man she loves, the man she has realized she still loves, from it. Martyricious, certainly, and our evidence from the play is that we know an honorable woman by her willingness to sacrifice herself. That's the case for an honorable man, too, of course, but he's to subvert himself to his honorable cause; a woman is to subvert herself first to love of another person. Katie believes that some aspects of Elizabeth are lost when she lies in the courtroom to protect John; I disagree. The fact that Elizabeth puts John before her strict moral system (as John Proctor says, "My wife cannot lie"), and chooses to violate something that has up until this point been dogma for her, proves that dogma *can* be violated, and that we are in a society that punishes it. That scene makes this point in a much more subtle and skillful fashion than Act IV; in some ways I think the play could do without IV, except for the Hale aspects. It's a mess, and it gives more fuel to the argument of sexism: rather than allow Act III to stand in its own complexity, it makes the story about a social difficulty that ultimately turns on the weakness of women. Abigail and her girls destroy society as we know it; then, as Katie put it, "John could have put things right, if Elizabeth had just told the truth."

Does it come down to more than polarizing right and wrong? Doesn't it have to? Sometime when I was in high school, Elia Kazan, the director of (among other things) On the Waterfront, who did name names during the Red Scare, received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award. Controversy abounded, and a tremendous production was made of who stood to applaud Kazan and who did not. I can no longer recall a single person who did and didn't, but I remember feeling conflicted at the time. I've never seen any of Kazan's films, so I can't say for sure, but by all reports he's incredibly skilled and talented and added a great deal to the American filmmaking canon; it was for that he was being honored, not for his particular perspective on self-preservation versus big-picture political ethics. On the other hand, the fact of his naming names was from one perspective detrimental to the film industry, given the number of people who were for years prevented from working. The questions get bigger, and that's what a good play, as The Crucible is for most of its duration, should make them do. But by the end the questions have gotten very, very small.

Fundamentally, the fourth act of The Crucible sucks. It undermines a lot of what's valuable in the play, a lot of its complexities and values and conflicts. I'm not actually sure if the piece could end with the third act, but it seems a lot closer to being right. It leaves us not knowing everything, but gives us more of a pervading sense of the horror, and honestly, we haven't earned the dissipation of the horror that comes with the fourth act. I mean, big deal, John Proctor dies with his goodness. More power to him--but we've still got a society in wreckage, a society that's destroyed itself by means of inflating its belief system. Are we just to believe it deserves it, be okay with it as long as Proctor has maintained his honor?

The bottom line, for me, is that Miller is a skillful propagandaist and a skillful playwright, and does not mix the two together well. My co-worker pointed out that one must admire his moral stances, that not a lot of people were speaking out strongly against McCarthyism who had both the venom and visibility of Arthur Miller, and I spend so much time in liberal environments and mindsets that I often forget there are places and times in which they are or were unusual. But The Crucible has a number of wonderful points, more than most Miller plays, and it saddens me that it's often burdened by the limits of the metaphor, limited by the singular emotional impluse that drove it originally. Good art has to be more than that, and better productions and ideas of The Crucible can, I think, be available than generally are.


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