The reception of Arthur Miller’s new play, The Crucible, offers an opportunity to analyze Mr. Miller’s remarkable power to fascinate the educated audience. Robert Warshow examines The Crucible‘s various levels of meaning and tries to formulate its deeper relevance to the political and cultural currents of our day.
One of the things that have been said of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s new play about the Salem witchcraft trials, is that we must not be misled by its obvious contemporary relevance: it is a drama of universal significance. This statement, which has usually a somewhat apologetic tone, seems to be made most often by those who do not fail to place great stress on the play’s “timeliness.” I believe it means something very different from what it appears to say, almost the contrary, in fact, and yet not quite the contrary either. It means: do not be misled by the play’s historical theme into forgetting the main point, which is that “witch trials” are always with us, and especially today; but on the other hand do not hold Mr. Miller responsible either for the inadequacies of his presentation of the Salem trials or for the many undeniable and important differences between those trials and the “witch trials” that are going on now. It is quite true, nevertheless, that the play is, at least in one sense, of “universal significance.” Only we must ask what this phrase has come to mean, and whether the quality it denotes is a virtue.
The Puritan tradition, the greatest and most persistent formulator of American simplifications, has itself always contained elements disturbingly resistant to ideological—or even simply rational—understanding. The great debate in American Calvinism over “good works” versus the total arbitrariness of the divine will was won, fortunately and no doubt inevitably, by those who held that an actively virtuous life must be at least the outward sign of “election.” But this interpretation was entirely pragmatic; it was made only because it had to be made, because in the most literal sense one could not survive in a universe of absolute predestination. The central contradiction of Calvinism remained unresolved, and the awful confusions of the Puritan mind still embarrass our efforts to see the early history of New England as a clear stage in the progress of American enlightenment. Only Hawthorne among American writers has seriously tried to deal with these confusions as part of the “given” material of literature, taking the Puritans in their own terms as among the real possibilities of life, and the admiration we accord to his tense and brittle artistry is almost as distant as our admiration of the early New Englanders themselves; it is curious how rarely Hawthorne has been mentioned beside Melville and James even in recent explorations of the “anti-liberal” side of our literature.
The Salem witch trials represent how far the Puritans were ready to go in taking their doctrines seriously. Leaving aside the slavery question and what has flowed from it, those trials are perhaps the most disconcerting single episode in our history: the occurrence of the unthinkable on American soil, and in what our schools have rather successfully taught us to think of as the very “cradle of Americanism.” Of Europe’s witch trials, we have our opinion. But these witch trials are “ours”; where do they belong in the “tradition”?
For Americans, a problem of this sort demands to be resolved, and there have been two main ways of resolving it. The first is to regard the trials as a historical curiosity; a curiosity by definition requires no explanation. In this way the trials are placed among the “vagaries” of the Puritan mind and can even offer a kind of amusement, like the amusement we have surprisingly agreed to find in the so-called “rough justice” of the Western frontier in the last century. But the more usual and more deceptive way of dealing with the Salem trials has been to assimilate them to the history of progress in civil rights. This brings them into the world of politics, where, even if our minds are not always made up, at least we think we know what the issues are. Arthur Miller, I need hardly say, has adopted this latter view.
Inevitably, I suppose, we will find in history what we need to find. But in this particular “interpretation” of the facts there seems to be a special injustice. The Salem trials were not political and had nothing whatever to do with civil rights, unless it is a violation of civil rights to hang a murderer. Nor were the “witches” being “persecuted”—as the Puritans did persecute Quakers, for instance. The actual conduct of the trials, to be sure, was outrageous, but no more’ outrageous than the conduct of ordinary criminal trials in England at the time. In any case, it is a little absurd to make the whole matter rest on the question of fair trial: how can there be a “fair trial” for a crime which not only has not been committed, but is impossible? The Salem “witches” suffered something that may be worse than persecution: they were hanged because of a metaphysical error. And they chose to die—for all could have saved themselves by “confession”—not for a cause, not for “civil rights,” not even to defeat the error that hanged them, but for their own credit on earth and in heaven: they would not say they were witches when they were not. They lived in a universe where each man was saved or damned by himself, and what happened to them was personal. Certainly their fate is not lacking in universal significance; it was a human fate. But its universality—if we must have the word—is of that true kind which begins and ends in a time and a place. One need not believe in witches, or even in God, to understand the events in Salem, but it is mere provinciality to ignore the fact that both those ideas had a reality for the people of Salem that they do not have for us.
The “universality” of Mr. Miller’s play belongs neither to literature nor to history, but to that journalism of limp erudition which assumes that events are to be understood by referring them to categories, and which is therefore never at a loss for a comment. Just as in Death of a Salesman Mr. Miller sought to present “the American” by eliminating so far as possible the “non-essential” facts which might have made his protagonist a particular American, so in The Crucible he reveals at every turn his almost contemptuous lack of interest in the particularities—which is to say, the reality—of the Salem trials. The character and motives of all the actors in this drama are for him both simple and clear. The girls who raised the accusation of witchcraft were merely trying to cover up their own misbehavior. The Reverend Samuel Parris found in the investigation of witchcraft a convenient means of consolidating his shaky position in a parish that was murmuring against his “undemocratic” conduct of the church. The Reverend John Hale, a conscientious and troubled minister who, given the premises, must have represented something like the best that Puritan New England had to offer, and whose agonies of doubt might have been expected to call forth the highest talents of a serious playwright, appears in The Crucible as a kind of idiotic “liberal” scoutmaster, at first cheerfully confident of his ability to cope with the Devil’s wiles and in the last act babbling hysterically in an almost comic contrast to the assured dignity of the main characters. Deputy Governor Danforth, presented as the virtual embodiment of early New England, never becomes more than a pompous, unimaginative politician of the better sort.
As for the victims themselves, the most significant fact is Miller’s choice of John Proctor for his leading character: Proctor can be seen as one of the more “modern” figures in the trials, hardheaded, skeptical, a voice of common sense (he thought the accusing girls could be cured of their “spells” by a sound whipping); also, according to Mr. Miller, no great churchgoer. It is all too easy to make Proctor into the “common man”—and then, of course, we know where we are: Proctor wavers a good deal, fails to understand what is happening, wants only to be left alone with his wife and his farm, considers making a false confession, but in the end goes to his death for reasons that he finds a little hard to define but that are clearly good reasons—mainly, it seems, he does not want to implicate others. You will never learn from this John Proctor that Salem was a religious community, quite as ready to hang a Quaker as a witch. The saintly Rebecca Nurse is also there, to be sure, sketched in rapidly in the background, a quiet figure whose mere presence—there is little more of her than that—reminds us how far the dramatist has fallen short.
Nor has Mr. Miller hesitated to alter the facts to fit his constricted field of vision. Abigail Williams, one of the chief accusers in the trials, was about eleven years old in 1692; Miller makes her a young woman of eighteen or nineteen and invents an adulterous relation between her and John Proctor in order to motivate her denunciation of John and his wife Elizabeth. The point is not that this falsifies the facts of Proctor’s life (though one remembers uneasily that he himself was willing to be hanged rather than confess to what was not true), but that it destroys the play, offering an easy theatrical motive that even in theatrical terms explains nothing, and deliberately casting away the element of religious and psychological complexity which gives the Salem trials their dramatic interest in the first place. In a similar way, Miller risks the whole point of Death of a Salesman by making his plot turn on the irrelevant discovery of Willy Loman’s adultery. And in both plays the fact of adultery itself is slighted: it is brought in not as a human problem, but as a mere theatrical device, like the dropping of a letter; one cannot take an interest in Willy Loman’s philandering, or believe in Abigail Williams’ passion despite the barnyard analogies with which the playwright tries to make it “elemental.”
Mr. Miller’s steadfast, one might almost say selfless, refusal of complexity, the assured simplicity of his view of human behavior, may be the chief source of his ability to captivate the educated audience. He is an oddly depersonalized writer; one tries in vain to define his special quality, only to discover that it is perhaps not a quality at all, but something like a method, and even as a method strangely bare: his plays are as neatly put together and essentially as empty as that skeleton of a house which made Death of a Salesman so impressively confusing. He is the playwright of an audience that believes the frightening complexities of history and experience are to be met with a few ideas, and yet does not even possess these ideas any longer but can only point significantly at the place where they were last seen and where it is hoped they might still be found to exist. What this audience demands of its artists above all is an intelligent narrowness of mind and vision and a generalized tone of affirmation, offering not any particular insights or any particular truths, but simply the assurance that insight and truth as qualities, the things in themselves, reside somehow in the various signals by which the artist and the audience have learned to recognize each other. For indeed very little remains except this recognition; the marriage of the liberal theater and the liberal audience has been for some time a marriage in name only, held together by habit and mutual interest, partly by sentimental memory, most of all by the fear of loneliness and the outside world; and yet the movements of love are still kept up—for the sake of the children, perhaps.
The hero of this audience is Clifford Odets. Among those who shouted “Bravo!” at the end of The Crucible—an exclamation, awkward on American lips, that is reserved for cultural achievements of the greatest importance—there must surely have been some who had stood up to shout “Strike!” at the end of Waiting for Lefty. But it is hard to believe that a second Odets, if that were possible, or the old Odets restored to youth, would be greeted with such enthusiasm as Arthur Miller calls forth. Odets’s talent was too rich—in my opinion the richest ever to appear in the American theater—and his poetry and invention were constantly more important than what he conceived himself to be saying. In those days it didn’t matter: the “message” at the end of the third act was so much taken for granted that there was room for Odets’s exuberance, and he himself was never forced to learn how much his talent was superior to his “affirmations” (if he had learned, perhaps the talent might have survived the “affirmations”). Arthur Miller is the dramatist of a later time, when the “message” isn’t there at all, but it has been agreed to pretend that it is. This pretense can be maintained only by the most rigid control, for there is no telling what small element of dramatic élan or simple reality may destroy the delicate rapport of a theater and an audience that have not yet acknowledged they have no more to say to each other. Arthur Miller is Odets without the poetry. Worst of all, one feels sometimes that he has suppressed the poetry deliberately, making himself by choice the anonymous dramatist of a fossilized audience. In Death of a Salesman, certainly, there were moments when reality seemed to force its way momentarily to the surface. And even at The Crucible—though here it was not Miller’s suppressed talent that broke through, but the suppressed facts of the outside world—the thread that tied the audience to its dramatist must have been now and then under some strain: surely there were some in the audience to notice uneasily that these witch trials, with their quality of ritual and their insistent need for “confessions,” were much more like the trial that had just ended in Prague than like any trial that has lately taken place in the United States. So much the better, perhaps, for the play’s “universal significance”; I don’t suppose Mr. Miller would defend the Prague trial. And yet I cannot believe it was for this particular implication that anyone shouted “Bravo!”
For let us indeed not be misled. Mr. Miller has nothing to say about the Salem trials and makes only the flimsiest pretense that he has.` The Crucible was written to say something about Alger Hiss and Owen Lattimore, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Senator McCarthy, the actors who have lost their jobs on radio and television, in short the whole complex that is spoken of, with a certain lowering of the voice, as the “present atmosphere.” And yet not to say anything about that either, but only to suggest that a great deal might be said, oh an infinitely great deal, if it were not that—what? Well, perhaps if it were not that the “present atmosphere” itself makes such plain speaking impossible. As it is, there is nothing for it but to write plays of “universal significance”—and, after all, that’s what a serious dramatist is supposed to do anyway.
What, then, is Mr. Miller trying to say to us? It’s hard to tell. In The Crucible innocent people are accused and convicted of witchcraft on the most absurd testimony—in fact, the testimony of those who themselves have meddled in witchcraft and are therefore doubly to be distrusted. Decent citizens who sign petitions attesting to the good character of their accused friends and neighbors are thrown into prison as suspects. Anyone who tries to introduce into court the voice of reason is likely to be held in contempt. One of the accused refuses to plead and is pressed to death. No one is acquitted; the only way out for the accused is to make false confessions and themselves join the accusers. Seeing all this on the stage, we are free to reflect that something very like these trials has been going on in recent years in the United States. How much like? Mr. Miller does not say. But very like, allowing of course for some superficial differences: no one has been pressed to death in recent years, for instance. Still, people have lost their jobs for refusing to say under oath whether or not they are Communists. The essential pattern is the same, isn’t it? And when we speak of “universal significance,” we mean sticking to the essential pattern, don’t we? Mr. Miller is under no obligation to tell us whether he thinks the trial of Alger Hiss, let us say, was a “witch trial”; he is writing about the Salem trials.
Or, again, the play reaches its climax with John and Elizabeth Proctor facing the problem of whether John should save himself from execution by making a false confession; he elects finally to accept death, for his tormentors will not be satisfied with his mere admission of guilt: he would be required to implicate others, thus betraying his innocent friends, and his confession would of course be used to justify the hanging of the other convicted witches in the face of growing community unrest. Now it is very hard to watch this scene without thinking of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who might also save their lives by confessing. Does Mr. Miller believe that the only confession possible for them would be a false one, implicating innocent people? Naturally, there is no way for him to let us know; perhaps he was not even thinking of the Rosenbergs at all. How can he be held responsible for what comes into my head while I watch his play? And if I think of the Rosenbergs and somebody else thinks of Alger Hiss, and still another thinks of the Prague trial, doesn’t that simply prove all over again that the play has universal significance?
One remembers also, as John Proctor wrestles with his conscience, that a former close associate of Mr. Miller’s decided some time ago, no doubt after serious and painful consideration, to tell the truth about his past membership in the Communist party, that he mentioned some others who had been in the party with him, and that he then became known in certain theatrical circles as an “informer” and a “rat.” Is it possible that this is what Mr. Miller was thinking about when he came to write his last scene? And is he trying to tell us that no one who has been a member of the Communist party should admit it? Or that if he does admit it he should not implicate anyone else? Or that all such “confessions” may be assumed to be false? If he were trying to tell us any of these things, perhaps we might have some arguments to raise. But of course he isn’t; he’s only writing about the Salem trials, and who wants to maintain that John Proctor was guilty of witchcraft?
But if Mr. Miller isn’t saying anything about the Salem trials, and can’t be caught saying anything about anything else, what did the audience think he was saying? That too is hard to tell. A couple of the newspaper critics wrote about how timely the play was, and then took it back in the Sunday editions, putting a little more weight on the “universal significance”; but perhaps they didn’t quite take it back as much as they seemed to want to: the final verdict appeared to be merely that The Crucible is not so great a play as Death of a Salesman. As for the rest of the audience, it was clear that they felt themselves to be participating in an event of great meaning: that is what is meant by “Bravo!” Does “Bravo!” mean anything else? I think it means: we agree with Arthur Miller; he has set forth brilliantly and courageously what has been weighing on all our minds; at last someone has had the courage to answer Senator McCarthy.
I don’t believe this audience was likely to ask itself what it was agreeing to. Enough that someone had said something, anything, to dispel for a couple of hours that undefined but very real sense of frustration which oppresses these “liberals”—who believe in their innermost being that salvation comes from saying something, and who yet find themselves somehow without anything very relevant to say. They tell themselves, of course, that Senator McCarthy has made it “impossible” to speak; but one can hardly believe they are satisfied with this explanation. Where are the heroic voices that will refuse to be stilled?
Well, last season there was The Male Animal, a play written twelve or thirteen years ago about a college professor who gets in trouble for reading one of Vanzetti’s letters to his English composition class. In the audience at that play one felt also the sense of communal excitement; it was a little like a secret meeting of early Christians—or even, one might say, witches—where everything had an extra dimension of meaning experienced only by the communicants. And this year there has been a revival of The Children’s Hour, a play of even more universal significance than The Crucible since it doesn’t have anything to do with any trials but just shows how people can be hurt by having lies told about them. But these were old plays, the voices of an older generation. It remained for Arthur Miller to write a new play that really speaks out.
What does he say when he speaks out?
Never mind. He speaks out.
One question remains to be asked. If Mr. Miller was unable to write directly about what he apparently (one can only guess) feels to be going on in American life today, why did he choose the particular evasion of the Salem trials? After all, violations of civil rights have been not infrequent in our history, and the Salem trials have the disadvantage that they must be distorted in order to be fitted into the framework of civil rights in the first place. Why is it just the image of a “witch trial” or a “witch hunt” that best expresses the sense of oppression which weighs on Mr. Miller and those who feel—I do not say think—as he does?
The answer, I would suppose, is precisely that those accused of witchcraft did not die for a cause or an idea, that they represented nothing; they were totally innocent, accused of a crime that does not even exist, the arbitrary victims of a fantastic error. Sacco and Vanzetti, for instance, were able to interpret what was happening to them in a way that the Salem victims could not; they knew that they actually stood for certain ideas that were abhorrent to those who were sending them to death. But the men and women hanged in Salem were not upholding witchcraft against the true church; they were upholding their own personal integrity against an insanely mistaken community.
This offers us a revealing glimpse of the way the Communists and their fellow-travelers have come to regard themselves. The picture has a certain pathos. As it becomes increasingly difficult for any sane man of conscience to reconcile an adherence to the Communist party with any conceivable political principles, the Communist—who is still, let us remember, very much a man of conscience—must gradually divest his political allegiance of all actual content, until he stands bare to the now incomprehensible anger of his neighbors. What can they possibly have against him?—he knows quite well that he believes in nothing, certainly that he is no revolutionist; he is only a dissenter-in-general, a type of personality, a man frozen into an attitude.
From this comes the astonishing phenomenon of Communist innocence. It cannot be assumed that the guiltiest of Communist conspirators protesting his entire innocence may not have a certain belief in his own protest. If you say to a Communist that he is a Communist, he is likely to feel himself in the position of a man who has been accused on no evidence of a crime that he has actually committed. He knows that he happens to be a Communist. But he knows also that his opinions and behavior are only the opinions and behavior of a “liberal,” a “dissenter.” You are therefore accusing him of being a Communist because he is a liberal, because he is for peace and civil rights and everything good. By some fantastic accident, your accusation happens to be true, but it is essentially false.
Consider, for example, how the controversy over the Hiss case reduced itself almost immediately to a question of personality, the “good” Hiss against the “bad” Chambers,, with the disturbing evidence of handwriting and typewriters and automobiles somehow beside the point. Alger Hiss, for those who believe him innocent, wears his innocence on his face and his body, in his “essence,” whereas Chambers by his own tortured behavior reveals himself as one of the damned. Hiss’s innocence, in fact, exists on a plane entirely out of contact with whatever he may have done. Perhaps most of those who take Hiss’s “side” believe that he actually did transmit secret documents to Chambers. But they believe also that this act was somehow transmuted into innocence by the inherent virtue of Alger Hiss’s being.
In a similar way, there has grown up around figures like Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, and Louis Budenz the falsest of all false issues: the “question” of the ex-Communist. We are asked to consider, not whether these people are telling the truth, or whether their understanding of Communism is correct, but whether in their “essence” as ex-Communists they are not irredeemably given over to falsehood and confusion. (It must be said that some ex-Communists have themselves helped to raise this absurd “question” by depicting Communism as something beyond both error and immorality—a form of utter perdition.)
Or, finally, consider that most mystical element in the Communist propaganda about the Rosenberg case: the claim that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are being “persecuted” because they have “fought for peace.” Since the Rosenbergs had abstained entirely from all political activity of any sort for a number of years before their arrest, it follows that the only thing they could have been doing which a Communist might interpret as “fighting for peace” must have been spying for the Soviet Union; but their being “persecuted” rests precisely on the claim that they are innocent of spying. The main element here, of course, is deliberate falsification. But it must be understood that for most partisans of the Rosenbergs such a falsification raises no problem; all lies and inconsistencies disappear in the enveloping cloud of the unspoken “essential” truth: the Rosenbergs are innocent because they are accused; they are innocent, one might say, by definition.
In however inchoate a fashion, those who sat thrilled in the dark theater watching The Crucible were celebrating a tradition and a community. No longer could they find any meaning in the cry of “Strike!” or “Revolt!” as they had done in their younger and more “primitive” age; let it be only “Bravo!”—a cry of celebration with no particular content. The important thing was that for a short time they could experience together the sense of their own being, their close community of right-mindedness in the orthodoxy of “dissent.” Outside, there waited all kinds of agonizing and concrete problems: were the Rosenbergs actually guilty? was Stalin actually going to persecute the Jews? But in the theater they could know, immediately and confidently, their own innate and inalienable rightness.
The Salem trials are in fact more relevant than Arthur Miller can have suspected. For this community of “dissent,” inexorably stripped of all principle and all specific belief, has retreated at last into a kind of extreme Calvinism of its own where political truth ceases to have any real connection with politics but becomes a property of the soul. Apart from all belief and all action, these people are “right” in themselves, and no longer need to prove themselves in the world of experience; the Revolution—or “liberalism,” or “dissent”—has entered into them as the grace of God was once conceived to have entered into the “elect,” and, like the grace of God, it is given irrevocably. Just as Alger Hiss bears witness to virtue even in his refusal to admit the very act wherein his “virtue” must reside if it resides anywhere, so these bear witness to “dissent” and “progress” in their mere existence.
For the Puritans themselves, the doctrine of absolute election was finally intolerable, and it cannot be believed that this new community of the elect finds its position comfortable. But it has yet to discover that its discomfort, like its “election,” comes from within.