Erin Doherty and the cast of The Crucible
National Theatre London, 2022
Photo by Johan Persson
The Crucible – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on The Crucible include some facts about the Salem Witch Trials and Miller’s invention; the meaning of the title of the play; and the instinct for self-preservation that drives many of the characters’ behaviour.
Salem facts and Miller’s invention
The Salem Witch Trials took place in Salem Village, Massachusetts from February 1692 to May 1693. In all 200 people were accused, 30 found guilty, and 19 hanged. Giles Corey was pressed to death for refusing to plead, as told in the play, and five more people died in jail. As we noted in the podcast, the majority of those convicted were women; nearly 80%.
The two girls at the centre of events were Betty Paris and Abigail Williams, the daughter and the niece of Reverend Samuel Parris. The girls were actually only nine and eleven years old respectively, and the real John Proctor was sixty at the time. He had sired seventeen children, not all of whom survived, and married three times, his first two wives having died. His third wife, Elizabeth, was pregnant with their seventh child during the witchcraft trials.
Miller increased the ages of the girls in order to create the sexual undercurrents in the play, and specifically the liaison between Abigail and John, which motivates her calling out Elizabeth Proctor. In fact Mrs Proctor was first accused by Ann Putnam Jr, whose family may have resented John Proctor’s financial success. Abigail Williams and the other girls then joined the chorus of her accusers. From his research in Salem, Miller later said that he was intrigued by the fact that Abigail refused to single out John Proctor in her prosecution, focussing solely on calling out his wife, Elizabeth. He described what he called “the hard evidence of what would become my play’s centre: the breakdown of the Proctor’s marriage and Abigail Williams’s determination to get Elizabeth murdered so that she could have John, whom I deduced that she had slept with while she was her house servant, before Elizabeth fired her.” He clearly filled in a blank with his own invention.
When Abigail Williams and Betty Parris displayed signs of illness they first pointed the finger of witchcraft at the Parris’s black slave Tituba. Tituba was an easy target, being a slave without anyone to defend her. As in the play, she initially denied the charge, but with no way out she deflected the charge onto Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good. She also described seeing supernatural animals, including a yellow bird, as the girls do in the courtroom in the play.
Although Abigail and Betty were the first to be struck with the mysterious ‘affliction’, eventually grown women and men also exhibited symptoms of bewitchment. The people afflicted began to complain that spirits were stabbing them, choking them, and jabbing them with pins. The recorded testimony of the Reverend John Hale described the Parris girls’ affliction as “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect”. The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions. There is certainly drama in this vivid description that hardly needed enhancing in Miller’s recreation of the girls’ courtroom hysterics.
John Proctor’s house, Salem
Late 19th century engraving of a Salem trial
The title of the play
Miller originally titled the play Those Familiar Spirits. In medieval folklore ‘familiar spirits’ were supernatural entities that assisted witches in their malevolent magic. They were often described as taking the form of an animal, and the afflicted girls in Salem reported seeing animals such as the yellow bird, which would be associated with the witch they were accusing. In one case apparently a man was accused of magically encouraging his dog to attack, and the dog was hung!
Miller’s first choice of title may refer more generally to the familiar human vices that are displayed in the behaviour of the accusers and prosecutors in the play; their self-serving betrayals, their lust for power and glory, their petty opportunism, their gullibility and arrogance. Perhaps he was also connecting to such familiar behaviours in his own time, specifically those displayed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
The Crucible as a title has a different power. The word ‘crucible’ is defined as a severe test or trial, or alternatively as a container in which metals or other substances are subjected to high temperatures. The people of Salem are literally put through a severe trial. They are also subjected to extreme pressure within the confines of their community. All that was once solid dissolves in the intense heat.
In my experience the most powerful productions of the play have been ones that have been staged in the round, where the conscribed crucible of the community and the courtroom can be most effectively created. We as ther audience are then pulled into this community, immersed in the unnatural drama, confronting the real threats and moral choices that they do. Are we also implicated as we face each other? How would we respond? Would we become accusers ourselves? Choose survival through collaboration, or would we stand up and resist the collective madness? The play asks us: how would we behave in the crucible of such a test or under such pressure?
At the heart of the moral dilemmas dramatised in the play is the powerful instinct for self-preservation. As Steve and I discussed in the podcast, many of those accused naturally confessed to a lie because it was the only way to avoid being killed. Abigail, Tituba and others were drawn further, into accusing others in order to divert the charge against themselves, as those who testified at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee did to preserve their own positions.
There are other self-preserving behaviours on display in the course of the play. Ezekial Cheever, for example, becomes complicit by following orders when he becomes a clerk of the court: “You know I must do as I’m told” he explains to Giles Corey. An excuse that rings familiar from Nazi Germany.
The behaviour of the girls and the authorities demonstrates another dangerous feature of human nature when under pressure: that once we’re committed to a position based on deception or an error, we commonly double-down and fight harder to preserve our position or gains. Abigail sees this when Mary Warren and Proctor turn the spotlight onto her; she steps us her offensive by attacking Danforth himself. In the final act, Danforth and the courts are too far in to turn back on their position; they would be admitting they had killed the others in vain.
Reverend Parris is perhaps the most pathetic of all, abandoning his tyrannical campaign when his own life is threatened. Whereas in some ways Reverend Hale has gone past the point of self-preservation. The fastidious faith he counted on in the beginning has been shattered by the injustices he has helped perpetrate: “There is blood on my head”. While he may find some moral consolation in his now seeking to save the lives of some of the accused, he knows he cannot redress the wrongs he committed. While he counsels Elizabeth Proctor that “life is God’s most precious gift”, he has only barely preserved his own. He is broken; any faith in “high religion” or himself is lost.
Tyrell William’s award-winning, debut play Red Pitch is set on an inner-city football pitch in South London. It is a coming-of-age story, with teenage boys fighting to believe in their dreams, and to find a way up, and perhaps out, of their changing community. The play premiered at the Bush Theatre in London in February 2002, winning several awards, and is currently enjoying a sell-out revival at the Bush.
Tyrell Williams, and the show’s director, Daniel Bailey, join me to explore this joyful and poignant new play.
Photo by Helen Murray.
Martin McDonagh’s 2004 play The Pillowman is an unsettling mix of gruesome fairy tales, child abuse, and murder, overlaid with McDonagh’s signature black humour. McDonagh’s blend of extreme violence and ironic comedy divides opinion, although the popularity of the current revival of the play in London’s West End is testimony to its enduring fascination.
I am joined in this episode by Professor Eamonn Jordan, to help us come to terms with the impact and intent of McDonagh’s work.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo and Franca Rame is both an hilarious farce and a biting satire. Written in 1970 as an “act of intervention” in response to the unexplained death of a prisoner in police custody in Milan, it became a huge global hit.
An acclaimed new adaptation that updates the setting and scandal to modern-day Britain is currently playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and I’m delighted to be joined by its writer, Tom Basden, and the director, Daniel Raggett, to talk about their adaptation and the enduring relevance of Fo’s original.