A crucible is a vessel in which metals are heated to extremely high temperatures, melted down and purified.
The play, The Crucible, shows a community which ignites and burns with accusations of witchcraft, mass hysteria and retribution.
Background Information: The play occurs during the seventeenth and eighteenth century Salem Witch trials and involves the Puritan beliefs and religion.
Setting: Set in the small town of Salem Massachusetts in 1692, it explores the struggle of one man with his conscience, and his eventual purification. John Putnam
The town of Salem was a small settlement on the east coast of what is now Massachusetts. It was one of the earliest towns in New England, but at the time the play is set, it had been in existence for less than seventy years.
People The people of Salem were settlers in a hostile environment - a land in which they struggled to establish farms and live off the land and threats from marauding marauding Indian tribes.
Life was hard. The religious fervor of Puritanism, under which they lived, made their lives even more harsh.
- Puritans lived by a strict code.Simple, plain dress. - Men ruled the household, and made all the major decisions. - Children knew their place and were expected to be dutiful.
They did not have much in the way of entertainment, as they didn't allow dancing, theatre, reading for pleasure and they did not even celebrate Christmas.
Attendance at church was essential and strict records were kept of who attended and who did not. Unnecessary work and household chores on Sundays were frowned upon.
They had a binding duty to the Church and were ruled by the words of the Bible. If the Bible, therefore, acknowledged the existence of witches, then Puritans would believe in their reality.
As Proctor states: 'The Bible speaks of witches and I will not deny them'.
To the people of seventeenth century Salem, witchcraft was a very real and potent threat. Across Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries many people - perhaps those seen as odd or outsiders - were accused of being witches, and were tortured and executed.potent
The persecution of witches spread to England under the rule of James I and with the Puritans, it also spread to the new settlements on the east coast of America.
The Church said that witches made a contract with the Devil and that the witches kept a book with signatures of those contracted to the Devil.
The Devil would then work through them and their 'familiars' (evil spirits in the form of an animal - a cat or a toad, for example.)
Witches were thought to commit crimes or 'maleficium', such as making cows sick, turning beer sour, flying broomsticks or causing injury to people.
There were said to be various 'proofs' of a witch including: the testimony of a fellow witch the common belief/accusation of those who live with the suspected witch cursing or quarrelling being followed by some mischief or mishap
the person suspected has the Devil's mark (perhaps a birthmark or deformity) the personcontradicts her/himself when questioned.
In England, Matthew Hopkins set himself up as Witch-Finder General, and between 1644 and 1646 he had over 200 people hanged. For each execution he was paid one pound.
Themes: Pride - John does not want to sign the confession because he would loose his pride and good name.
Revenge - The girls and the accusers were naming people whom they did not like and wanted to harm them.
Fear - Fear of the devil allowed the witch trials to go on.
Conflict of authority - Danforth felt the law should be followed exactly, and that anyone who opposed the trials was trying to undermine him and his authority and the church.
Puritan Ethics - They believed lying and adultery were horrible sins.
Self interest - They were looking out for their own lives and took whatever actions necessary to save themselves. Honesty- Elizabeth was "not able to tell a lie".
Key issues: Integrity: John had to deal with the fact that he had an affair with Abigail and broke the trust between Elizabeth and him. He sinned, and the people of the town would have condemned him, if they knew.
Honesty: Elizabeth cannot tell a lie says John Proctor, but she will lie to protect John. In some cases you have to lie. Hale agrees with this. He says "God damns a liar less than he that throws his life away for pride."
Also when you were accused of being a witch, in order to save yourself you could accuse other women. People in the town allowed their fear of witches and the devil to interfere with their rational thinking.
Puritan Ethics: The church was very important in their daily life. The Puritans were very religious. They were scared of modern things destroying the old church. They believed in the devil and that you could make pacts with him. It was a horrible sin to lie.
Fear, self interest: Shows what happens when emotions control your logic and thinking. Hysteria will occur. Shows how people will accuse others in order to save themselves. This leads to a wild finger pointing.
Applications: The McCarthy trials. This story relates to these trials. During the 1950's Senator Joseph Mc Carthy accused many American leaders of being communists. This lead to many unfounded accusations that people were communists.
Some people believed him because they were fearful of communism and he played on their fears. McCarthy was, in effect, conducting "witch hunts".
If you opposed the Salem Witch trials you were accused of being a witch. If you opposed the Mc Carthy investigations you were accused of being a communist.
Miller and McCarthyism Historical context of when the play was actually written in 1953.
Miller was not only intrigued by the witch trials of seventeenth century Salem, but he was also concerned with more recent events in the United States.
At the end of World War Two, two powerful nations emerged - the USA and the USSR. Despite having been allies in the war, both countries were distrustful of each other. A battle for nuclear weapon superiority arose between the two: the capitalist United States versus the communist Soviet Union.emerged allies
Mistrust and hostility between the two grew - giving rise to the 'Cold War' - and the United States worked at home and abroad to oppose the spread of communism. Cold War
General Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie in 1953. (Source: NARA) In this climate of fear, a United States Senator, Joseph McCarthy, alleged that government departments were being infiltrated by communists and he waged a campaign against them.
He accused and vilified many public servants including teachers and civil servants as well as more prominent personalities..vilified
Miller was caught up in the frenzy, being asked to apologize for an interest in Marxism when he was younger. Brought before the House Committee of Un- American Activities, he refused to apologize and was sent for trial. Initially he was fined and given a suspended prison sentence, but he appealed and was acquitted.
Miller fought to maintain his dignity and his principles. This was shortly before The Crucible first opened.
Truman and Stalin at Potsdam in 1945. (Source: NARA)
You might like to consider these questions: 1. How is this situation relevant to what happens in The Crucible? 2. What parallel can you draw between Miller and Proctor? 3. What message might Miller have for his modern audience?