Sunday, February 04, 2007

How effective is Act I as an opening to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible?

Written by Arthur Miller in 1952, The Crucible is a play in 4 Acts that recounts the chilling events leading up to the witch trials of 1692. Set in Salem, Massachusetts, the government is theocratic—rule by God through religious officials. At the centre of the play is John Proctor, an independent, confident, and essentially, good man, but one that made a mistake, a mistake that will cost him his life. Such a characteristic to the story is similar to that of in a tragedy, as The Crucible spirals into downfall, the hints that were left in Act I become more and more apparent.

Act I introduces to us many of the major characters. It displays the nature of these main characters, and this is the basis of why they behave like they do later. The Act opens with Reverend Parris praying for his comatose daughter. At first, it seems he is mourning for her health, but later, he tells Abi, “now my ministry’s at stake, my ministry and perhaps your cousin’s life.” This shows he values his job above his daughter’s life, and this gives a taster of his personality and the nature of his actions later on in the play; in Act 4, he pleads for the release of Rebecca Nurse and Proctor, not because he cares about them but for his own safety, “You cannot hang this sort. There is danger for me.” When he questions Abi, it’s because he fears that the girls were all engaging in witchcraft when he caught them dancing, and his worry is not of their safety, but his own reputation. Reputation is one of the main themes in The Crucible, and Parris is one of the men who value their reputations so much that they would give everybody else’s lives for the sake of their reputation.

Abigail Williams is also introduced, and on first meeting, the author’s notes read, “a strikingly beautiful girl, an orphan, with an endless capacity for dissembling.” This is shown when Parris accuses her of conjuring in the forest and she denies it, although, later, with the girls, she gives them instructions on what to say happened, “tell them we danced”. Abigail is shown as the ringleader of the group of girls, “They’ll be calling us witches, Abby!” and fully able to control and manipulate each of them, “Let either of you breathe a word… and I will come in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you.” In the “trance” of Act III, Abi is able to lead the girls perfectly, “Abby, you mustn’t!” This representation of Abigail causes the audience to fear and dislike her, which is exactly the dramatic effect desired of the antagonist.

The entrance of the protagonist, John Proctor, is a significant one. He starts by exercising power over his maid, Mary Warren, with, “I’ll show you a great doing on your arse one of these days,” proving him to be a tough character, unafraid of anyone else. However, when he is alone with Abigail, a different side of him is presented, as well as different side of Abigail. This encounter between Abigail and John Proctor will be the cause of everything, and Abi hints at this, “I have something better than hope, I think!” John is evidently over Abi, but as she is still in love with him, “I am waiting for you every night.” Her unrequited love drives the hatred of his wife, “She is a cold, snivelling woman, and you bend to her!” as well as hatred of the town, “I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by these Christian women and their covenanted men.” This offers foreshadowing - both of these will be brought together later; Abigail will make them all pay.

The set is described in detail to create the effect of austerity that the Puritans live in. The set is very bare, “clean spareness,” which leaves more room for the drama. The importance of religion to every character is portrayed, through the amount of prayer and hysteria caused through even the mention of witchcraft – “They’ll be talking of witchcraft”. Symbolism is used that will come up again, such as that of heat: “it’s cold in here yet,” is said by Proctor, and he is inadvertently also speaking of the relationship between he and Elizabeth.

Conflict features heavily in the play, and it is one of the dramatic elements used that makes the play so interesting. One of the main disagreements is between Parris and the other men; he complains that he is not given enough land, which again shows his mercenary disposition, “I am paid little enough without I spend six pound on firewood.” Another is between the Putnam family and Rebecca Nurse – Rebecca has had many children, and they only have one, “You think it God’s work that you should never lose a child and I have all but one?” These little grudges held by each of the characters will re-emerge later in the play, and Act I lays some of the groundwork for upcoming accusations and the true motives behind them – Putnam uses the witch trials to increase his own wealth.
From conflicts come scapegoats, and the easiest target always suffers. Here, it is the women. Abigail, though clearly evil and disturbed, can be excused for her actions a little by the fact that she is a poor, unmarried orphan – seen as the lowest of social classes. As the men question Abigail on witchcraft, she looks for the easiest target to shift the blame, “I never called him! Tituba, Tituba.” By saving herself, she is also creating fear amongst others into respecting her. Tituba, whose has an even lower status because she is a slave, manages similarly to deflect blame by accusing, “Aye, Sir, and Goody Osburn.” This shows that to some, the accusations are every bit about survival as they are about retribution.

Rebecca Nurse is also an unlikely scapegoat – the good mother, good neighbour and general good woman. When others fret, she consoles, “Pray John, be calm.” Though she is killed, her inner strength influences the actions of John Proctor, “I speak my own sins, I cannot judge another”. Rebecca’s calmness and sincerity show her to be a symbol of the true goodness that the Puritans in this play claim to believe in. She is accused by Mrs. Putnam, who, having had 7 babies that all died on the day of their birth, convinces herself that someone used witchcraft to murder them, and will look for a person to blame, one that has everything that she has not. Act I hints shows the faction between the Putnam family and Rebecca Nurse, and later, Putnam uses the witch trials to express his feelings of persecution and undeserved failure, and to satisfy his need for revenge.
Act I is a gripping scene dramatically. It contains violence, “smashes across her face,” implied sex, “I know you sweated like a stallion whenever I come near!” all in a very compressed time frame. There is also the mystery of what actually happened in the woods, “I saw a dress lying on the grass.” There is plenty of foreshadowing in Act I, such Giles’ harmless ramblings about his wife, “And she closed her book… and I could pray again!”, which will be the cause of her death, “I only said she were readin’ books-”. The biggest display of foreshadowing, however, is when Abigail calls Goody Proctor a “gossiping liar;” she will later call her something else.

A critical motif in The Crucible is that of empowerment, and even from Act I, it is clear that it is the women that are empowered, such as Abigail to Proctor–he sleeps with her when he wants to, arousing feelings of deepest desire in her, then drops her when he decides he wants his wife instead. Such a treatment of women will surely cause them to fight back, for survival, as well as revenge. Over the next 3 scenes in The Crucible, many people will be accused, and for once, it will be the women doing the accusing. In Act II, Mary Warren says to Proctor, “I’ll not be ordered to bed no more, Mr. Proctor! I am eighteen and a woman, however single.” This has some dramatic irony, as Proctor orders her to court in the next scene, but she is able to turn on him, “I love God; I go your way no more.”

John Hale is a man that goes through immense character development through the play. In Act I, he is presented as a smug intellectual, “they are weighted with authority,” sure of himself as well as his beliefs. At the start, he is the force behind the witch trials, “We are going to help you tear yourself free”. However, as the play progresses, and he realises that it is the innocent who are going to die, he changes completely, doubting his faith, “cleave to no faith when faith brings blood.” In this sense, Act I offers some dramatic irony about the character of John Hale – a man whose faith seemingly means the world to him, yet, by the end of the play, turns against it. He is also important as contrast to Parris’ character – at the beginning and end of the play, they both want the same thing, but for different reasons. Parris wants worries for his safety, “I dare not step outside at night” but Hale worries for his conscience, “There is blood on my head!”

When Hale thinks Tituba has compacted with the Devil, he forces her into naming all the others, “does he ever come – with another person?” This act of naming is an essential element to the play, and come up many times, including in the climactic moment when John Proctor chooses to die. He cries, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies!” This again shows the importance of reputation.

There is no truth to any of the naming that Abigail does, but the girls follow suit, to free themselves from any blame. The Act ends in a crescendo of voices, claiming to have seen people as witches. This is a climactic way to end a scene, marking a distinctive end, as well as keeping the audience gripped and awaiting what will happen next.

The play, though a tragedy, has some important messages at the centre of it – that good can come from evil, such as a higher, more emotional love between Elizabeth and John forming. Above all, The Crucible is a parable to the connection of private sins with paranoia, hysteria, and religious intolerance. It picks up on the unjustness of it all, and with some added dramatic techniques, The Crucible can act as a parable to any points of mass hysteria, including the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Act I is a gripping and revealing start to Miller’s haunting, lyrical play.

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