With parallels to events of the 1600s, trial by society still exists
The Salem witch trials of 1692-93 are a unique and shameful event in America’s history. Something of a blot on the rich heritage of the ‘land of the free’, we can find parallels between the patriarchal society of then and now in the USA.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller dramatises the events of the trials in a thrilling play, weaving the story of John Proctor, Abigail Williams, Reverend Hale and more with themes of hysteria, goodness and, most glaringly, gender discrimination. With prevalent figures in society maintaining great influence amid allegations of sexual misconduct, and women earning 81 cents for every dollar earned by a man (according to PayScale), contemporary American society may be just as flawed as the Puritan New England of the late 1600s.
A crucible; defined by dictionary.com as ‘a severe, searching test or trial’, Miller could not have chosen a more apt title for his play. The Crucible details the systematic denouncement of women and men for witchcraft, with Salem becoming an arena in which bitterness goes to the extreme; in 1692 this led to the execution of 19 people.
The Salem of 1692 can be seen as a microcosm for modern America; the girls, especially Abigail, realise accusation is an effective punishment for their enemies and use mass hysteria to their advantage. The accusation alone is enough to undermine the victim’s reputation, and as Puritanism was integral to society, ideas of goodness moulded the perception of everyone. The character John Proctor is unfaithful to his wife and frequently misses church- the awful deliverance of his murder at the end of the play could be seen as rightful justice for his actions.
In modern America, accusations and dishonesty are also rife in US politics. In the recent Trump vs. Biden presidential debate, petty insults were hurled over intelligence, family matters and more; as in The Crucible, trivial issues take the place of sense and civility. In the play, the characters want to be found good and just before God, but cannot resist the urge to condemn their neighbours due to old grudges. The witch hunts were inherently political in nature, and personal reputation still has huge value in today’s politics. The wielding of power and obsession with righteousness (often Christian righteousness) clearly also has a central place in contemporary America.
Although men were also killed in the witch hunts, there is a reason why Miller mainly focuses on the actions of women in The Crucible. The scapegoating of women for self defence has long been a political tactic; in the play Abigail and the girls are able to sentence Elizabeth Proctor and others to death as a result of ongoing hysteria and panic spread from neighbouring towns. However, this was also possible as a result of the vulnerable status of women at the time; in a patriarchal society where men owned everything and a woman’s role was firmly fixed and narrow, they had no rights to protect them from the vicious accusations of the herd.
By Esther Duckworth: Literature Columnist
This makes it all the more shocking when the girls fake their fits- women turning on their own sex in such a small community tells us of the terrible pollution of the inhabitants’ minds.
The Crucible is renowned as an allegory of the post-war ‘Red Scare’, premiering on Broadway in 1953. Three years earlier, Senator Joseph McCarthy had claimed to have a list of over 200 communists working within the American government, and used this baseless accusation to rise in popularity and achieve political capital. As a result, the anti-communist movement gained a lot of traction in America and led to the downfall of prevalent figures in society such as the Hollywood Ten (a group of producers, directors and screenwriters who were blacklisted for refusing to answer questions regarding possible communist affiliations). This is mirrored in The Crucible, with the creeping sense of panic and danger resulting in the death of many; the idea of ‘the enemy within’ was clearly at the forefront of Miller’s mind, as many of his colleagues were called out as possible ‘Reds’.
Politicians in America today also use the memory of Russophobia to their political advantage, calling out extreme political movements in order to gain sympathy from rational thinkers. For example, the Proud Boys (a US neo-fascist group classified as an ‘extremist group’ by the FBI), has been a movement used to call out Trump for refusing to condemn white supremacy, with Biden verifying his disapproval for the overtly right wing group. The power that Joseph McCarthy held in the midst of post-war fear fanned the flames of panic and hysteria; in an age where social media allows the tattle of fake news to reach every household, politicians must be careful not to be too sympathetic with any one movement.
Salem and its history are now commercialised for financial gain, with the witchcraft accusations and subsequent killings just another tick on the tourist trail. This is seen in the media through films such as the recent Netflix original Hubie Halloween and Halloween classic Hocus Pocus, which are both set in Salem, as well as a film version of The Crucible in 1996. America has once again adapted its gruesome past for a capitalist market.
With Halloween looming, perhaps we should look to The Crucible to reflect on the damage that baseless accusations, fake news and character assassinations can wreak.
MACKAYAN: THE CRUCIBLE WITCHTweet