“we will burn, we will burn together” or: Re-reading The Crucible now – reflections on high school

Thanks for the reminder and encouragement to write after a long pause that I don’t want to get any longer. I’d reflected on how involved I’d want to get in a production I’ll never see, but this is an easy way for me to step back into writing as I make this weird life transition. So here we are. These posts assume basic familiarity with the plot and characters of the play.

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The title’s a quotation from one of John Proctor’s lines at the end of Scene Three of The Crucible. (In the scholarly business we call this sort of effect either allusion or intertextuality, depending on the degree of intentionality — Grace found a funny case of it recently with regard to Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew).

I’ve read The Crucible three times in my life, once in high school, once in grad school, and once since Richard Armitage has been cast as John Proctor for this summer’s production at the Old Vic. I’ve never seen The Crucible on stage, and I haven’t seen the film version for which Miller wrote the script, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. So just some reflections on the play from my perspective, here and now, starting with what I thought as a seventeen-year-old and how those thoughts appear to me today.

I wonder what Richard Armitage thinks, as he played Biff in The Death of a Salesman, the other play for which Miller is most remembered, before his LAMDA days, and thus has thought at least a little about Miller’s work before, even if it preceded his most intense professional training. I suspect he’ll do a lot more research this time. I wonder if I will. So many things to consider.

imagesI still have the same copy of the book I had in high school (Bantam edition; ninth printing, 1974). Its binding is now totally dried out, and its pages are so yellow they’re almost orange. I read it in the fall of 1986, at the beginning of my senior year, in “American Literature 2,” which I had in sixth hour. I wonder if I was charged for not returning it, as it bears the school district’s stamp. Miller was already lauded then, although his work’s significance in American theater has only grown in the interval. I now find the scholarly introduction to the book by Richard Watts, Jr., unbearably funny and quite ridiculous. The excerpt from an American literature textbook that showed up on tumblr recently appears to me to be similarly silly; this isn’t a play about mistaking sexual hysteria for witchcraft, though historians agree that there’s a connection between religion, hysteria, witchcraft trials, and the slightly later Great Awakening. It’s certainly a play about hysteria and its personal and social effects. The framing thing for me for in examining my own history with the play: my fundamental perception now as then that Miller’s an extremely moral playwright and directly concerned with discussing, though sometimes obliquely, the social issues of the twentieth century. Moreover, while Miller’s moralism clearly points fingers, it does not do so, as in much of tragedy, at the characters in the play.

I think the big takeaway from this Miller play (as well as Death of a Salesman) is: at the end we’re supposed to realize that as the characters are pointing their fingers at each other, they also point them at us.

In this case, the tragic hero is the tortured and eventually trapped John Proctor, whom I find sometimes sympathetic and at others frightfully hypocritical, unreasonably and casuistically moralist (he puts salt in his soup secretly so he won’t have to lie to his wife about liking the taste — a moment in that play that has at least three different readings, and fascinated me even then), and overly endowed with a willingness to punish himself that inclines toward martyrdom. Even Proctor lies for gain, cannot control his desires, whether they stem from desire or from his own paradoxical notions of righteousness.

But most of us are less like Proctor and more like the other characters in the play than we realize at first. It’s easy to identify with the morally right position, which seems to emerge quickly — and particularly to us, living in 2014, who “know” that the witch trials were wrong and the “red scare” was bad. We’re “so much smarter” now. But despite the compelling protagonist, with whom we are supposed to sympathize, the inclusion in every character of some relatively base motivation or concern suggests to me now that we are supposed to leave, wondering — could that be us? Could we be the hypocrites with whom Miller peoples every corner of the play from the center of the action to its margins?

I think that the theater in the round, with the front rows of the audience being so close to the stage that audience members regularly make eye contact with the actors, should definitely enhance the potential effect of any such realizations.

But this general point about the audience in relationship to the characters was lost on my high school lit class — paradoxically making the moral point that Miller is forwarding, I suspect.

It was the tail end of the Reagan years, when it had long been buried that Reagan had named names before HUAC. He’d recently called the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” We were young, and culturally isolated, and most of us were actively religious. I went to Sunday School with half the kids in that class every week. We’d learned our close reading in Bible study, and so we read almost everything we were assigned in school at least in part the way we’d been taught in church to read Bible texts.

I personally loved the language of the play, and find that I still do, now recognizing in it echoes of the T.S. Eliot-style modernism that I discovered that same year in Murder in the Cathedral. (And one guesses, given his reading habits, that Armitage loves this, too.) In the class, we discovered that we loved the device of Elizabeth and John Proctor trying to protect each other in the courtroom, she by denying his infidelity, he by affirming it — which seemed tremendously romantic and tragic to us, with John exchanging his pride for the truth about his sins and Elizabeth sacrificing the truth for the sake of his reputation. (Now it mostly strikes me as a compressive, if nonetheless dramatically effective, reduction of O. Henry.)

Apart from that, however, I remember the main point of discussion during one period being Proctor’s responsibility for what happened to him.

“If he didn’t want to get in trouble with the court,” someone said, “then he shouldn’t have been cheating on his wife.” There were nods.

“Isn’t it part of the point of the play,” Mrs. A. asked, “to indicate that his infidelity has nothing to do with his possible implication in witchcraft?”

“But he put his life in the hands of that crazy Abigail,” the same girl persisted.

“I don’t think he realized she was crazy right away,” Mrs. A. said. “Or at least, that wasn’t the first thing on his mind.”

We all laughed. In a high school like that, we certainly knew who the good girls (Elizabeth) were and how the bad girls (Abigail) could get their hands on what the good girls deserved by virtue of their virtue.

Our edition of the book included the Act II, Scene One (Abigail and John in the woods at night), which was eliminated from the first performance of the play because Miller thought it killed the tempo. It strongly influences one’s perception of Abigail’s motivation and in turn of John’s actions in response. If it seems rationally though baldly self-interested for Abigail to want to displace Elizabeth in order to marry John, when that scene is added, she becomes cruelly vindictive, malevolent, and more than a little obsessive. And John’s options as actor become more drastically circumscribed.

“Should Proctor be executed for witchcraft because he was unfaithful to his wife and the court caught him in a lie?” Mrs. A. asked. “Let’s talk about that next time.”

In the subsequent class, the nascent moral majority was more subdued, and we all agreed that the more important point of the play was not how Proctor deserved what he got, but how Proctor’s conviction was unfair, with most people in the class now arguing that he was a hero for refusing to confess to something he didn’t do, indeed to something that some people thought wasn’t happening, and then, in the end, to sign the written confession. It didn’t occur to us to weigh the moral weight of Proctor’s various lies and assertions of the truth. There was some posturing about McCarthyism on both sides, which was a controversial topic, given where we came from. But Mrs. A. didn’t say much about the historical features of the play, either about Salem or HUAC. As an English teacher, she was more interested in the work’s dramatic effects and she was always struggling with our inculcated tendency to read it morally. In the end she made us write an essay on which version of the play we thought most dramatically effective (with or without the scene in the woods). I don’t remember what I thought.

What I think, reflecting now about that discussion, is how sophomorically facile it was. About how simply we drew our moral categories.

Biographers today point out that Miller began researching the Salem witch trials after a conversation with Elia Kazan about Kazan’s HUAC testimony. Kazan was notorious for having given up his friends in the name of being able to pursue his artistic career. Though the play clearly comments on the base qualities and all-encompassing blind spots of a society that would allow itself to be infected by a hysteria over the evil within (we shouldn’t forget that in the 1950s historians still called the century of highest persecution of “witches,” “the witch craze”), it’s also likely that Miller was offering some kind of oblique comment, in the end, not just on the perpetrators, but on the victims as well — on the people who refused to testify before the tribunal. (Miller’s own refusal to name names came three years after the premiere of the play.)

If so, what a comment. In the last pages of the play, under cajoling from his wife, who’s been pressured by the authorities, Proctor agrees to confess to save his life, but then refuses to incriminate other witches or to sign a public confession. The only way he can see to save his notion of his goodness is to go to his death; when Hale points out that he can only “declare his truth” if he lives, Elizabeth supports him, saying that she will not take away his sense, achieved at the very end, that he is finally being good.

Depending on how this scene is played, I think it’s a tremendously ambiguous statement. Proctor can be a hero, dying for the truth, a martyr, or he can be someone who’s so infected by the mood around him that he succumbs to its power and silences himself permanently in the name of speaking truth against something crazy, with which there is no reasoning. If Proctor has the kind of personality that’s necessary to stand up to the witch-hunters, it seems, that personality is equally extreme and equally permeated with a hysterical reading of the rigid moral categories of his society. At the end of Act Three, Proctor admits the power of the mood, when he notes that he and Danforth stand in morally equivalent positions:

Proctor: A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth. For men that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud —

And then Proctor concludes that it is the same thing that takes them both: “G-d damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together.”

(I’ll be curious to hear from audience members if this line makes it into the Old Vic staging of the play, and if so, to hear how Armitage delivers it. I’d give odds on either suppressed anger, or even a sort of backed off resignation.)

To me now, our conviction in school that we knew who the heroes and the villains were seems ridiculous. As Proctor’s lines suggest, any hysteria draws everyone, even its opponents and victims, into its vortex. Fear puts people into that position and it keeps them there. The level of fearlessness required to resist approaches inhuman levels. And to me it’s no longer clear, given the apocalyptic mood with which the piece ends, whether we should admire or be horrified by Proctor.

Where does Proctor’s death stand in relationship to hysteria — is it resistance, as he wants to suggest? Or it succumbing? Or is it neither? Equally, or even more than being moral or brave, Proctor is often, simply: stubborn.

~ by Servetus on April 30, 2014.

37 Responses to ““we will burn, we will burn together” or: Re-reading The Crucible now – reflections on high school”

  1. Thanks, Servetus – very interesting and thought-provoking. I’m just about to read it for the first time and I’m hoping to see it in London.

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    • Would definitely advise reading it ahead of time (no matter how closely Farber will stick to the script and/or setting), because there’s a lot to catch and ponder.

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  2. Yes very interesting Serv. Always love to read your take on things. Halfway through reading it and have my tickets to see it. Can’t wait

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  3. Habe den Text auch aus aktuellem Anlass gelesen. 🙂
    Es ist unglaublich, welche Wucht A. Miller nach den ganzen Jahren noch entwickelt . Die Beklemmung war für mich ständig präsent. Der Verlauf der Handlung entwickelt einen unglaublichen Sog und das Unheil nimmt seinen Lauf. Und wenn dann noch RA in natura durchs Geschehen geistert, dann bin ich wahrscheinlich am Ende der Vorstellung in Tränen aufgelöst und muß mich von meiner Tochter trösten lassen. 🙂

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    • Das Stück ist tatsächlich sehr energievoll — manchmal finde ich überenergievoll. Es ist aber auch nie langweilig oder platt.

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  4. Thank you for inspiring to read the play NOW again. I have only vague memories of it, when I saw it on stage, at age 17 – hampered by the fact that I only had schoolgirl English at my disposal. It impressed me then, but I am sure that my reading of it will be different now. The moralistic interpretation comes with the age of the reader/viewer. I was so much more principled at 17 than I am now lol.
    Off to search for “The Norton Anthology of American Literature” in my dusty shelves containing my university reading material. I hope to engage more with this post once I have re-read the play.

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    • I have a dog-eared copy of Norton too. Perhaps I will dust it off and read the play. I did see it once in LA with Charlton Heston as Proctor. I was naught but a wee toddler at the time. (I wish,) Well, I did go with my parents.

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    • yeah — a moral play read by moralistic teenagers (especially in my context) in a particularly moralistic phase of US history — overdetermined. I like to think that I’m more compassionate now, having seen much more. I hope so.

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  5. Is there REALLY no chance for you to go?? 😦
    Just ordered the book, as I have preferably avoided this play/topic over decades. Have seen “Death of a salesman” a few times, and we played “View from the bridge” in the theatre where I work only some seasons ago, an adaption I particularly liked.
    Admittedly I’m not overly ecstatic about the “we will burn together” thingy. No romantic attribution for me here. 😉
    (No, I’m not talking about Thorin !! LOL)
    Thanks, Servetus for this first ideas about “The Crucible”. It’s still ample time to get myself a bit more acquainted with this slippery moral ground…

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    • I guess “A View from a Bridge” is playing at the Old Vic right now (or the Young Vic?) and is completely sold out.

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  6. What keeps me occupied since the announcement is how Farber will adapt the play, if she will make remarkable changes, also in aspect of the in-round-stage. I’ve read The Crucible back in school and watched the movie, of course. Maybe I will order the book to see how my point of view has changed of all these years.

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    • yes, it will be interesting, and I for one thing that you’re better off not historicizing. Film audiences expect that but one of the strengths of theater is its flexibility (and the often greater willingness of theater audiences to entertain a willing suspension of disbelief).

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  7. Thanks for this post. I’ve seen the movie but don’t know much about the play as it was not on my high school curriculum. I really loved the movie, great performances by the three leads and the material is just so powerful. Not having been aware of the broader political message what always struck me most in the movie was the deeply complex relationship between John and his wife -the resentments, feelings of inadequacy, love, affection, shame, insecurity, misinterpretations… I don’t have anything insightful to say about it but for me that was one of the most compelling parts of the story. I really wish I could see RA in something so rich and complex. I will be spending a month in NY this summer (for work) and I was really hoping that he might be on the stage there during that period. London, blah!

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  8. This! This is what I’ve needed! OK, let me get to it, but before I do, I was wondering what folks think about the movie adaptation. I need my Crucible experience to be perfect. I have already decided to read the play, but should I throw in some Day Lewis to the mix?

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    • I think the movie is fantastic. I totally agree with bonnie Jones that it will give you an idea of the intense feelings and passion that we are likely to see from RA’s performance this summer.

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  9. As one of the lucky people to get a front row seat for The Crucible I was interested in your note that these members of the audience can often make eye contact with the actors….. I have often wanted to look into those baby blues ….. Lol On a more serious note my research into my family history has found that the granddaughter of my Gt. x 8 Grandfather, Martha Allen Carrier was hanged on 19August 1692 together with John Proctor. Spooky huh. For Agzym ….It is certainly worth watching Day Lewis in The Crucible. Although a film and possibly not totally true to the facts it gave me an idea of the feelings and passion that is possibly promised by Mr A’s performance. Can’t wait.

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    • that is really amazing! When did you find that out?

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      • I have traced my family history back to 1480 here in the UK. In 1629 my Gt x 8 Grandfather Edmund Ingalls sailed with the Puritans to Massachusetts and founded the Lynn colony. Later generations settled around the Salem area and it was this that rang a bell in my mind and checking my files found a note I had made regarding Martha Carrier. Thanks to the link given to me by Miss Emms I have found that there has even been a book, The Heretics Daughter, written about her so I now have even more to find out. I am amazed that what started out as just wanting to see RA on the London stage has led to me finding out so much more about my direct family.

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        • That’s incredible! I can’t imagine being able to trace my family history back that far. I’d love to devote time to my family history when I retire (only 35 years to wait!) It’s lovely how Rich’s career links to very diverse fields. This year alone there’s been Proust, Urban and the Shed Crew and now the Crucible.

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    • UK Expat, who occasionally comments here, has sat in those seats and she’s said that for her it’s an uncomfortable experience because the actors are looking straight at you.

      Interesting family connection!

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  10. @Bonnie Jones, this could be interesting for you: http://www.executedtoday.com/tag/john-proctor/

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    • Hi Miss Emms, thank you so much for the link. I am now finding out so much more about my ancestor Martha Carrier. All this just because I wanted to see Mr.A on the London stage. I can’t wait and now I have even more of a connection with the play. Spine tingling stuff.

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      • Hi Bonnie, this must be an exciting and yet out-of-the-way time for you. I’m sure, when you see the play you will watch it differently, from another view. A part of my family’s history was once discussed openly in television and newspaper, so I know how awkward that must feel. Enjoy the play … whispers … and try not to drown in the blue-grey eyes entirely! 😉

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        • Oh I will certainly try Miss Emms but not sure that I will succeed and thank you for your helpful information regarding Martha Carrier.

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  11. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
    I can’t stand certain parts of the play, they still makes me sick .
    Some kind of Which-hunts are still popular,right Serv? Thanks for the post
    PS: I’m partial to Proctor’s uncompromisig attitude.

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    • lol, re: witchhunts. Absolutely.

      I always think it’s fascinating that one lesson people draw from this play is that it’s wrong to hunt witches, but we do it all. the. time.

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  12. Loved your essay! I’ve got to scrounge up a copy of the play and read it again.

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  13. […] from here (reflections on reading it in high […]

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  14. […] my first discussion of this topic, I suggested that it can be (all too) easy to read this play as a moral allegory to conclude that […]

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  15. […] whether the victims are innocent or guilty — they serve as examples either way. If we prefer the roman à clef reading (sustained by an excerpt in the Old Vic’s teaching guide to the play, although it’s […]

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  16. […] the whole question of criticism of the form or content of a project (and I do that here, too, as with my series on The Crucible, and I did it in synergy with an analysis of acting choices, as I did for Spooks 9), but […]

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  17. […] are four posts about the historical significance of the play as a text we read in U.S. high school classrooms, as a commentary on Salem and witchhunting, as a commentary on twentieth-century politics and […]

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  18. […] And I had loved The Crucible so much. Seeing it was transformative. I felt like I’d do anything to see that play. And even though I was excited by the script, I figured even if I didn’t like it, it would be worth it, as I’m on record as not liking The Crucible. […]

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