‘The Crucible’ revolves around the concept of the witch-hunt. The topic and those similar to it are often repeated in the world around us even today. In America’s ‘war on terrorism’ for example, following the New York and Washington terrorist attacks, its hunt for a guilty party mirrored that in the McCarthy communism trials of the 1950s, and Salem’s witchcraft trials of 1692, around which the play is set. As the USA requested that all nations make clear where their loyalties lie – with good or with evil – a frenzy of name-calling and finger pointing erupted, similar to that in ‘The Crucible’.
In 1950s America, a body known as the House Un-American Activities Committee under the chairmanship of Senator Joseph McCarthy had the task of investigating those that threatened the safety of the state. As at the time America was embroiled in the Cold War with the USSR, communism was a major preoccupation of the committee. Arthur Miller, the play’s author, was himself called before the committee on a charge of holding communist sympathies. Miller recognised similarities between McCarthy’s trials and those of Salem in 1692, beginning to formulate ideas for ‘The Crucible’.
Many critics recognise Proctor as an embodiment of Miller himself. Brought before a body of justice searching for a scapegoat for the difficulties of the time, Proctor’s situation and that of Miller are quite similar. If ‘The Crucible’ was indeed an expression of Miller’s beliefs and feelings about McCarthyism, then it is safe to see Proctor as a representation of Miller. They are both honest men with one vice in the eyes of wider society (in Proctor’s case lust, and in Miller’s case socialist ideals) attempting to survive their trials with dignity and beliefs intact. Miller, it would seem, felt alienated from wider society.
He sited as his reason for holding communist sympathies disillusionment with the “waste of potential in America” and a “fear of a looming victory of fascism”. He felt excluded from wider society because he did not share its values. Similarly, Proctor seems alienated from the society in which he lives. The America of 1692 was young and was under great pressure to defend Christianity in a new continent in an attempt to protect its way of life. Several of its new towns did this by imposing a strict code of puritanical Christian laws on their citizens, creating a very conservative society of which Proctor could not feel a part.
Proctor is ultimately a good man – he is a tragic hero – a man with a flaw. His flaw is his lust for Abigail. However, he is a man that most modern audiences would identify and sympathise with. They know and recognise flaws in themselves as Proctor does, and understand this as part of the human condition and inherent in everyone. For Proctor though it is fatal. This adds humanity to Proctor, a reality about him, helping the audience to empathise with him, and thus picking him out as the central character. There is evidence that Miller positively encouraged this.
The real character of Abigail Williams, the girl of 1692, was only 12 at the time of the play’s events. By ageing her to 17 for ‘The Crucible’, Miller allows the introduction of the subplot of her affair with Proctor, a relationship that never existed between the real-life Abigail and John. Thus, he actively and purposely establishes a single flaw for Proctor – a sin in a religious society. He makes Proctor a flawed but basically human man in the eyes of the audience, moulding him into a suitable central character for the play. It can be further argued that the play and the events within it are seen through Proctor’s eyes.
Although at no point is the play written as if by Proctor in the first person, the reader, partly due to what is included and partly due to how we are encouraged to feel about the events and characters, sees the play as Proctor might. For example, Miller clearly encourages us not to see any truth in the allegations of witchcraft. Never once does the audience see a character under the influence of any other forces. In act one when Hale is interrogating Tituba, we as a modern audience can stand back and see that she is being blackmailed and encouraged into confessing: “TITUBA: I have no power on this child, Sir.