Content note: mention of child abuse and executions.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has meant so much to so many people. As a parable about state control, or without its political dimension, as an examination of the power dynamics within a closed society, or of an individual working through guilt to find something valuable in themselves. I read it when I was fourteen and was rocked by the idea of someone feeling they were not worthy of the dignity of being hanged. I sobbed at the description of Giles Corey’s death, which is quite a thing to do standing in the school bus line. Its power came from this combination of events which I knew to be true and a personal psychology which I knew to be speculative, but felt convincing.
Miller made it clear that he saw the centralizing of public confession and the naming of names as the chief link between the witch and the McCarthy trials, along with their lack of a mechanism for someone who was not guilty to be recognised as such. However, what turned the parallel he saw into a great play was the invention of a highly personal drama taking place between a few emotionally involved people. To do this, he invented an entire ‘backstory’, and created a crisis that was theatrically appropriate, but not historically based. He was frank, but non-specific, about doing this. In the case of Abigail all he offered was “Abigail’s age has been raised”.
“Abigail’s age has been raised”, as if to change her from an eleven year-old child to an almost-adult above the age of consent is of little consequence. Yes, though the girl in the play is seventeen, the real Abigail was eleven. He could have added “and the suggestion of a sexual liaison between her and John Proctor is my own invention”. But he did not. He may not even have been wholly honest with himself about the genesis of this piece of the story resting entirely within his own mind.
When the film of The Crucible was released, Miller wrote an article for the New Yorker describing his process, more than forty years before, in researching for and writing the play. (Unfortunately the full text is not available without subscription.) When he wrote: “Elizabeth Proctor had been the orphaned Abigail’s mistress, and they had lived together in the same small house until Elizabeth fired the girl. By this time, I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed most likely to appease Elizabeth”, he did not make it clear that none of this comes from the historic record, and readers would most likely think he was expanding upon some actual primary-source material he quoted a line earlier. He may have forgotten himself where the line between fact and his imagination lay, but as he had shown himself to be aware that Abigail was eleven at the time it is disturbing enough that this is what he thought likely from the sixty-year-old Proctor. Let alone that he chose a word like ‘bedded’ instead of ‘raped’, which is what it would have been, except that it didn’t happen at all.
In changing Abigail’s age, Miller indicates his dissatisfaction with the truth of what took place as a story that would draw in an audience. As much as the play is about the McCarthy trials, its interest for the spectator lies more in the personal story that unfolds gradually, with a dramatic climax at the end of each scene. Miller’s instinct was that it was necessary to choose a woman whose culpability he could increase to get the narrative shape he needed. Abigail is not entirely without sympathetic moments, when she expresses her frustration with the hypocrisy and restrictiveness of her society, but spends much more time as the villain of the piece. The scene where she torments Mary until she recants is horrifying to watch. We are being shown virtuosic evil.
There is no record that suggests that Abigail ever was a servant in the Proctor household, and certainly no suggestion from anyone at the time that Proctor did anything improper with her. The court scene in which a desperate Proctor confesses his past sexual relationship with Abigail, and Elizabeth is brought in to confirm or deny it, is completely invented. This scene had to happen if Miller was to tell the story he wants to tell, but what implications does it carry for the material he is drawing upon? It tells us that he couldn’t write a good story about a man who was not struggling with some internal conflict, but it had to be one in which the audience would remain on his side. He could not bring himself to write a story without a woman who the audience can freely condemn. He must make what happened Abigail’s fault, and Elizabeth’s too, with her coldness, and her refusal to put out while suffering postnatal depression.
John Proctor was one of only a few male victims in a field made up almost entirely of women (there were six men and eleven women hanged, but also many more women than men imprisoned). As compelling as the story Miller wove from Proctor’s experience is, it is surely worth thinking about why none of these many women could form the core of his exploration. The first really big shock to the community would have been when Abigail Williams accused Rebecca Nurse, a highly respected member of the parish, instead of the misfits picked out at first. The Proctors came later, after John publicly expressed scepticism about the accusations. The person who made the most accusations, and the only one who later recanted, was Ann Putnam. The person who gave the most eloquent testimony, and presented the court with the most legally convincing petitions demonstrating the flaws of their process was Mary Easty. Why, even amidst events that mostly involved women, must the story be made to be about a man?
Are we seeing an instance of the woman of historic reality failing to fit into one of the few categories available for women in fictional narratives? An eleven year old child whose actions precipitated the murder of innocent people can be neither pure victim nor succubus. But shouldn’t this make her the most interesting character of all?
When Miller looked at the historic record, and thought about how he would turn it into an interesting enough story for a play, he felt it necessary to make the man more complicated than he (apparently) was, the woman more simple. A solid, respectable sixty-year-old man who was merely disgusted by the goings on or had no time for nonsense became a man tortured by the guilt of his adultery and the sense that he might have had some role in the harm happening to his wife. A child so messed up that we still have no real idea what could have brought her to do what she did becomes a femme fatale who wants to get her hooks into another woman’s husband.
Miller includes one later line relating to the real Abigail: “Legend has it that she later turned up as a prostitute in Boston.” In doing basic search-engine research, trying to establish where this ‘legend’ came from, I kept being returned to Miller’s own writing. No other source appears to exist. Did Miller simply make this up to give some vague sense of authenticity to the sexually immoral young woman that he himself had invented?
For those interested in what is known about the actual events surrounding the Salem witch trials, there is an archive and transcription of documents project underway. I found a terrific article by a historian in this field, Margo Burns, who also includes some great questions for students of the play that I hope many teachers are using. Miller’s changes have given her a similarly wrinkled brow to mine, but her concerns have a different emphasis.
Personally, I find the idea of little girls so psychologically destroyed by an upbringing that treated them as worthless that they would kill for the sake of some recognition pretty fascinating. Should someone choose, however, to put John Proctor at the centre of what happened at that time in that place, for the sake of making a larger political point, I wish it could be done without making him a child molester in order to make him a hero. In the end the playwright’s choices have led me to become less discomforted by Senator McCarthy’s weaknesses than Arthur Miller’s.