I first learnt about the Salem Witch trials when I read Robin Cook’s “Acceptable Risk’ way back in 1998. Post that I did a lot of reading and was always intrigued by what would drive intelligent educated people on witchhunts – what was that hysteria that gripped Europe in the middle ages and the US as late as the 17th century. Arthur Miller’s critically acclaimed play ‘The Crucibles’ , dramatizes the Salem Witch Trials and gives a glimpse of what may have happened.
The play opens up in the home of Reverend Parris sitting by the bedside of his pale sick daughter Betty Parris. The doctor cannnot say what ails her and there are rumours of devillery abound. Parris is nervous for his daughter and his neice , Abigail Williams , whom he has seen and suspects of indulging in pagan rituals. Thomas Putnam and his wife add fuel to the fire by suggesting that the devil has cast a spell on village and is making all the children sick. Also , in the first act , an adulterous affair is hinted between John Proctor and Abigail Williams – which casts a shadow on Abigails character. ( This affair is purely a figment of Arthur’s imagination and no proof of it having been true exists)
The first act sets the stage for what is to come – it explains to the readers the social, political and economic context that could have triggered off the Salem witch trials. There is poverty and fight for land and church power – the Church is too scared of losing its power and is eager to make away with the what could be even the slightest threat to it. The witches of Salem are clearly scapegoats and means to a larger end.
As the play unfolds, we realize that two categories of people are accused. They are those who are completely inconsequential to Salem and are seen as a burden -the village drunkard, the beggar and the foreign slave – and then they are those whose death would profit people by land or kind. It is implied that Abigail and other girls who claim to have visions of the devil and who accuse several people of witchcraft are doing it for sport and venegance. In the beginning Abigail and Betty accuse other women and men to remove attention that is focused on them as they were caught performing pagan rituals in the forest. They go on to accuse anyone whose death would benefit their families or anyone who casts a doubt on their accusations.
The church is blinded by its duty and refuses to see through the fraud and is quickly and irrationally putting away half the village of Salem behind bars. Apart from the characters mentioned above, Reverend Hale , too is a key role ( not only in the play but also in the real life events). Hale, prided himself on being God’s servant , and was dedicated to cleansing the society of all creatures of the devil. He was an important figure in the anti-witch movement and later went on to become a key opponent of the witch trials. In Act 2 and 3 , we begin to see how he is surprised by the turn of events as the most upstanding figures of society come under witchcraft accusation. In Act 3 , he is so upset by the stubborness of the court and its refusal to see the fraud in the witchcraft trials that he quits the proceedings.
The play is a strong comment on the power of hysteria and the power of suggestion – it is incredible that how a bunch of juveniles are able to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in minds of mature and experienced clergy and how that was manupilated to everyone’s benefit. Miller also compares the situation of the witch hunt to the US governments search for communists during the Cold war.
Thought provoking and gripping but mostly frightning – it makes one realize that when the collective conscious sleeps there is not much a few thinking individual can do to ebb the tide of tragic events.