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The Crucible provides us with what can only be described as masterpiece of dramatic writing. Written by Arthur Miller in 1952, the most powerful scenes in “The Crucible” have several common characteristics; very effective use of stage directions, long build-ups of suspense that come crashing down in thundering climaxes, intense displays of emotion and an abundance of dramatic irony. The play, set in 1692, is based upon the outbreak of accusations of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts.
Miller wrote the play using this 17th-century case (and fictionalising it) to comment on a 20th-century phenomenon – the exposure of suspected communists. In 17th century Salem the inhabitants feared witchcraft as America feared communism in the 1950’s; and many similarities can be drawn between the events of the two periods. Both were exaggerated out of all reasonable proportion and each contains communities that display an irrational fear of an ill perceived threat to their stability of life. Indeed, the theme of culpability that runs throughout the play is mirrored constantly in modern society, particularly in politics, where those in office are frequently blamed for incidents that are completely beyond their control.
The writing of this play stemmed from Miller’s personal interest in the Salem witch trials and at the time, America was in the middle of the McCarthy political “Witch Hunt”. Miller himself was called before a committee, and he began to notice a certain resemblance between the two trials, such as ‘naming and shaming’ by people anxious to divert attention from themselves, together with confessions given under duress. This has resulted in the play being seen as a political allegory.
At the beginning of act 4 we see symbolic setting and scenery created through Miller’s clever use of stage directions, which in turn, introduces and establishes the tone that will continue throughout the remainder of the play. For example, the reference to “moonlight seeping through the bars” of the darkened cell metaphorically suggests to the reader that there is still hope for the wrongly accused sufferers of the witch hunt, the light being a positive aspect in the otherwise bleak atmosphere. This technique of using light symbolically is revisited later in the scene; “the new sun is pouring in”, reinforcing the theme of dramatic lighting that is so very important within the play. It is perhaps this phrase that best sums up the intensity of relief felt at the end of the ordeal, and emphasizes the theme of transition and change, highlighted in particular by the word “new”.
Another way in which Miller successfully creates tension within the play is through the use of apposite props and evocative scenery, most notably in the jail; “…a high barred window, near it, a great, heavy door”. This evokes a strong sense of oppression, in particular the “heavy door” which could be arguably be seen as a metaphor for the ignorance displayed by the townspeople of Salem. Furthermore, we see the play end on a very dramatic note; “The final drumroll crashes, then heightens violently”, surely emblematic of the last brutal act of the witch-hunt; the violent demise of the hero and the end of the suffering of those persecuted by fear and ignorance.
Dramatic theatre would be nothing however, without the powerful characters at the heart of the story, and the depth they bring to it through their emotions and actions. At the very beginning of the scene, we see a representation of the main theme of the story; the helplessness of the villagers against the cruel authority of Danforth, illustrated by the forcible removal of Tituba and Sarah Good from their cell. The power struggle between those in office and the common man draws great empathy from the audience and reinforces the brutality of the entire ordeal. Indeed, the women’s response to the guards; “We goin’ to Barbados, soon devil gits here…” highlights the villagers’ great superstition around Satan, giving the audience insight into how the situation has spiraled out of control, and how their fears fuel the fires of hysteria, allowing the oppression of the villagers to continue unabated.