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The Perennial American Pastime

BY John Prizer

December 29, 1996-January 4, 1997 Issue | Posted 12/29/96 at 2:00 PM

 

AMERICAN CULTURE is, by temperament, Puritan, even at times like the present when its core values seem detached from religious faith. The way we act out certain kinds of public moral conflicts is deeply influenced by the thinking of our 17th-century Protestant forefathers. Most of us are loath to acknowledge this fact because, in the popular imagination, the Puritans'complex legacy is usually boiled down to crudely caricatured sexual repression.

The recently released movie of Arthur Miller's classic play, The Crucible, takes a wider view. The original was written in 1953 during the anti-communist fervor of McCarthyism, and it effectively dramatizes the connections between the political excesses of that period and the 1692 Salem, Mass. witch-hunt. In his introduction to the play, Miller identifies the link between the two eras as “the handing over of conscience to another … the notion that conscience was no longer a private matter but one of state administration … and the realization that with conscience goes the person, the soul immortal and the ‘name.’”

This transaction was possible during Puritan times because the settlers believed that in a just society the precepts of religion and law were identical. In the 50s that mind-set was created by Cold War fears of an imminent communist takeover.

Miller himself had gone to prison for his silence before a congressional committee about his relationship to the communist party and his refusal to “name the names” of those who might have been similarly involved. He has written recently in The New Yorker about what he sees as the parallels between his experience and 17th-century Puritanism. In both cases, the authorities “could get you hanged unless you confessed to having had contact with the devil. The best proof of your sincerity was your naming of others whom you had seen in the devil's company.”

Working with British director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George), Miller has successfully opened his play. The movie begins with a sequence that occurred offstage in the original. Adozen or so teenage village girls gather at night in the woods for a voodoo-like ritual supervised by Tituba (Charlayne Woodard), the black Barbadian slave of the local minister. Most of the participants ask for help in securing the love of eligible young males, but the minister's orphaned niece, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), ups the ante by wringing a chicken's neck and smearing its blood on her face as she wishes for the death of Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of her former employer.

The minister, Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison), stumbles upon the girls just as they've begun to take off their clothes and dance. Salem, like all 17-century Puritan communities, believes itself caught up in the continuing spiritual warfare between God and the devil so this incident looks suspicious, and an expert in witchcraft, Reverend Hale (Rob Campbell), is called in to investigate.

Fearful of punishment, the girls, led by Abigail, claim the devil made them dance in the woods. And, to point the finger of blame elsewhere, they offer up the names of fellow villagers whom they claim were working with the devil against them. These innocent townsfolk then stand accused as witches, and the only way they can save themselves from the scaffold is by confessing and implicating others, which many of them do.

The sudden sense of power goes to the girls' heads, and they use the allegations to settle old scores. Certain large landowners also manipulate the accusations of witchcraft to eliminate rivals. As the charges and counter-charges multiply, Salem becomes possessed by a kind of mass hysteria in which no one seems safe from suspicion.

Only one person takes a firm stand against the madness—Abigail's former employer, the farmer John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis). But he has something different to hide. The emotional frigidity of his wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) drove him into a secret affair with Abigail while she was working on his farm. Elizabeth's suspicions were aroused, and the young girl was fired.

In revenge, Abigail sees to it that Elizabeth is charged with witchcraft. But the teenager is still in love with John and tries to protect him from the accusations, hoping to win him back after Elizabeth is eliminated. We empathize with John in his guilt over the adulterous affair, and when he and Elizabeth are unjustly brought to trial, the love rekindled between them is deeply moving.

Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield), from Boston, is brought in to preside over the trials. His aura of rectitude and erudition offers hope. But his first priority, rather than justice, turns out to be the preservation of the civic and religious institutions in which he serves. This corruption of moral and judicial authority appears even more evil than the young girls' lies or the accused villagers'false confessions. So manifestly unjust are his verdicts that even Reverend Hale, himself a proven witch-hunter, argues against them. Eventually 20 innocent people, including the Proctors, are hung.

The Crucible is Miller's allegorical response to what he perceives to have been the evils of McCarthyism. And although the present times throw up moral challenges radically different from the 1950s, there still seems to be a potent set of issues which evoke our culture's witch-hunting instincts. The excesses of the so-called religious right and the left's crusade for political correctness on college campuses both have a Puritan cast to them, as does the hysteria surrounding child sexual abuse trials and certain allegations of sexual harassment, when the accusers'militant self-righteousness combines with public paranio.

In this context, Miller's plea for reason, mercy and tolerance in the resolution of public moral conflicts seems as relevant today as it did 43 years ago when The Crucible was first performed.

John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.