I was privileged enough to be able to see the recent production of The Crucible at the Old Vic. The cast received a standing ovation. Many of us were in tears. John Proctor’s final “This is my name” speech was heartrending. The play, for the few who don’t know it, is set in Salem,Massachusetts in the 1600’s. in a small Puritan community .It centres around charges of Witchcraft made by a group of young servant girls. These charges become a full-scale witch hunt with many local people being found guilty of witchcraft for which the penalty was hanging. Arthur Miller, the playwright, wrote in the 1950’s to comment on the McCarthy witch hunts in America. The play is about power, impotence, fear, suspicion, envy and a host of other elements.
The central character is John Proctor, a married man who has had sex with his servant, Abigail Williams. As a consequence of this his wife, Elizabeth sacks her. Abigail wants revenge on the Proctor’s and uses charges of witchcraft to destroy John and Elizabeth-along with many other people in the community. What begins as a “small” act of spite takes on a momentum of its own which drags the servant girls along behind it. The consequences are awful.
The play is both personal and political; inner and outer. As Jean-Marie Bonnet comments in her paper, Society vs.The individual in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible “We then may wonder whether the play is about an individual’s discovery of his true self or about a whole community getting out of hand.” It seems to me that this distinction is unhelpful. Freud mooted the idea that the individual psyche is made up of three parts- the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego. The Id he saw as the utterly amoral infant part. “I want. Now.” The Super Ego as the Judge. “Guilty as charged. On all counts.” The Ego as the Adult, trying to keep the peace between the warring factions of Id and Super Ego. On this model we could see the psyche as a community, each part with its own agenda. (The same drives are also at work in any group. Be it family, organisation or nation.) “The Crucible ” takes these drives and explores what happens when there is an in balance.
The Old Vic’s production was set in a smoke-filled room. Nothing was entirely clear. (It was also performed in the round, thus making the audience part of the play and so reminding us that the play’s themes involve Us-not just Them.)
John Proctor knows he has done wrong. That his liaison with Abigail was wrong-on many levels. Forgiveness seems hard to find. ).He feels constantly judged and condemned by his wife. He feels unable to go to church for fear of what would be said to him. He feels accused by Abigail for not intervening when she is sacked. (All of which epitomise the Freudian Super Ego. “The guilty man is found ‘Guilty as charged.’ “
The smoke seemed to epitomise the blurred nature of everything. John’s wife confesses that she, too, had a part to play in his infidelity. Abigail’s motives are thoroughly confused-power and revenge both contribute. The Rev.Hale, their pastor, is a weak man who despises his congregation. Many of the rest of the community use the charge of witchcraft to settle old scores-but do so clandestinely. (They also operate out of smoke-filled rooms-albeit internal ones.) The witch finders who are drafted in become the community’s super-ego. Condemning others with terrifying efficiency whilst being blind to their own terror of their shadow side .(One wonders what it is that ISIS are so terrified by that they act out so ruthlessly?)
John Proctor stands as Salem’s Everyman. He lives within a number of communities .He has his internal community of Id ,Ego and Super Ego. He lives within a marriage that is governed by the same drives-albeit in different combinations. These relationships are bound within a small community governed by their internal energies. And so on. What is clear is how destructive these drives become when not checked. Id and Super Ego are not good rulers. Both are utterly amoral, interested only in their personal survival.
The death of John Proctor is the death of all Salem. It stands for all that happens when we can no longer bear ourselves. For when we forget that our greatest vulnerability is also our greatest strength. Our humanity.