A Great Delusion of Satan
The astounding fact is that the events outlined in this play are, in most essentials, true.
For 300 years we have tried to understand the Salem witch trials of 1692 through historical, psychological, sociological, economic, and environmental studies; through art, literature, theatre and film. Every age reaches its own conclusions. To some, the Devil was actually at work, though not in the accused but the accusers. One of the “bewitched” girls apologized to the community many years later for having caused the death of innocent people and said it was due “to a great delusion of Satan.” Some describe the trials as an ill-concealed grab for land and political power. There are Freudian and Jungian explications. There is a theory that a diseased crop of grain chemically induced hallucination in the accusers. There are Marxist and there are feminist interpretations. But there is no truly definitive answer. Arthur Miller in The Crucibletouches on several of these potential explanations for the witch-hunt. Ultimately, The Crucible is not really about why it happened, but about what this moral crisis brought forth from the average men and women at the center of it.
But why such an enduring fascination? Witchhunts throughout Europe in the 15th, 16th and 17thcentury were far more widespread and ruthless, and the Salem trials cannot hold a candle to the zeal, efficiency, or scope of the Spanish Inquisition. As an example of man’s capacity for violence to his fellow man, the Salem executions are hardly a blip when compared to the enormous atrocities perpetrated in more recent centuries.
Certainly, the fascination with a possibly supernatural event is enough to keep the Salem trials in the tabloids, if you will, but I think there is a deeper fascination – and one that is ultimately far more frightening than witches on broomsticks. I think what holds our gaze on Salem is the fact that it tells us something compelling, disturbing, and very real about ourselves and about our national character.
The Puritan legacy remains a dominant force in American culture. It has informed our collective consciousness with such important positive values as the work ethic, self reliance and self discipline, personal responsibility, moral rectitude, a rigorous honesty and, perhaps most importantly, the transcendence of spiritual over material values. It has, however, planted in the American psyche a tendency toward moral absolutism and religious zealotry that can create a climate in which diversity of thought and expression are not welcome, and in its worse excesses can inspire a violent fanaticism towards the “other” in not only the individual, but the society as a whole. Fanaticism is certainly not a trait that is uniquely American – a cursory reading of yesterday’s events in the Middle East will tell us that. But parochial zealotry stands in such stark contrast to the democratic, humanistic traditions upon which our Republic is founded that we are particularly shocked when it appears in our own backyard.
The original colonists had emigrated to America with the clearly stated purpose of establishing “The Kingdom of God on Earth”, a semi-independent commonwealth and religious paradise. It was a society in which conformity of religious thought was unquestioned. The original charter stated that only members of the Puritan Church were allowed the vote. Ecclesiastical and secular authority were one and the same. The Puritans forbade all forms of worship other than their own and non-believers were actively removed from the colony.
However, by 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a society in transition. Increased trade and prosperity brought new settlers, not all of whom were as like-minded on religious and social matters as the early colonists. In 1684, Charles II revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter, which left the entire governmental and legal system in doubt, including such matters as ownership of private property. When a new charter was granted in 1691 by the reasonably tolerant William III (William of Orange), it tied New England firmly to the British Empire by making the Colonial Government all Royal appointees. Most importantly, the new charter extended the franchise to all male inhabitants possessing a “forty shilling freehold” or other property worth 40 pounds sterling. Church membership was no longer required as a qualification for the vote.
The 17th Century world was seen as an enormous battleground between the forces of good and evil – between God and the Devil, and the Devil’s recruits were witches. The existence of witches was unquestioned. The Puritans believed they knew the revealed truth and it had been revealed only to them. The battle between Christ and Satan was laid out very clearly and they knew which side they were on. “This is a sharp time now, a precise time,” says Deputy-Governor Danforth in The Crucible, “we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s Grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.”
Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) was a small agricultural community on the outskirts of the seaport of Salem, just north of Boston. It existed in a kind of political nether-world, outside the governmental structure of Salem itself, but without any effective governing body of its own to arbitrate the disputes of day-to-day life over such things as boundary lines and unsettled bills. Thus, petty disputes were left to fester and grow on their own and they most surely did so, increasing the pressures already building on this society in transition.
Ultimately, however, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is not really about witch trials, superstition, religious bigotry, narrow-mindedness, or communal fear of the other. Those are the elements of the play’s subject matter, to be sure, but finally The Crucible is a play about individual conscience and the journey of one man as he responds to a world that is disintegrating into fear, bigotry, and hysteria. It is John Proctor’s journey upon which the play hangs. And it is ultimately not a journey toward nobility or goodness or self-sacrifice, but towards self-knowledge. And it is that fact which lifts The Crucible from the level of socio-political statement to the great American play which it most surely is.
“It doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you don’t believe it completely.” Bertrand Russell
“Fear is the enemy of love.” St. Augustine