The Crucible by Arthur Miller as a Modern Tragedy

The setting of "The Crucible" is rooted in historical context as the Salem trial took place in the late 17th century. However, the play is often regarded as a contemporary tragedy due to its portrayal of the protagonist as an ordinary individual, removed from the realm of nobility. Alongside the central character, Elizabeth Proctor and other figures within the play also embody common folk.

Furthermore, the play delves into modern predicaments and internal conflicts. Arthur Miller not only critiques society but also the institutions of his time, a distinguishing feature of modern tragedies.

It is also noteworthy that divine intervention is absent from the play. The protagonist's tragic downfall is not the result of supernatural forces; rather, it is solely driven by human actions.

Regarding structure and style, the play adheres to a linear narrative structure. Miller employs heightened dialogue and intense confrontations to generate tension and emotional resonance. Moreover, while the play concludes with a tragic ending, it leaves the audience with lingering questions.

An Examination of Modern Tragedy

  • Modern tragedy emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries as a storytelling form, encompassing not only plays but also novels.
  • In contrast to classical tragedy, modern tragedies do not revolve around the role of fate or gods in human lives. Instead, they focus on everyday issues, such as individual struggles, political systems, technological advancements, and personal choices, shaping tragic events.
  • In modern tragedies, the protagonist's own choices and actions take center stage, emphasizing personal agency over external forces. It is through their decisions that they ultimately lead themselves to destruction.

Classical Tragedy vs. Modern Tragedy

  • Classical tragedies, originating from the Greeks in the 5th century BCE, featured protagonists from noble or royal backgrounds, while modern tragedies primarily depict the lives of common individuals grappling with internal struggles rather than external natural forces.
  • Classical tragedies explored themes of fate, the human condition, the role of gods, unavoidable circumstances, and the consequences of hubris. In contrast, modern tragedies delve into issues of the modern era, such as alienation, existentialism, and moral complexities.
  • Classical tragedies adhered to conventions like a chorus, a tragic hero, and a three-act structure. On the other hand, modern tragedies embrace realism, naturalism, and absurdism, employing techniques like stream-of-consciousness for storytelling.

Common Characteristics of Modern Tragedies

  • Ordinary protagonist
  • Exploration of modern problems
  • Internal conflicts
  • Satire on society
  • Absence of divine intervention
  • Bleak or ambiguous endings

The Crucible as a Modern Tragedy

The Crucible possesses several characteristics commonly associated with modern tragedies. Let's analyze the play while considering these characteristics.

Ordinary Protagonist

John Proctor in "The Crucible" epitomizes an ordinary protagonist. He does not belong to the noble class but rather is a farmer, representing the common working class of Salem. His interactions with other townspeople and his troubled past, including his adultery with Abigail Williams, make him a relatable and flawed character. Proctor does not enjoy any special privileges or advantages due to his social status, emphasizing his ordinary nature. Thus, "The Crucible" meets the requirement of an ordinary protagonist in a modern tragedy.

Themes Related to Modern Problems

The play delves into themes relevant to modern problems, even though it is set in a historical context. Hysteria and mass panic take center stage, showcasing their destructive force as innocent individuals are wrongly accused and prosecuted for witchcraft. The abuse of power is another prevalent issue, with Deputy Governor Danforth and Judge Hathorne exemplifying the misuse of authority. The play condemns false accusations and highlights their consequences on the lives of common people, such as Elizabeth Proctor and Rebecca Nurse. By addressing these modern problems, "The Crucible" fulfills the thematic requirement of a modern tragedy.

By exhibiting the ordinary protagonist and exploring modern problems through internal conflicts, societal satire, absence of divine intervention, and a bleak or ambiguous ending, "The Crucible" aligns itself with the characteristics of a modern tragedy.

Internal Conflicts

The play portrays various internal conflicts through the character of John Proctor. Having committed adultery with Abigail Williams in the past, he carries a burden of guilt and struggles to forget his transgressions. This internal conflict is evident when he confesses his guilt to Elizabeth.

Reverend Hale arrives in town with a strong belief in witches, but witnessing the unjust trials and executions of innocent people creates a conflict between his faith and the reality before him. He denounces the proceedings of the court, expressing his inner conflict regarding the existence of witches.

Elizabeth Proctor grapples with her own internal conflict while dealing with her husband's affair. John Proctor's confession of his strained past with Abigail Williams leaves her torn between forgiving him and rebuilding their marriage or holding onto her resentment. This conflict is apparent when Elizabeth hesitates to speak ill of John in court, torn between her desire for justice and her love for him.

Mary Warren, as John Proctor's servant, faces the conflict of loyalty. Initially supporting John, she succumbs to pressure from the other girls and accuses him. She wrestles with the decision of standing against injustice to support her master or saving herself.

These internal conflicts experienced by different characters in "The Crucible" contribute to its portrayal as a modern tragedy.

Satire on Society

While classical tragedies often focused on the conflict between fate and humans, modern dramatists, novelists, and poets recognize their responsibility to critique society when they identify its flaws. In "The Crucible," the writer employs satire as a means to demonstrate modern problems and inspire reform. The play delivers its satire directly and openly.

Reverend Parris serves as a notable character in this regard. Portrayed as overly concerned with his reputation and social standing, he prioritizes personal interests over the pursuit of truth. This portrayal highlights the tendency of some individuals to prioritize appearances over genuine intentions.

The trial of John Proctor exemplifies the themes explored in the play. Baseless accusations are accepted without requiring substantial evidence. The court blindly accepts testimonies, lacking a commitment to seeking justification.

An illustrative example occurs when Mary Warren presents a poppet as evidence against Elizabeth Proctor. The judges perceive it as a sign of witchcraft, demonstrating how mere perception is enough to declare an object as evidence. This emphasizes the exaggerated nature of the accusations and the absence of critical thinking within the court.

Gossip and rumors play a significant role in fueling the hysteria in Salem. The play questions the validity of beliefs and the reliance on hearsay as sufficient evidence for accusations of witchcraft.

The writer also critiques the clergy, exposing their moral corruption and hypocrisy. Characters like Reverend Parris and Reverend Hale exemplify self-serving behavior and blind support of witchcraft.

Thus, "The Crucible" effectively employs satire, an essential ingredient of modern tragedy, to shed light on societal issues.

Lack of Divine Intervention

In contrast to Greek tragedies that often involved gods, modern tragedies shift their focus to external forces of nature and do not rely on divine intervention.

In "The Crucible," it can be argued that John Proctor is solely responsible for his own downfall. His past affair with Abigail Williams sets the events of the play in motion, and his disloyalty to his wife allows Abigail to accuse her of witchcraft.

Proctor's actions throughout the play contribute to his own destruction as well as that of his wife. He chooses not to expose Abigail's deceit to protect his reputation, leading to the execution of innocent lives. Even when Elizabeth urges him to reveal the truth, he refuses, stating:

"I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. I am not that man."

Proctor's lack of effective communication exacerbates the situation, as his passionate outbursts and confrontations with the court officials worsen his circumstances. Additionally, his pride plays a role in his downfall, as he refuses to sign a false confession, valuing his integrity over his life. This ultimately leads to his execution.

These examples demonstrate that John Proctor himself is responsible for his tragic fate in "The Crucible," with no involvement of gods or supernatural forces. This absence of divine intervention aligns with a common element of modern tragedy, further solidifying the play's place on the list.

Bleak or Ambiguous Endings

Unlike classical tragedies that provide a sense of catharsis through complete resolutions, modern tragedies often leave the audience with lingering questions and unresolved justice.

"The Crucible" is no exception, as it concludes with a bleak and ambiguous ending that leaves the audience with a profound sense of unresolved injustice. The tragic events weigh heavily on the minds of the viewers.

In the final act, John Proctor faces a choice between confessing to witchcraft and living as an accused or denying the false confession and accepting execution. Proctor chooses to preserve his integrity and denies signing the confession. This ending does not provide a clear lesson; instead, it leaves the audience with a sense of ongoing societal issues.

Proctor's final words further contribute to the ambiguous ending:

"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!"

In addition to Proctor, other innocent characters like Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey are also executed for refusing to falsely confess. This further reinforces the sense of bleakness in the ending, as the audience perceives the perversion of justice and the unjust loss of lives. The final stage direction, describing the empty space of the Salem meetinghouse, symbolizes the aftermath of the tragedy and creates a desolate atmosphere.

These examples highlight the bleak and ambiguous nature of the ending in "The Crucible." The playwright approaches the play from a modern perspective, even though it is set in the late 17th century, effectively incorporating the elements of modern tragedy.

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