Reading Miller Against the Grain

A Conventional Reading: Putting the Individual at the Heart of the Production

The Crucible is a play that offers readers, directors and actors a fairly straightforward plot: John Proctor seeks to address the wrongs of both his life and his society by challenging an obvious injustice. Early in the First Act, Proctor confronts Abigail. In the exchange he acknowledges his affair with Abigail, a teenage servant who was thrown out of his house when his wife Elizabeth discovered the infidelity. Abigail also plainly states that the witchcraft is a pretence.

Over the course of the play, Proctor seeks to expose the truth about the trials and in the final act, having decided to give a false confession to save his life, changes his mind and leaves the stage for the gallows. Prior to this decision, Elizabeth forgives him his adultery by stating that it was her own frigidity and plainness that drove him to seek a more sexually attractive partner, Abigail. Thus, Proctor dies with his dignity doubly intact: he goes to the scaffold in the knowledge that the affair was not his fault and that he has stood up for the truth – his honour has triumphed over living a lie.

A Resistant Reading: Criticising Miller, the Male Playwright

The account given in the previous paragraphs betrays certain assumptions made by a male playwright, who sees elements of himself in his central figure, John Proctor (follow this link to see why: ‘I sensed that I had at last found something of myself in it, and a play began to accumulate around this man’). Miller’s own marital difficulties are reflected in Proctor’s, as is his bid to stand up for the truth when addressing the House Un-American Activities Committee. Yet also present in the depiction of Proctor is a series of privileges enjoyed by men, a topic addressed more directly here.

All in all, it seems that Miller is suggesting that Proctor be played as a flawed, yet ultimately heroic figure, a point of identification for an audience.

This, however, is also a deeply troubling positioning of the audience with respect to the play’s central figure for the following reasons:

  1. While redemption from sin is laudable objective, the circumstances of the redemption need to be understood if the act is to have any value. Clearly, going to one’s death for a point of principle is a standard definition of martyrdom. Yet Proctor’s heroic act is founded on his privileged position in society as a white, landowning man. He dies for a principle while leaving his wife, two boys and unborn child without an economic future.

This state of affairs, that is left uncriticised in most productions, couldn’t stand in our Brechtian approach to the play. Consequently, we decided to leave a bitter taste in the audience’s mouth at the play’s conclusion.

Here, Reverend Hale implores Elizabeth to convince her husband to change his mind and save his life. Elizabeth replies: ‘He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!’. Elizabeth stressed the ‘I’ in order to suggest that a mere woman couldn’t affect the decision of an important man. The effect, we hoped, was to criticize Proctor’s selfish choice and to signal the fact that Elizabeth, as a woman, had no power to affect her husband, and that his decision would lead to misery for her. (For other examples of Elizabeth’s critical response to Proctor’s self-sacrifice, click here.)

  1. Elizabeth’s excuse of Proctor’s adultery appears to be a convenient way for Miller to let Proctor off the hook, if the line is played straight. The question arises as to why Elizabeth, who has reproached her husband for months, suddenly takes the guilt on herself. (And the claim that she is frigid appears to be contradicted by her current pregnancy.) There are three possible reasons. First, she genuinely believes that she was at fault and thus gave Proctor grounds to sleep with Abigail. Second, she tells a lie herself to ease Proctor’s guilty conscience. Third, she parodies the figure of the ‘good wife’ by saying what is expected of her, that she was frigid and that her man naturally sought another woman for his sexual needs.

The first two reasons are problematic in their own ways. In the first, if Elizabeth genuinely thinks she was at fault, she suggests that Proctor had no choice in the matter of committing adultery, which is patently false. In the second, if Elizabeth is lying, she is doing so because she feels obliged to, something that reflects the poisonous nature of gender relations at the time.

The third reason, however, lends Elizabeth a critical edge: she goads Proctor with a parody of how a wife should behave. Our Brechtian production chose this approach, so that Elizabeth’s lines were delivered with obvious irony, something that provoked an angry and violent response from Proctor.

Our approaches to staging Proctor undermine Miller’s apparent intentions that are to be found in the text and his public comments. As such, Brechtian theatre can criticize what a playwright might want to say and offer the audience a very different reading, one that might affect the way they respond to a play they thought they knew without changing the words or adding material.