For example, in the play, the character, John Proctor, is clearly established as a farmer who is guilty of committing adultery with Abigail Williams, who had been a servant in his home. (Note: It was fairly common for an unmarried woman to become a servant in another family’s home, at least for a time, during this period.) Proctor is also said to be a Quaker.
This idea conflicts with the record as there is no evidence that I have ever heard that the Quakers were much tolerated in the rural hamlets of this area during this time. In fact, it is a fact that the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Puritan Anglican) had little tolerance for these “heretics” and, in fact, had executed some for defying a law which forbade their presence in the colony. Hence, it’s MOST unlikely that the real John Proctor was a Quaker.
In fact, he was a farmer and tavern owner who was about 60 years old and there is no evidence which I can find that Abigail ever lived in his home in any capacity. By the way, the real Abigail was only age eleven or twelve. That, alone, does not make the idea of adultery impossible, of course, but it makes it seem far less likely. Also, Miller does state in his A Note on the Historical Accuracy of This Play that he took liberties with the actual record to serve dramatic purposes.
Without detailing all of the changes in great detail here (they are discussed in a variety of places), one is forced to accept that there are many of them. For example, it says in the play that there were seven people destined to be hanged on the same day as John Proctor. There were, in fact, only five, including my ancestor, Martha Carrier. It’s also said that Giles Corey was dead before Proctor was killed, when, in fact, he was pressed to death on September 19, 1692, while Proctor was hanged on August 19 of that year.
What may be of the greatest importance here is that the character of Proctor IS guilty in his own mind, but not of the “witchcraft” charges with which he is charged. He IS guilty, in the play, of adultery with Abigail (the character) and finds it almost impossible to forgive himself of that, rather like Willie Loman (in The Death of a Salesman) is guilty of adultery and can’t forgive himself for having that known by Biff. So the character Proctor resolves to confess to sins he has not committed to protect his sense of himself and his family. He even goes so far as to sign his confession, although he will NOT indict others by naming them as witches. As he says, “I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another.”
Having signed the “confession,” however, he then refuses to give the paper to Danforth, leading to the following exchange:
“PROCTOR: No, no. I have signed it. You have seen me. It is done! You have no need for this.
PARRIS: Proctor, the village must have proof that--
PROCTOR: Damn the village! I confess to God, and God has seen my name on this! It is enough!
DANFORTH: No, sir, it is--
PROCTOR: You came to save my soul, did you not? Here! I have confessed myself; it is enough!
DANFORTH: You have not con--
PROCTOR: I have confessed myself! Is there no good penitence but it be public? God does not need my name nailed upon the church! God sees my name; God knows how black my sins are! It is enough!
DANFORTH: Mr. Proctor--
PROCTOR: You will not use me! I am no Sarah Good or Tituba, I am John Proctor! You will not use me! It is no part of salvation that you should use me!
DANFORTH: I do not wish to--
PROCTOR: I have three children—how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?
DANFORTH: You have not sold your friends--
PROCTOR: Beguile me not! I blacken all of them when this is nailed to the church the very day they hang for silence.
DANFORTH: Mr. Proctor, I must have good and legal proof that you--
PROCTOR: You are the high court, your word is good enough! Tell them I confessed myself; say Proctor broke his knees and wept like a woman; say what you will, but my name cannot--
DANFORTH, with suspicion: It is the same, is it not? If I report it or you sign to it?
PROCTOR—he knows it is insane: No, it is not the same! What others say and what I sign to is not the same!
DANFORTH: Why? Do you mean to deny this confession when you are free?
PROCTOR: I mean to deny nothing!
DANFORTH: Then explain to me, Mr. Proctor, why you will not let--
PROCTOR, with a cry of his whole soul: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
So what am I trying to suggest here? The play was written in 1953 when Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading his campaign to rid the United States of “communist” influences using tactics which were demagogic, often reckless and frequently unsubstantiated. It’s worth noting that McCarthy was, in 1954, censured by the U.S. Senate for his actions. This was also during the period when the House Un-American Activities Committee was actively pursuing “communist” influence in the entertainment industry, especially movies and television.
Miller was eventually (1956) called before HUAC, where he admitted to attending party meetings, but refused to name other alleged communists. He was convicted of contempt of Congress for this refusal in 1957, but his conviction was overturned by an Appeals Court in 1958. Miller’s personal involvement was after The Crucible, however, so it could not have had a direct effect on the writing of the play, but I think it does offer possible insight into the character of John Proctor.
How so? Like Miller, his character will “… speak my own sins; I cannot judge another. Crying out, with hatred: I have no tongue for it.” Proctor is not without sin, but he will not stoop to judging others and he refuses (as Miller would later) to be the instrument used to accuse others. Why? He, the character, says “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” And so, Proctor, the character, goes to be hanged.
I think that Miller wasn’t really writing about the events of Salem at all. Salem merely provided an historical situation which could be made (with some reworking) to parallel the sort of thing which was going on in the McCarthy and HUAC hearings. It is, perhaps, worth noting that the same kind of behaviors can still be seen in far too many circles today. I don’t blame Miller for couching his attacks on this sort of thing (witch hunts) in the best-known true “witch hunt” in American history.
Others have taken a similar course of using history to raise the kinds of concerns which need to be raised every so often: the 1999 movie, Cradle Will Rock comes to mind, as does the 2005 movie, Good Night, and Good Luck. There are others. The Manchurian Candidate, from 1962, while not directly dealing with a “witch hunt,” also expresses some concern over the potential power of a demagogue, or demagoguery, suggesting the danger of this sort of thing.
Personally, I think it’s important that each of us think about this quite carefully. I’m afraid that the danger is still real; and current political behavior should be examined in the light of this sort of thing very carefully. I hope this is a danger which we, as a country, can avoid although I am concerned. I think Miller was trying to suggest that the vigilance necessary might require truly tragic decisions (and actions). Even then, the threat will never disappear, I’m afraid. Keeping it under control it will require real, constant vigilance and careful thought. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that, even if it can be pushed down at the moment, this sort of thing will rise again, some time, some place.
Where do you stand today? How will you respond when it shows up again?