Hello and welcome back to The Crucible, the play about witchcraft, vengeance, and other things people did to pass the time before Netflix.
When last we left the town of Salem, several young girls, led by Abigail Williams, got caught dancing naked in the woods, and responded like any teenagers in trouble for breaking curfew: by accusing their neighbors of being in league with the devil. Abigail was motivated by her spurned love for John Proctor, but several other townspeople found that they had much to gain (land, power, respect) from the trials.
Act II takes place in the Proctor residence, and tracks the growing hysteria and suspicion in the town. It also clarifies that the character with whom we are supposed to sympathize is John Proctor, Victim of His Own Babeliness. John arrives home from a hard day of farming to find that his house is tranquil, since his wife, Elizabeth, has put the kids to bed and left a hot cauldron of stew on the fire. (It needs salt, but he doesn’t say anything because he is such a good guy.)
When Elizabeth comes downstairs, John tries so hard to make her happy by talking about his day, hinting that he might buy her a cow, and complimenting the rabbit. But when he tries to make out with her, Elizabeth merely “receives” his kiss, because she is still hung up on the fact that seven months ago, John Proctor fell into the trap that that has claimed so many men (Ben Affleck, Gavin Rossdale, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few), and succumbed to the charms of the nanny. Of course, Abigail Williams isn’t your typical Other Woman. They might trash your reputation, she will have you executed by the state. It transpires that Abigail and her cronies (including the Proctors’ current servant, Mary Warren) have gotten fourteen townspeople arrested for witchcraft, with hangings promised to all those who do not confess. In light of this, Elizabeth suggests that John might want to consider asking her to please stop. His response:
The situation escalates when Mary Warren arrives home, exhausted from condemning people to death. She significantly gives Elizabeth a “poppet” (doll) she made in court that day. John Proctor threatens to whip her if she keeps sneaking off to Salem, to which she is like, “Maybe you want to point that whip at someone who doesn’t hold your literal life in her hands. Why, just today I saved your wife after Abigail accused her.” Of course, it was only a matter of time before Abigail turned her mob on Elizabeth, but for the time being it seems like the Proctors are safe.
That is, until Reverend Hale, Witchcraft Expert, shows up to ascertain how godly the Proctors are. Unfortunately, their attendance record at church is less than stellar, and John misses a crucial question on the Ten Commandments quiz (c’mon, John! It’s adultery! That’s like Lupin missing a question on werewolves!).
Hale is about to leave when Giles Corey and Francis Nurse show up, with the horrifying news that both their wives have both been clapped in irons and accused of witchery. Next thing you know, representatives of the court come for Elizabeth herself. Their evidence? Abigail Williams claims that the poppet Mary Warren made WAS IN FACT A VOODOO DOLL ELIZABETH USED TO TORTURE HER. Which just goes to show: dolls are creepy and weird and eventually they will kill you.
Of course, John Proctor is violently opposed to his wife being imprisoned (who will under-salt his rabbit?) and he delivers the following ringing oratory:
Proctor: If she is innocent! Why do you never wonder if Parris be innocent, or Abigail? Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers? I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem—vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law! This warrant’s vengeance! I’ll not give my wife to vengeance!
This is Arthur Miller speaking out against the Communist-hunting madness that afflicted America at the time of his writing. And while John Proctor gets a far too easy pass by many readers, his character flaws are part of the point. Proctor (and Miller himself) is far from a blameless hero. He committed adultery and he has a temper that frequently gets the better of him. But these are human flaws and weaknesses, and it is only the town’s hunger for villains that makes those flaws (and the flaws of everyone accused of witchcraft) out to be the whole of his character. That nuance-erasing impulse to righteous judgment did not die with the end of the McCarthy era. You can find it all over the internet today. Act II of The Crucible is harrowing, and rightly so: it shows the machine of hysteria gaining critical mass, after which it’s too late to stop it–from here on out you go along or you are crushed.
Check out the Act I recap here, and see you next week in Salem!