Hello and welcome to the final act of The Crucible, the play that proves that early Americans were almost as hysterical as the ones alive today.
As you probably know from you history class, The Crucible does not end with everyone apologizing and buying each other conciliatory fruit baskets. By this point in the drama, even the people who’ve realized they’ve gone too far feel like it’s too late to turn back. (It’s like realizing you don’t want to get married on the day of your wedding: you’ve just got to put on the dress, eat the cake, and call for an annulment in the morning.) However, despite the gloom and doom of The Crucible‘s conclusion, Arthur Miller offers some hope for the souls of the condemned.
Act four takes place in a Salem jail cell, a few months after John and Elizabeth Proctor’s arrest for Witchcraft/Lying/Only scoring a 90 on the Ten Commandments quiz. The first prisoners we see are Tituba and Sarah Good, who have been in jail so long they’ve forgotten that they are, in fact, innocent. They are dragged to an adjacent cell to make room for an emergency meeting of Judge Danforth (who you will recall as being somewhat less forgiving than Judge Judy) and Reverend Parris, whose paranoia got this whole thing started.
Weirdly enough, Reverend Parris’ popularity in the town did not increase when his daughter and niece sent a quarter of its inhabitants to die. In fact, people are now leaving daggers outside his door, unfriending him on Facebook, etc. The trial’s body count keeps rising because so many citizens choose to hang rather than confess. Giles Corey, lovable old rapscallion that he is, refuses to plead either guilty or innocent, and so becomes the only person in American history to be crushed to death by heavy stones. And, to the surprise of all involved, the public executions are not having a desultory effect on the town’s morale.
Even formerly staunch defenders of the court are bummed out by the sight of all the orphaned cows and children wandering the streets. And in Andover, a few villages away, the citizens are now threatening to throw out the court entirely. Judge Danforth is very upset by these rumors, not because he thinks he did anything wrong, but because he can’t take criticism (thank god he didn’t live to see the internet). To make matters worse, Abigail and Mercy Lewis stole all of Parris’ money and high-tailed it to Boston to become prostitutes (like so much else about the play’s version of Abby, this is not historically accurate).
So the witch hunt needs a PR win. For that, they haul John Proctor out of his cell and beg him to confess. If he does, he’ll be spared, and the legitimacy of the court will be vindicated. To persuade him, Danforth brings out Elizabeth Proctor, whose pregnancy is saving her from the gallows. Naturally, both the Proctors have powerfully mixed feelings about Danforth’s offer. On the one hand, if John confesses, he will be lying, besmirching his name, and ensuring that more Salemites are hanged. On the other hand, he would be alive, which is generally considered to be preferable to the alternative.
John goes back and forth for the majority of the act, and eventually decides that his soul is already so tarnished, one more little white lie won’t hurt. Danforth and company are thrilled, but John balks when he’s asked to sign a written confession. Finally, he tears the document up before their eyes, kisses his wife passionately, and is taken off to be executed, having lost his life but regained his honor. After that, there’s nothing left but to do but make out with Lin-Manuel Miranda at the cast party. But before we leave they hysteria behind, a few closing thoughts are in order.
The Crucible is now such an accepted part of our literary canon that it’s easy to take its overall structure for granted. But when you think about it, The Crucible is pretty weird. For one thing, the play makes John Proctor (a dude) its central protagonist, even though fourteen of the twenty people executed were women. And it’s not like his is the only perspective one could take on these events; think about how different this play would be if it put Tituba at its center, or Judge Danforth, or one of the girls who testified.
Any one of those plays might tell us more about the way Salem society functioned. But in framing the action around John Proctor and his decision to choose his principles over his life, Arthur Miller crafted a play that was directed at his contemporaries, reminding them and himself to stay strong in the face of McCarthyism. In depicting a difficult moral choice, and the frightening way hysteria has of building on itself, The Crucible succeeds as a drama.
But the play still leaves many of the Salem Witch Trials’ most troubling questions unanswered. What really happened to the young girls in Massachusetts? It was something compelling enough to convince educated and pious members of the court that twenty of their fellow citizens deserved to die. It’s become fashionable in recent years to attribute the girls’ symptoms to ergot poisoning, but as this excellent myth-debunking article points out, that theory is as lazy as blaming it all on witchcraft. So, just as The Crucible is revived on Broadway during periods of popular panic, the story of the witch trials is open to fresh examination by every generation.