“There is a bit of a witch hunt happening too… There’s some people, famous people, being suddenly accused of touching some girl’s knee, or something, and suddenly they’re being dropped from their programme, or something,” said actor Liam Neeson, who once starred on Broadway as the morally agonized but ultimately righteous hero John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Neeson went on to explain that he is supportive of women, of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and of justice. That of course there are men who are monsters, like Harvey Weinstein, but that there is also a real threat of girls and women falsely accusing innocent men, or getting men harshly punished for deeds that don’t warrant it.
As a novelist specializing in the ways that history has depicted transgressive women, I spend a lot of time analyzing how stories about female victims are routinely transformed into stories about male heroes, tragic or otherwise. That’s how Miller approached Salem in The Crucible, still required high-school reading that’s shaped how many of us think about mob panic and life-ruining accusations. I read it for the first time in a history class, and I thought it was amazing, subversive protest art, written to shine a light on the injustice of Joseph McCarthy’s Communist hunt. It wasn’t until I saw the 1996 film that I began to wonder about the nature of the way Miller portrays the women in the story. Lately, listening to discussions of #MeToo, I’ve been thinking about Miller’s versions of history again.
In his telling, witch hunts are perpetrated by the marginalized rather than upon them, since, when sex is involved, women are inclined toward group-malice, sexual irrationality, and wholesale invention.
John Proctor, as Miller portrays him, is a good man who’s made a bad, but human, mistake. Largely because of that mistake, he is buffeted by a couple of elements shaped to suit the underlying narrative of Miller’s story, and thus not found in primary sources.
Yes, there were teenage girls in Salem who accused many people of witchcraft. There was also a slave named Tituba, whose confession blasted Salem into a full-fledged panic.
Both of these historic elements, however, were shaped by Miller into a story about a married man tormented by an orphaned, libidinous teenage girl seeking to punish him for a sexual transgression she participated consensually in. The playwright sets that story as the catalyst for a larger, quite literal witch hunt, stoked into a frenzy by a mostly unprovoked confession of witchcraft spoken by a fantastically-minded woman of color who’s been practicing sexy voodoo in the woods with the girls of Salem.
In fact, many sources say that Tituba later recanted her confession, stating that she was beaten and forced to deliver it. There is no historical basis at all for Miller’s narrative about an illicit love affair spurring the panic.
Women, unless they are very devout and very old, The Crucible tells us, are unreliable and changeable. They’re jealous. They’re vengeful. They’re confused about sex and about love. They might, given very little provocation, ruin the life of a good man, and everything else in the world too.
Miller wrote it that way for a reason.
In 1950, two years before he wrote The Crucible, Miller met Marilyn Monroe at a party in Los Angeles. She was 25, and single, though she was in the midst of an affair with Miller’s host, Elia Kazan. Miller was ten years her senior, married, and the father of two. Accounts vary on what occured between them — according to Monroe’s acting teacher, Miller sat next to Monroe rubbing her feet the whole night, intermittently holding one of her toes, and Monroe reported that she’d “met a man tonight… It was, bam! It was like running into a tree. You know, like a cool drink when you’ve had a fever.”
Their relationship continued for the next few years by letter and phone call, and probably more than that given what Miller wrote in The New Yorker in 1996, when the film version of The Crucible was released. In a lengthy essay, he described his various impetuses for writing the play:
I visited Salem for the first time on a dismal spring day in 1952; it was a side-tracked town then, with abandoned factories and vacant stores. In the gloomy courthouse there, I read the transcripts of the witchcraft trials of 1692, as taken down in a primitive shorthand by ministers who were spelling each other. But there was one entry in (Charles W.) Upham on which the thousands of pieces I had come across were jogged into place. It was from a report written by the Reverend Samuel Parris, who was one of the chief instigators of the witch-hunt. “During the examination of Elizabeth Procter, Abigail Williams and Anne Putnam”– the two were “afflicted” teen-age accusers and Abigail was Parris’ niece—both made offer to strike at said Procter; but when Abigail’s hand came near, it opened, whereas it was made up into a fist before, and came down exceedingly lightly as it drew near to said Procter, and at length, with opened and extended fingers, touched Procter’s hood very lightly. Immediately, Abigail cried out her fingers, her fingers, her fingers burned…”
In this remarkably observed gesture of a troubled young girl, I believed, a play became possible. Elizabeth Proctor had been the orphaned Abigail’s mistress, and they had lived together in the same small house until Elizabeth fired the girl. By this time, I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed, most likely to appease Elizabeth. There was bad blood between the two women now...
All this I understood. I had not approached the witchcraft out of nowhere, or from purely social or political considerations. My own marriage of twelve years was teetering and I knew more than I wished to know about where the blame lay. That John Proctor the sinner might overturn his paralyzing personal guilt and become the most forthright voice against the madness around him was a reassurance to me, and, I suppose, an inspiration: it demonstrated that a clear moral outcry could still spring even from an ambiguously unblemished soul. Moving crabwise across the profusion of evidence, I sensed that I had at last found something of myself in it, and a play began to accumulate around this man.
The Crucible’s plot hinges on the notion that Abigail Williams, the first Salem accuser, has had an affair with John Proctor, and wants to marry him. She names his wife Elizabeth as a witch, to have her executed.
Miller has Elizabeth herself explain the motivations of young girls:
"ELIZABETH, delicately: John--grant me this. You have a faulty understanding of young girls. There is a promise made in any bed--
PROCTOR, striving against his anger: What promise?
ELIZABETH: Spoke or silent a promise is surely made. And she may dote on it now--I am sure she does--and seeks to kill me then, to take my place."
Miller added about six years to Abigail’s historical age, shifting her from an 11-year-old child to a 17-year-old temptress, and reduced Proctor’s age from 60 to 35. In his telling it is Abigail Williams who commits a sex crime against John Proctor, not the reverse. She is stalking him after he has broken with her, and she’s ultimately willing to sacrifice him and others to her cause. He’s her victim.
Abigail Williams, 17, enters, a strikingly beautiful girl, an orphan, with an endless capacity for dissembling. Now, she is all worry and apprehension and propriety.
John is tormented, but really, we’re guided to the certainty that it’s not his fault. Elizabeth, near the end of the play, goes so far as to say that this is actually all her fault, for turning away from John:
“I have sins of my own to count. It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery… John, I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love could come to me! Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love. It were a cold house I kept!”
Not so cold as all that, though — she was saved from execution, both historically and in The Crucible, by pleading her belly.
John Proctor is portrayed in The Crucible as a tragic hero, a fundamentally good man whose life is ruined to execution first by the unwillingness of his wife to sleep with him, and then, when he’s succumbed to temptation, by the accusations of a hysterical girl. When he is called to confess to witchcraft, to save his own life, he refuses to name other witches, saying:
“I like not to spoil their names… I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another.”
Does this sound familiar?
Arthur Miller was himself in the throes of a marital breakdown, followed by a divorce, as he wrote The Crucible. By 1956, he’d followed in the footsteps of his character, John Proctor, when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to name names saying, famously: “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble upon him.”
Miller’s story took another turn, though. Instead of being led to execution, four days after he testified, he was married again, this time to Marilyn Monroe, the girl he couldn’t resist.
The actual Salem witch hunts began in the winter of 1691-1692, when 11-year-old Abigail Williams and her 9-year-old cousin Betty Parris began to experience mysterious pains and symptoms which proved contagious to other girls in their circle. A male doctor was called in to examine them. For lack of an obvious disease, he diagnosed the girls as “bewitched.”
There was a subsequent community effort to unearth the identities of the witches – an effort that included a helpful parishioner directing a cake to be baked of rye meal, ashes, and the urine of the afflicted girls, and fed to a dog.
A few days later, under pressure – apparently the dog didn’t give any names – the girls accused three marginalized women of witchcraft. Two were white women, one poor, one sick, who denied the accusations. The third was Tituba, a (likely South American) slave in the household of Betty’s father, the Reverend Samuel Parris. Without a confession, her fate would have been the gallows. She confessed graphically to being a witch consorting with the Devil – notably, “a tall, white-haired man in a black serge coat,” traveling from Boston, affirmed that the other two accused women were also witches, and said that there were more witches in Salem.
In the ensuing panic, about 200 people were accused of witchcraft, mostly by the original girls, but some by others who those three had accused. Ultimately, 14 women and 6 men were convicted and executed.
Notably, this is one of the rare incidents in American history in which a woman of color was unquestioningly believed by white men, largely because she confirmed things a white community would have already suspected of her. Later, Tituba recanted every word, and stated that the Reverend Parris had beaten her to force her confession, but it was as tempting to ignore her then as it was to believe her in the first place. Tituba, post-witch trials, was sold to an unknown person for her jail fees, and disappears from history.
Well, not entirely. The narrative of Tituba was seized upon by male authors ranging from Longfellow to William Carlos Williams to Arthur Miller himself. By the time she lands in The Crucible, Tituba’s heritage has shifted: she’s described as “a Negro slave” and practices voodoo. She speaks in a dialect that calls to mind Mammy in Gone With the Wind.
The girls of Salem dance naked in the forest, presumably with her knowledge. She brews a chicken blood charm to kill John Proctor’s wife, and Abigail drinks it.
In Miller’s telling, Tituba does not need to be formally accused, let alone beaten (though by 1996, the film version shows Tituba being whipped), to confess – it comes surging out of her mouth with very little provocation as she worries over the sick Betty Parris. In the panic of a room filled with neighbors and girls, she is guided to accuse two white women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne – historically, they were accused by the girls themselves, not by Tituba.
The white girls are bad, Miller’s narrative of the witch hunts leads us to believe, but the woman of color is worse, because what she does, she doesn’t even do for love, but for destruction. By the end of The Crucible, Tituba is seen in jail, drunk and convinced the Devil will reward her by taking her back to Barbados.
The notion that a marginalized girl or woman might accuse an innocent person, and that an unjustified mob panic might take hold of her followers agrees thoroughly with our societal training to preemptively mistrust the accounts of girls and women, and particularly the accounts of women of color.
Terrible things happen, The Crucible confirms, when you believe women.
By the end of the play, Abigail Williams has fled with her all of uncle’s money. Miller then provides a footnote, titled "Echoes Down the Corridor," informing us that “legend has it she turned up as a prostitute in Boston.”
If the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements were actual witch hunts, the accused might be jailed in basement cells and kept from physical contact with other prisoners. They might be stripped naked and examined for evidence of third nipples. If they had moles, or physical “abnormalities” they would be pricked with needles. They might be tied to chairs and submerged in water, to see if they could float. They might be put on trial. They might be executed, in an American trial by hanging, not burning, as is more usual in the popular imagination.
The accused would not be witches. None of them. Without exception, they would be innocent.
This is not the case in this moment. Many of the accused have confirmed the accounts of their accusers, and indeed, most of the crimes and acts are the sorts of acts done daily by normal men.
Our culture is a culture in which the types of “witchcraft” these men practiced has been aggressively normalized, and the calling out of same seen as irrational.
As the movement evolves, this truth becomes clearer still. The “witches” here have been men who believed firmly that their predatory actions were, if not wholly correct, not technically against the rules of larger society.
They were right, until now.
As for Arthur Miller, in 1961, he was divorced from Marilyn Monroe, who died the next year. In 1964, he resumed the story he’d started in The Crucible.
In After the Fall, the John Proctor character is now named Quentin, and based even more firmly on Miller himself. Women orbit Quentin, demanding his love, his attention, and his care, and he struggles to find his moral center. Most notable is Maggie, clearly based on Monroe:
"Maggie appears far upstage in a gold dress among anonymous men.
MAGGIE: from among the men, laughing as though with joy at seeing him: Quentin!
She is gone.
QUENTIN: These goddamned women have injured me! Have I learned nothing?"
She’s no longer a calculating teenage witchhunter and seductress, but an inarticulate, ultimately drug-addicted child-woman. Here, she persuades him to come home with her, insisting that she would never cause trouble in his marriage.
"MAGGIE: ...I would never bother you, Quentin! He looks at his watch as though beginning to calculate if there might not be time. Maggie, encouraged, glances at his watch. Just make it like when you’re thirsty. And you drink and walk away, that’s all.
QUENTIN: But what about you?
MAGGIE: Well… I would have what I gave.
QUENTIN: You’re all love, aren’t you?
MAGGIE: That’s all I am! A person could die any minute, you know."
Maggie uses sex to bewitch Quentin out of his marriage to the longsuffering Louise, marries him herself, and then becomes a catastrophe. By the end of the play, Quentin is wrestling a bottle of pills out of her hand. She drains their bank accounts, uses all of his energy for her own career, and demands endless love.
"QUENTIN: You eat those pills to blind yourself, but if you could only say “ I have been cruel,” this frightening room would open. If you could say, I have been kicked around, but I have been just as inexcusably vicious to others, called my husband idiot in public, I have been utterly selfish despite my generosity, I have been hurt by a long line of men, but I have cooperated with my persecutors—“
MAGGIE: – she has been writhing in fury – Son of a bitch!"
In the end, Maggie attempts to commit suicide with an overdose of barbiturates and whiskey and ambulances are summoned by a black maid named Carrie, who has spent the entire play completely mute, called onstage periodically to tend to Maggie’s needs. Quentin informs us that Maggie was saved that time, for a few months, but he is gone.
There are no more confessions, no more accusations.
Quentin walks out of this last scene, and into a new life with a new wife. The last line of the play is “Hello.”
Miller was far from finished struggling with witches and women. Nearly 40 years later, when he wrote the script for the film version of The Crucible, he added back in portions of a scene he’d deleted in 1954. In it, Abigail Williams and John Proctor meet in the woods, after Elizabeth has been accused and is going to trial. John threatens Abigail, but she is impervious, still convinced that she and John are meant to be together.
In the playscript, the deleted scene goes further:
"ABIGAIL:…You will confess to fornication? In the court?
PROCTOR: If you will have it so, so will I tell it. She utters a disbelieving laugh. I say I will! She laughs now, with more assurance that he’ll never do it. He shakes her roughly. If you can still hear, hear this! Can you hear! She is trembling, staring up at him as though he were out of his mind. You will tell the courts you are blind to spirits; you cannot see them anymore and you will never cry witchery again, or I will make you famous for the whore you are!
ABIGAIL grabs him: Never! I know you, John—you are this moment singing secret hallelujahs that your wife will hang!
PROCTOR throws her down: You mad, murderous bitch!"
There’s a final scene between Abigail and John in the film too, not written in the play. John is in jail, chained, readying himself to die. Abigail is about to flee.
"ABIGAIL: I never dreamed any of this for you. I wanted you, was all. Listen to me. I have money. . .We could see tomorrow on the ocean. The jailer will let you go. I must board ship! John, will you not speak?
JOHN: It’s not on a ship we’ll meet again, Abigail, but in hell."
And in 2004, just months before Miller’s own death at age 89, his last play, Finishing the Picture premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It’s a thinly veiled — all these thin veils bring to mind the thin veil once said to lie between our world and every version of the afterlife — story of the disastrous shoot of the 1960 film The Misfits, which Miller wrote for Monroe.
A producer is deciding whether to pull the plug on the film due to its errant star, who will not get out of bed. Acting coaches, the director, the screenwriter husband, and the actress’ assistant, spend the entire play talking about a character who says nothing.
The Monroe figure, Kitty, is only glimpsed wandering naked through a luxury hotel in Act One. In Act Two, she’s naked in bed, nearly catatonic. She has no lines. The play, in the end, is about what happens when the star refuses to emerge from her sheets and perform. She’s ceased to be the sex goddess she’s supposed to be. Instead, she is once again a naked girl in the woods, glimpsed running from the rest of the story, and in her flight, she makes everyone around her miserable. She’s described as chaos walking, napping, drinking, cheating, drugging, a woman who needs too much love. She’s an embodiment of those spectral forms Abigail Williams sees in The Crucible, the Devil’s work drifting through the center of a production.
She’s a ghost as well, a disaster given flesh and form 42 years after her death. In Miller’s final statement on the matter, she’s what the world might become if a woman wanted too much consideration.