Replacing Natural Community with Ritual Conformity and Persecution; The Salem Witch Trials, Nazi Germany, America of 1950, and Today (WPMY 130)

What replaces the sense of natural community in The Crucible, as perhaps in Nazi Germany and, on a different scale, 1950’s America, is a sense of participating in a ritual, of conformity to a ruling orthodoxy and hence a hostility to those who threaten it. The purity of one’s religious principles is confirmed by collaborating, at least by proxy, in the punishment of those who reject them. Racial identity is reinforced by eliminating those who might “contaminate” it, as one’s Americanness is underscored by identifying those who could be said to be un-American. In the film version of his play, Miller, free now to expand and deepen the social context of the drama, chose to emphasize the illusory sense of community: “The CROWD’s urging rises to angry crescendo. HANGMAN pulls a crude lever and the trap drops and the two fall. THE CROWD is delirious with joyful, gratifying unity.”

Alexis de Tocqueville identified the pressure toward conformity even in the early years of the Republic. It was a pressure acknowledged equally by Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Thoreau. When Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt abandons his momentary rebellion to return to his conformist society, he is described as being “almost tearful with joy.” Miller’s alarm, then is not his alone, nor is his sense of the potentially tyrannical power of shared myths that appear to offer absolution to those who accept them. If his faith in individual conscience as a corrective is also not unique, it is, perhaps, harder to sustain in the second half of a century that has seen collective myths exercising a coercive power, in America and Europe.

Introduction to The Crucible (Miller 1952)

Christopher Bigsby          1995

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