The Common Good
July-August 1997

Honesty, Dignity, and Integrity

by Randy A. Nelson | July-August 1997

The Crucible continues to unmask the powers

Arthur Miller's play The Crucible was first staged in 1953. A fictionalized re-telling of the events leading to the Salem, Massachusetts trials for witchcraft in 1692, the play is an extended comment by Miller on the social context of the 1950s. He suggests, at least implicitly, that the witch hunts of 1692 paralleled the efforts of Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin to discover and expose the influence of communism in the United States. The implied parallel is only partially successful, but no doubt the fear of communism formed a context for the play that contributed to its power as theater.

In December 1996, some 40-plus years after the play was completed, the movie version opened in theaters across the United States. Its hopes for critical and commercial success were enhanced by the fact that Miller himself had adapted his play for the screen and by a strong cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen, Paul Scofield, and Winona Ryder.

The movie also benefited from the lack of the stage’s physical restrictions. A reconstructed Salem village gives an authenticity to the characters, the period, and the setting not as easily achieved on the stage. The changed social context—the absence of the "communist menace"—meant that the story would not benefit from any relationship to current events, but the intrinsic power of the drama itself thus could become all the more evident.

Despite strong performances by the lead characters and some laudatory reviews, the movie did not achieve the anticipated critical nor commercial success. Scant attention was paid when Academy Award nominations were handed out. And within two months of its release, The Crucible was relegated to the bargain theaters. Why did a story so powerfully told have such a short life among us?

GRANTED, MILLER HAS taken some liberties with the historical events. By making Abigail Williams several years older than the person on which her character is based, Miller has introduced a much stronger sexual element into the story than was probably the case in the Salem of 1692. But in doing so, the story has become more believable and accessible to contemporary audiences.

Trials for persons accused of being witches may seem a bit strange to modern sensibilities, but the commonly described decline of mainline denominations in the United States does not mean contemporary disinterest in religion. In fact, interest in religion is alive and well in contemporary society, including perhaps an even greater exploration of witchcraft today than when Miller wrote the play.

I suspect other factors—beyond indifference to history or disinterest in the theme—better explain the short life of such movies as The Crucible. One is simply the way the movie industry operates these days. New releases have about two weeks to catch on or be replaced with the next new release. Movies are rarely given a chance to build an audience. Thus, unless an immediate resonance is built with the movie-going audience, any movie will soon disappear.

The second factor has to do with the tastes of the movie-going public. The Crucible does not rely on the two things the movie industry and audiences seem to value most today—special effects and explosive action. The Crucible is no Jurassic Park: The Lost World or Independence Day. At the risk of oversimplification, such a movie and play do not offer an escapist form of entertainment but invite the audience to consider instead what it means to be human in a sinful world.

The Crucible is neither a perfect film nor a perfect play, but it does probe age-old themes. It raises questions about truth and evil and the power of the lie. It causes us to wonder about adherence to law and to principle that may lead to order but not to justice. It demonstrates the power of sexuality and the destructive consequences of revenge. It warns of religious fervor left to its own devices. And it pleas passionately for a human dignity and integrity more important than any abstract principle.

In pleading with Goodwife Proctor (Allen) to urge her husband to confess to a practice in which he did not engage, Rev. Hale (Rob Campbell) argues that "life is God’s most precious gift; no principle however glorious may justify the taking of it." Perhaps that is so. But rather than the taking of someone else’s life, what of the willingness to give up one’s own life? Might there not be something for which one will lay down one’s life? What might a life committed to honesty and integrity look like in today’s world?

This summer, after you have had your fill of the special effects spectaculars and the explosive action extravaganzas, go to your local video store and rent The Crucible. Then, along with Arthur Miller and a superb cast, ponder what it might mean to live with honesty, dignity, and integrity in a society too often looking primarily for quick fixes, painless solutions, or escapist entertainment.

RANDY NELSON is the director of contextual education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He recently played Deputy Governor Danforth in the Holy Trinity Theater Circle production of The Crucible.

The Crucible. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.

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