“The rumour of witchcraft is all about” in Miller’s sinister play of what happens when the lines between reality and superstition are blurred.
Set in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, a Puritan frontier town of fledgling America, the play follows the troubled lives of its inhabitants in their conquest against witchcraft. It begins in the home of Reverend Parris, whose daughter Betty is taken ill after suspiciously dancing in the woods the previous night with other local village girls. Supernatural causes are immediately suspected, and seemingly proved correct: Abigail, Parris’ niece, tells Betty and the other girls she was dancing with not to confess their preternatural activities. Yet at the root of this secret hides a far more dangerous and damaging revelation…
The audience soon learns that prior to the opening of the play, Abigail was a servant to John and Elizabeth Proctor, eventually dismissed after having an affair with John. Months later he denies the encounter, yet she appears unable to relinquish her feelings, creating a murky web of suspicions and blame to ultimately frame Elizabeth for witchcraft and condemn her to the gallows.
As the play continues, further resentments are revealed. Numerous disputes over land, property lines and ownership soon surface, whilst the accusations of witchcraft begin to build, rising against even the most respected figures. The ambitious Reverend Hale arrives as an expert in supernatural dealings, adding religious zeal to the mix, questioning each character’s piety whilst the tide of uncertainty swells: can anyone be trusted?
Complete with voodoo dolls, visions and near-exorcisms, this play is a startling reminder of how biting jealousies and bitter grudges can poison an entire society with betrayal and suspicion, Miller uncovering the deadliness of unforgiven resentments. Written in four acts, with each serving up equal doses of tension and rising mistrust (increasingly between audience and character), the play succeeds in capturing the very worst yet natural aspects of human nature, and our obsession with supernatural forces.
Salem was a Puritan town, its inhabitants descendants of those who escaped religious persecution in England. Miller demonstrates how the rigid Puritan system blended indefinitely government and religion, leading to a system which allowed injustice to exist, so long as it was under the guise of religion: the invasive Reverend Hale is such an example. And of course, the play is not entirely fictional.
The Salem witch trials of 1692 were a very real, and very tragic, episode in history, Miller using many of the same names as the people who lived through it in his play. 18 were hanged for witchcraft in Salem that year, the supernatural hysteria becoming an epidemic in the entire colony. Yet perhaps more sinister is Miller’s message in relation to the 20th century witch hunts he perceived occurring: Joseph McCarthy’s relentless persecution and pursuit of communists in the 1950s.
Miller demonstrates how easily a culture of suspicion and paranoia can descend on a community – and even an entire nation – ultimately pronouncing this verdict:
“The balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom”.