Columns > Published on May 7th, 2015

The 21st Century Crucible: Why 'The Crucible' is Still Relevant

Published in 1953, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has become a cornerstone of American theatre. The play portrays (with historical changes) the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, and was a response to the House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee questioned Miller in 1956 about his political activities and later convicted him for refusing to give up the names of those who attended political meetings with him. While the Salem and McCarthy era trials may seem like distant events in our not so wonderful history, The Crucible seems to be only growing in relevancy. Terrifying, isn’t it?

The Private

"They will howl me out of Salem for such corruption in my house."

As much as The Crucible is about community witch-hunts, it is equally about personal crucibles. John’s guilt over his adultery is a central point of the play, one he must free himself of, despite his wish for redemption via his wife’s forgiveness. Reverend Hale must struggle with his disastrous involvement in the trials and the subsequent results, even after he tries to sway the court to stop the madness. John finally reaches his redemption at the close of the play while Hale, still trying to get Rebecca and John to give false testimony, continues to compromise his theology and morality, even if it is to save their lives. This is perhaps why the play remains so universal: everyone has personal demons and humiliations. What has amplified these struggles, blurring the lines between private and public, is the digital age.

The digital sphere can be a remarkable, enlightening, connecting place, but it can also be devastating in its ferocity. The internet and mass media have allowed for personal crucibles to become public ones; social media, 24-hour news outlets, gossip sites, online bullying, and even hackers all allow for people to be put on trial on a global scale. In her TED talk, Monica Lewinsky discusses this: “a marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. How is the money made? Clicks.” She’s absolutely right; shame plays a key role in the digital age, as does fear.  The combination of these can be disastrous for those on the receiving end of the media’s gaze.

The Public

"We are what we always were, but naked now."

21st century America is a country obsessed with fear, you need only turn on any of the 24-hour news networks or to check your social media feeds to see any number of horrifying news stories and the inherent need to find someone to blame for them. Historically, the most common scapegoat for this fear is the Other. This fear has, like in Salem, created critical issues in our society, such as systematic racism, Islamophobia, and transphobia, just to name a few. Because of this, The Crucible is one of the few period plays that still feels contemporary on a global scale. Christian and moral “goodness” are catalysts for destruction in Salem; the urge to weed out the wicked and put them on display, as we know, creates a much deeper loss of morality than any supposed case of witchcraft.  Deputy Governor Danforth states in the play that “I should hang ten thousand that dared to rise against the law, and an ocean of salt tears could not melt the resolution of the statutes."  This could easily come from a number of global and community leaders around the world today.

Much has been said about mass hysteria in The Crucible; it is an absolute key focus of the play. Hysteria ignites the first scene, with Parris, Tituba, and the girls, and refuses to ebb until the end of the final scene. Mary Warren admits to being swept up into the hysteria of the Salem trials, claiming “I heard the other girls screaming, and you, Your Honor, you seemed to believe them, and I—it were only sport in the beginning, sir, but then the whole world cried spirits." Large-scale traumatic events in the digital age, like in Salem, allow for false claims to be given the weight of truth. Many of the characters, particularly Tituba and the girls, function as both the accused and the accusers, the damned and the heralded, highlighting just how easily the wind changes in hysteria.

"Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot."

The Result

The Crucible continues to be relevant and sorely needed in the 21st century because it reflects society back onto its audience, regardless of which country or community is staging the play. The play struggles through personal failings and despairs, presenting characters that allow for audience members or readers to find some part of themselves in, which in turn allows for them to view their own societies in a more critical light. The Crucible has been politically relevant since its creation, but the introduction of mass media and the digital age have made this play more timely than ever. 

Rent the Old Vic's 2014 production of The Crucible, starring Richard Armitage

About the author

Emily has a Master's degree in early modern literature and drama from King's College London and a Bachelor's in English from the University of Iowa. In addition to being a social media manager, she is a writer and theatre practitioner.

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