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Power, fear and greed: The Crucible still resonates today

Have some of us fed into the poisonous miasma of greed and power by our own actions or inaction?

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Some days, being in one’s apartment because one is not keen to join those who dine out, drive out or saunter outside now that Covid movement restrictions have eased, one picks up books to reread.

The classic American play The Crucible still speaks resonantly to many readers, though it was written by Arthur Miller decades ago and the play’s time setting is way back in the dark mists of the Salem witch trials of the 17th Century. Perhaps this is because human nature does not change that much over time.

The conjoining of religious and judicial power still exists despite the supposed separation of powers (between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary) enshrined in democratic constitutions.

Religion continues to be manipulated for political gains in many countries and, as Professor Maznah Mohamad, who coined the phrase “divine bureaucracy”, tells us, even the day-to day running of government can be infused with religious surveillance.

Religious impulses have in them an inexplicably magical hold on minds and hearts. If used ethically and morally, such profoundly intense feelings can encourage not only decency but noble self-sacrifice.

On the other hand, when wielded by unconscionable, powerful people for their own gains (political and economic), religious impulses explode into fearsome, punitive and irrational behaviour.

Miller himself gives us many insights into the germination of this play in an essay titled “Why I wrote The Crucible” which makes for very interesting reading. I strongly recommend that students taking the O-level IGCSE exams, for whom The Crucible is a required text, carefully examine Miller’s words.

What struck me most is Miller’s emphasis on a “moral compass”, which he says a play should have. Does he mean a simplistic view of complex human behaviour, in which Good and Bad are blissfully easy to detect?

Quite the contrary. Instead, what moves Miller in his research when he read the Salem trial records was the figure of a man, whom he named John Proctor (brilliantly acted out by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film version), who is no saint but a man with his own ‘sins’; a man who, more significantly, honestly admits to sinning.

This rivets my attention because it opens up the play to many perspectives. Today, when both leaders and some of those led have lost all inkling of a conscience, such a human being is rare indeed.

It makes this study of power and its hold on the ‘victims’ fascinating because it reveals our own culpability or weakness. Have some of us fed into the poisonous miasma of greed and power by our own actions or inaction?

Miller has a firm grip on the play’s “moral compass” so that the blame is not shifted onto the shoulders of the inhabitants of Salem then facing the terror of the witch trials and the accompanying torture and hangings. Miller reserves his harshest dissection of power for the powerful.

My first focus is on fear and demonising. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communists affected Miller’s imagination deeply when Miller began thinking of The Crucible even as this ‘hunt’ infected many Americans. People were made to feel that if they were not with the senator’s views, they were for the “commies”.  There was no room for nuances.

Miller very perceptively dissects this climate of fear among the liberals of the time. They saw McCarthy’s dangerous actions but were paralysed by fear. Of these liberals, Miller says “despite their discomfort with the inquisitors’ violations of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they protested too strongly”.

Secondly, I would like to analyse how the powerful use various means to consolidate themselves. In the figure of Deputy Governor Danforth (acted out commandingly by Paul Scofield in the film version), Miller gives us a figure who rivets our attention because of his august office, his eloquent speeches which yoke together earthly, judicial power and divine omnipotence.

For many inhabitants of Salem, Danforth, though no clergyman, must be feared as an agent of God. He himself has no qualms calling down hellfire on those he accuses: “We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealments”.

How very ironic these remarks are to the discerning listener. All concealments revealed by divine fire? Not at all. The covert, hidden partnership of men like Danforth and the rich like Thomas Putnam are cunningly concealed.

Have we seen such nefarious, criminal collaboration today? Greed will operate till the end of the world, conscience be damned! Thus Thomas Putnam, who already owns much land in Salem, wants more, and by accusing others of witchcraft and sorcery, he can acquire their small farms.

The trappings of power involve the use of everyday objects. Danforth always appears with the robes of office. Often the uniforms of office have cowed many a citizen worldwide, be it uniforms of a judge, a lawyer, a policeman, an army officer and so on. Powerful figures employ these visible, tangible objects to enhance a sense of awe.

Sometimes an unexpected comic effect can occur as when some powerful figures wear high-heeled shoes to do a clean-up of debris and dirt in post-flood areas with the explanation that they had attended some ceremonial event earlier with no time to change footwear. Do heels gain a high regard even in that earlier ceremonious event or does a good service record mean tons more? Can honour and dedication be signified in expensive objects?

Besides using objects to increase the visibility of their power, those wielding authority, more alarmingly, do use objects to stir up resentment and, at worse, to demonise. Thus, even a label on a bottled drink can create anger, resentment and outrage among those who are quickly, unthinkingly roused. We recall the Timah label issue.

In The Crucible, the dolls that some children play with are turned into objects of witchcraft by the inquisitors as the adult women were said to put pins and needles into these dolls so as to harm others. Even the reading of certain books is condemned.

The public’s mind is filled with the fearsome images proffered by those who would use these to terrorise the populace so that the people, as if in mass hysteria, see sorcery everywhere. Worse, the people cannot or dare not see the faults in the inquisitors themselves, those loud accusers of whistleblowers and others.

It was Jose Rizal who told his countrymen: “There can be no dictators if there are no slaves.” Was Rizal simply too romantic, too idealistic and too demanding? I never tire of this quote because I think Rizal is right. Certainly, dictators do spring up everywhere like weeds that choke us, and they can imprison and maim us, both physically and mentally. Rizal’s fervent wish is that we don’t allow our minds, our conscience to be maimed.

And through John Proctor, his character who challenges the powerful, Miller invites us to look into ourselves, both our actions and our inaction.

We do well to recall the old warning that Evil will spread if decent women and men keep silent, and to me it will spread faster than the Covid variants.

Much troubled by his adultery with Abigail, the pretty, young servant in his household, John Proctor is a man who has not always followed his “moral compass” but he NEVER lost it. Here is the pivotal message of the play.

Men like Deputy Governor Danforth, the wealthy landowner Putnam and the self-righteous Reverend Parris may never have had a genuine moral compass at all or they had long junked it in the pursuit of status, power and gold.

In the anguish of guilt and honest awareness of immorality, in the face of imprisonment and torture, John Proctor still held on to that moral compass. How many of us can do that?

One of the most tender scenes in modern American drama is the scene where Elizabeth Proctor, who had long known of John Proctor’s one moment of infidelity, speaks forgiveness and loving concern to her husband. Both had been arrested and imprisoned by the inquisitors. If they confess to witchery and sorcery, then they will be spared a hanging.

The pregnant Elizabeth bravely says that she cannot decide for her husband. Indeed, in matters of conscience, we must each decide for ourselves.

And John Proctor decides not to lie. He therefore denies the powerful their gloating satisfaction that their punitive, unjust and cruel actions are right.

Proctor further refuses to give the powerful their public vindication by not signing that document of confession which they, like all agents of the “divine bureaucracy”, insist he signs. He tells them, “I have confessed myself! … God does not need my name nailed upon the church! God sees my name; God knows how black my sins are! It is enough!”

I can imagine how powerfully this declaration by Proctor is, acted out by the excellent Daniel Day-Lewis in the film version.

Yet the resounding message of the play is not despair even with the hangings of many, including John Proctor. The play continues to inspire us and fuel hope because Miller shows us that people will not take injustice and cruelty for long. So we read of rebellions in Andover, a town also plagued by the Inquisition’s relentless persecutions of the citizenry.

Even the august Deputy Governor Danforth is alarmed. He wants to cover up news of these rebellions. I suppose today, the powerful would employ ‘cyber troopers’ to do so or manufacture fake news and use TikTok.

In ending, I refer to a phrase from George Orwell which I never tire of using, and the phrase is “the innate decency of the people”. Orwell, whose dissection of power lives on in his novels, is still a romantic who believes in the decency which ordinary citizens possess. People are not “ordinary”, not like the sheep the powerful may count if and when they can’t sleep. People, when roused by a decency fired by the conscience, will act usually in peaceful ways first. We do well to pay attention to this possibility.

Lastly, I have a few words about Abigail – that siren and temptress figure whose vindictive revenge on the Proctors caused such havoc and suffering. I tell my students not to make light of her horrific actions, but I also ask them to look at some details Miller gives us about her life. Could Abigail, orphaned at an early age, have suffered the “blows and buffets of the world” so heavily that bitterness builds? Today, we have many orphaned or abandoned children in all societies who are both physically and psychologically maimed. Where lies our responsibility?

The Crucible will remain a classic as it opens up so many avenues for reflection and critical thinking. I do hope you will enjoy either the film or book version, or both.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Wong Soak Koon is a longtime member and former executive committee member of Aliran. She gained a first-class honours BA degree and a masters in English literature from the University of Malaya and a doctorate in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied under a Harvard-Yenching fellowship
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Khoo Soo Hay
Khoo Soo Hay
17 Jan 2022 6.46am

My late father, accountant, Khoo Choo Poon, always said to remind my brother and sister, that in this world,”there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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