"Witchcraft Victims on the Way to the Gallows," by F.C. Yoyan, appeared in the Boston Herald, May 14, 1930.
Credit: Image courtesy of Witchcraft in a Salem Village.
Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, every Day— Emily Dickinson, #1583.
In their book Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum remark upon the prominent place the Salem witch trials have in America's cultural consciousness. They observe, "for most Americans the episode ranks in familiarity somewhere between Plymouth Rock and Custer's last stand" (22). Moreover, they note that because of the trials' dramatic elements, "it is no coincidence that the Salem witch trials are best known today through the work of a playwright, not a historian . . . When Arthur Miller published The Crucible in the early 1950s, he simply outdid the historians at their own game" (22).
This lesson plan's goal is to examine the ways in which Miller interpreted the facts of the witch trials and successfully dramatized them. Our inquiry into this matter will be guided by aesthetic and dramatic concerns as we attempt to interpret history and examine Miller's own interpretations of it. In this lesson, students will examine some of Miller's historical sources: biographies of key players (the accused and the accusers) and transcripts of the Salem Witch trials themselves. The students will also read a summary of the historical events in Salem and study a timeline. The students will then read The Crucible itself.
By closely reading historical documents and attempting to interpret them, students will be able to put themselves in the place of playwrights; that is, they will be able to look at historical events and the people involved with them and ask, what makes these trials so compelling? What is it about this particular tragic segment of American history that appeals to the creative imagination? How can history be dramatic, and how can drama bring history to life? A reading of The Crucible will reveal how one playwright not only "outdid the historians at their own game," but also created an authentic American tragic hero.
As students examine historical materials with an eye to their dramatic potential, they can also explore the central questions of psychology and society that so fascinated Miller. Why were the leaders of Salem's clerical and civil community ready to condemn to death 19 people, who refused to acknowledge being witches, based on spectral evidence and the hysterical words of young girls? Why would the church and government authorities continue to credit these wild and unsubstantiated stories as respectable people from all walks of life—landowners, women of independent means, neighbors, even clergy—were arrested and brought to trial? What was it about the time period that made such hysteria, and ultimately tragedy, possible?
Tragedy, then, is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language which has been made sensuously attractive, with each of its varieties found separately in the parts; enacted by the persons themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the purification of tragic acts which have those emotional characteristics.
While there is a great deal to unpack here, focus your discussion on Aristotle's words about "a course of pity and fear completing the purification of tragic acts." A useful supplement and guide to help you understand Aristotle's idea might be "Aristotle, Classic Technique, and Greek Drama," an article by Martha Fletcher Bellinger. [Note: Whichever source you consult, be aware that Aristotle uses the famous term "catharsis" ("purgation") without defining it, and in the centuries since, there have been many interpretations.]
As you and your students discuss Aristotle's ideas and their relevance to Miller's tragedy, you may also want to share with them Miller's essay, The New Yorker, October 21, 1996, "Why I Wrote the Crucible: An Artist's Answer to Politics." While Miller's essay does not explicitly discuss Aristotlian aesthetics, he does have interesting things to say about pity and, especially, fear.
Having learned a little about the mindset of a seventeenth-century Puritan (see Preparing to Teach This Lesson for resources and ideas), students should choose one person from the following group of historical figures upon which to do research:
Rev. Samuel Parris
Judge John Hathorne
Students will have in-class time to do Internet searches for their historical figure. The research they do will manifest itself in first a written and then an oral report presented to the whole class. Both written and oral reports should respond to the questions: What about your character seems especially interesting or compelling? How would you dramatize your character to make him or her come to life for a contemporary audience?
For both the oral and written reports, biographical information may be found on any of the sites described in Preparing to Teach. In particular, students should visit Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive to see if their figure is included in the 3 lists of court room transcripts available; if the answer is "yes," the student should print out the transcript for his or her chosen figure's case. This transcript may give more insight into the figure's life and will certainly be a helpful source of comparison when the class begins to read The Crucible.
Written Reports. To help guide student research for the written report, download the worksheet for this lesson, Researching the Salem Witch Trials: Inference and Evidence Chart. Here are some of the questions (reproduced on the chart provided on the worksheet) that can help guide students as they gather information on their historical figure:
Oral Reports. The purpose of the oral report is to think like a dramatist: what aspects of this character are most interesting or engaging? The oral reports may be delivered straight or with a dramatic flair--by telling the audience what is interesting about this character, or by showing. Those students inclined to high drama should feel free to "become" their historical figure and address the class as such.
As students read the 4 acts of The Crucible, they should keep a daily journal. In this journal, students should focus on the portrayal of their historical figure. How is the character similar to the person revealed in the court transcripts or biography? How is the character different? Then they should ask the key question: Why has Miller chosen to portray a historical figure in a certain way? How has he embellished the figure to suit his own dramatic aims? And what are Miller's dramatic aims? Finally, do you agree with how Miller has presented the figure? How would you have presented the figure any differently? (Note: Make sure the students have carefully read Miller's prefatory material, "A Note on the Historical Accuracy of the Play." Also, make the students aware that Miller offers his own interpretations of the historical figures in his digressions in Act I.) Students should be prepared to discuss their findings in class.
At some point in your discussion of the play--perhaps as an anticipatory set prior to reading the drama, or perhaps as a discussion arising naturally from your reading of and response to Miller's play--consider as a class some general questions about the nature and purposes of drama and tragedy. Students should think back to movies or books they have seen and read and ponder what kept them watching or reading: this brainstorming should lead into a discussion of what is effective drama. You should also remind students that in The Crucible, Arthur Miller was writing a tragedy. Discuss as a class the meanings of "tragedy" and "tragic hero." What understanding do students have of these terms? What do students think is the purpose of tragedy? That is, why would audiences willingly want to spend their time witnessing painful and terrible events unfolding on the stage? What makes a tragedy effective?
For further ideas about how to help students think about Miller's dramatic purposes in writing this tragedy, see the section "Defining Tragedy" in Preparation Instructions.
Study of The Crucible will involve acting out 2 to 3 key scenes that bring to life what the historical transcript cannot. Indeed, each of Miller's four acts has at least one section that could be effectively acted out in class.
After acting out one, some, or all of the above scenes, the teacher and students should discuss how effective these scenes are as drama and how they bring to life history. Another question would be what, if anything, is Miller inventing to make history more dramatic or enticing? Are you more likely to remember one of the court transcripts or Arthur Miller's play?
Students should focus on the following questions in their reading of this act. Their responses should be written in their journal.
The final project will be an essay that each student will write. Students who have completed the worksheet, Researching the Salem Witch Trials: Inference and Evidence (see Activity 1), will find it a useful aid for developing and supporting a thesis.
Possible topics include:
Miller's The Crucible and Cold War America
I am not sure what "The Crucible" is telling people now, but I know that its paranoid center is still pumping out the same darkly attractive warning that it did in the fifties. For some, the play seems to be about the dilemma of relying on the testimony of small children accusing adults of sexual abuse, something I'd not have dreamed of forty years ago. For others, it may simply be a fascination with the outbreak of paranoia that suffuses the play—the blind panic that, in our age, often seems to sit at the dim edges of consciousness. Certainly its political implications are the central issue for many people; the Salem interrogations turn out to be eerily exact models of those yet to come in Stalin's Russia, Pinochet's Chile, Mao's China, and other regimes . . . . But below its concerns with justice the play evokes a lethal brew of illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural, and political manipulation . . . . (p. 164).
Arthur Miller on The Crucible
The New Yorker (v. 72, Oct. 21 & 28, 1996)
10-12 class periods