Dramatizing History in Arthur Miller's The Crucible
"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By closely reading historical documents and attempting to interpret them, students will be able to put themselves in the place of playwrights; that is, they will be able to look at historical events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?
How well does history lend itself to art?
In what ways do historical events lend themselves (or not) to dramatization?
How does Arthur Miller use history to create a play that continues to speak to audiences today.
Examine the historical context of a consciously historical work of literature.
Compare facts with the fictional or dramatic treatments of the facts.
Ponder the differences between history and literature.
Discuss what makes a drama or tragedy compelling.
Recognize the close ties between a nation's history and culture and the literature it produces.
Consider the ways in which an historical event and a work of literature may mean different things for different generations of citizen readers.