The Crucible as a Modern Tragedy | Arthur Miller

The Crucible as a Modern Tragedy

The setting of “The Crucible” is of historical context as the trial of Salem was conducted in the late 17th century yet the play is often considered a modern tragedy. It is because of the depiction of the protagonist as an ordinary character who does not belong to a noble class. In addition to the protagonist of the play, the other characters including Elizabeth Proctor are ordinary people. 

The play also explores modern problems and internal conflicts. Arthur Miller does not only criticise society but also the institutions of his era which is also one of the key characteristics of modern tragedies.

The Crucible as a Modern Tragedy | Arthur Miller

It is also noteworthy that divine intervention is absent in the play. The events are not imposed on the protagonist by supernatural forces. Thus, only human actions are there behind the tragic fall of the main character. 

In the context of structure and style, the play follows a linear narrative structure. He uses heightened dialogue and intense confrontations to create tension and emotional impact. Moreover, the ending of the play is indeed tragic but it leaves questions in the mind of the audience at the end. 

Let’s first know what is a modern tragedy and the difference between classic and modern tragedy.

What is a Modern Tragedy?

The storytelling form of modern tragedy emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries. The tragedy is not only limited to plays. Many novelists adopted this genre of writing. 

Modern tragedies are not about the role of fate or gods in one’s life. Instead, these focus mainly on everyday issues related to problems of individuals, political systems, technological advancements and personal choices in shaping tragic events.

Usually, in modern tragedies, the protagonist struggles against his own choices. The actions of the protagonist are more important than the external forces. Thus, his own choices lead him towards his destruction. 

Classical Tragedy Vs Modern Tragedy

There is a close link between modern and classical tragedy, hence, the main purpose remains almost the same. However, the definition of tragedy that Aristotle provided in his book “Poetics” was unacceptable to modern writers. Thus, some changes were required to be made. Many modern writers did the needful and changed requirements of tragedy which we must give the name of modern tragedy.

Greeces were the ones who were used to write tragedies around the 5th century BCE. Later Elizabethan playwrights including Shakespeare redefined tragedy but no significant change was made in those tragedies as the themes which the writers of that era explored were related to fate, honour and the conflict between gods and mortals. 

Modern writers broke the tradition and made a significant change in the definition of a tragedy. At the time of social, political and cultural changes, the writers of those eras wrote tragedies that were about the struggles of an individual in modern society.

Classic writers portray protagonists from the noble or royal class. The example of Oedipus Rex is in front of us. On the other hand, modern tragedies focus primarily on portraying the lives of common individuals who fight more with their inner selves rather than the outer forces of nature.

As far as the difference between the themes is concerned, classic tragedies often explore themes related to fate, the human condition, the role of gods, unavoidable circumstances and the consequences of hubris.

Modern tragedies on the other hand demonstrate issues of the modern era including alienation, existentialism and the moral ambiguities of contemporary life.

If we talk about structure and style, classic tragedies followed certain conventions. For example, the use of a chorus, the presence of a tragic hero and the adherence to the three-act structure.

Modern tragedies are all about realism, naturalism and absurdism. Furthermore, there is an improvement in structure and style. The writers also use the techniques of stream-of-consciousness instead of simple storytelling. 

Commons Characteristics of Modern Tragedies

Some common characteristics of modern tragedy are:

  • Ordinary protagonist
  • Modern Problems 
  • Internal conflicts
  • Satire on society
  • No divine intervention
  • Bleak or ambiguous endings
The Crucible as a Modern Tragedy | Arthur Miller

The Crucible as a Modern Tragedy

The Crucible may be listed somewhere in the list of modern tragedies as it fulfils some of its common attributes. Let’s analyse the play while keeping the above said characteristics in mind.

Ordinary Protagonist

John Proctor in “The Crucible” is indeed an ordinary protagonist. He does not belong to a noble class. He is a farmer by profession. Thus, he belongs to the working class of Salem. The majority of people in the town are farmers, therefore, he is an ordinary person just like them. He represents the common people of Salem.

John Proctor does not hold any special position in the vicinity. He interacts with other farmers, neighbours and the people of his town. In addition, he is a troublesome character. His past is not so good as he committed adultery with Abigail Williams. He wants to make himself better day by day. Thus, he is not a perfect figure. These problems are common for everyone.

The protagonist of the play also does not possess any advantage due to his social status. He must follow the same rules imposed on other people around him. He is not granted any special privilege nor does he inherit any special advantage.

These traits of John Proctor prove him an ordinary farmer from the common class. Thus, the play “The Crucible” fulfils this requirement of a modern tragedy.

Themes Related to Modern Problems 

The setting of the play does not justify its themes. Most of the themes of the play are related to modern problems with which hysteria and mass panic are at the top of the list. The playwright shows it as a destructive force. Many innocent individuals were prosecuted due to the false allegation of witchcraft. It creates fear in the minds of people. 

One of the main problems which the writer highlights in the play is abuse of power. The people who have the authority, use their power to show their influence instead of doing good for humanity. The major character in this regard is Deputy Governor Danforth. In addition, Judge Hathorne also abuses his power through wrongful convictions and executions of innocent people. 

Giles Corey’s protest against the court demonstrates this issue:

“This is a hearing; you cannot clap me for contempt of a hearing. I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is.”

Act III – The Crucible.

False accusations are also another problem which the writer talks about. The play condemns the act of false accusations and shows its consequences on the lives of common people. For instance, Elizabeth Proctor and Rebecca Nurse, face false accusations just because of the ulterior motives of the accusers. It was the most prominent issue of that time and the writer highlights it in his play “The Crucible”. 

John Proctor does not want his reputation to be ruined. He speaks against this injustice and utters:

“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!”

Act IV – The Crucible

In this way, hysteria, abuse of power and false accusations are modern problems about which the playwright talks in “The Crucible”. The writer sheds light on modern problems and mentions the consequences of these issues. Thus, “The Crucible” fulfils this requirement of modern tragedy too.

Internal Conflicts

There are several internal conflicts that the writer portrays through the character John Proctor. He had committed adultery in the past with Abigail Williams and he repents for this act but it is not enough. He cannot forget his past due to which there is a conflict in his mind. It is evident from the play when he confessed to Elizabeth that he is guilty.

Reverend Hale reached the town with a strong faith in witches. However, when he sees the proceedings of trials and executions of innocent people, he begins to question the validity of the accusations. His faith conflicts with reality and he realises that innocent lives are being destroyed. Thus, there is an inner conflict in his mind regarding the existence of witches and the proceedings of the court. He expresses this conflict when he utters:

“I denounce these proceedings, I quit this court!”

Act III – The Crucible.

Besides the above-said character, Elizabeth Proctor also struggles internally while dealing with her husband’s affair. John Proctor confesses that his past is strained because of his relationship with Abigail Williams. As a result, she cannot decide whether to forgive her husband and rebuild their marriage or hold onto her resentment. This internal conflict is evident when Elizabeth hesitates to speak ill of John in court. She is torn between her desire for justice and her love for him.

Mary Warren is another character who faces the conflict of loyalty being the servant of John Proctor. She initially supports John Proctor but on the asking of other girls accuses him under pressure. There is a conflict in her mind about whether to stand against injustice and support her master or save herself.

Thus, all these conflicts in the minds of different characters prove that the modern tragedy “The Crucible” deals with internal conflicts.

Satire on society

Classic tragedies were all about the conflicts between fate and humans. However, modern dramatists, novelists and even poets realise their responsibility to satirise society in case they find faults in it. “The Crucible” is also a tragedy in which the writer demonstrates modern problems so that people would learn and bring reformations. The play is serious, hence, the satire is not hidden; instead, the writer directly attacks society.

First and foremost, the character who is mentionable in this regard is Reverend Parris. The writer depicts him as a character overly concerned with his reputation and social standings. It is his motive to maintain his apparent image in society. The purpose of portraying such characters in the play is to show that instead of seeking truth, he focuses more on his personal interests.

The trial of John Proctor is all about what the playwright talks about in this play. There are baseless accusations and the court does not do anything to find justifications for them. The judges blindly accept the testimonies and do not require any evidence. 

One of the best quotable examples in this regard is when Mary Warren presents a poppet as evidence against Elizabeth Proctor. The judges perceive it as a sign of witchcraft. Hence, perception is enough to declare an object a piece of evidence. This highlights the exaggerated nature of the accusations and the lack of critical thinking within the court.

The gossip and rumours play a significant role in the play. People fuel the hysteria in Salem through gossip and rumours. The writer questions the validity of facts and beliefs of people on witchcraft only on the basis of hearsay. 

The writer also critiques the clergy. He shows the moral corruption of those who are in charge. He mentioned in detail their hypocrisy. Reverend Parris and Reverend Hale are two major characters through which the writer shows self-serving behaviour and blind support of witchcraft. 

Hence, “The Crucible” contains the technique of satire which is also an essential ingredient of modern tragedy.

Lack of Divine Intervention

Greece tragedies were all about gods. The Elizabethan dramatists changed the trend and the focus was shifted on external forces of nature. However, there is no divine intervention or intervention of external forces in modern tragedies. 

In “The Crucible” it can be said that John Proctor himself is responsible for his downfall. Firstly, he had an affair with Abigail Williams in the past. This shameful act of the protagonist sets the events of the play in motion. It is also true that he is not loyal to his wife. He maintains his relationship with Abigail which gives her an opportunity to accuse his wife of witchcraft. 

In the play, John Proctor’s actions contribute to his downfall. He is not only responsible for his destruction but also his wife. 

John Proctor chooses not to disclose the truth about Abigail’s deceit. He does not want to ruin his reputation, therefore, he hides the truth. This act of John Proctor causes the execution of many innocent lives. Even when Elizabeth urges him to reveal the truth, he replies:

“I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. I am not that man”

Act IV – The Crucible.

Proctor lacks the skill of communication. He does not convey the messages effectively. His passionate outbursts and confrontations with the court officials make the situation worse. Thus, lack of communication is also another reason which leads him to his tragic end.

Proctor’s pride also contributes to his downfall. He refuses to sign his confession as he sees it as an admission of guilt in addition to a stain on his name. This act preserves his integrity but  results in his execution. Hence, there is no denying the fact that his pride is also responsible for his tragic end.

All these examples and incidents prove that no one but John Proctor himself is responsible for his downfall. There is no role of gods or the supernatural forces of nature. It is also a common ingredient of modern tragedy “The Crucible” fulfils, hence, the play should be added to the top of the list. 

Bleak or Ambiguous Endings

The play ends unexpectedly. Justice has not been served. The classical tragedies are complete and cause the catharsis of pity and fear. However, modern tragedies leave questions in the minds of the audience. 

“The Crucible” is also not different from those plays as it concludes with a bleak and ambiguous ending. It leaves the audience with a sense of unresolved injustice. The audience also carries the weight of the tragic events

In the final act, John Proctor is left with two choices. He has to either confess to witchcraft and live a life of an accused or deny and accept execution. Proctor denies signing a false confession. The audience does not learn from it; rather, it is left with the feelings of unending societal problems. 

John Proctor finally speaks and says:

“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!”

Act IV – The Crucible.

Besides John Proctor, some other innocent characters are also executed. Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey refuse to falsely confess to witchcraft. Thus, their executions further add bleakness to the ending. It is because the audience makes a common opinion that justice is perverted and lives are unjustly taken. Thus, there is no clear sense of justice at the end of the play.

The final stage direction of the play describes the scene as the “space” of the Salem meetinghouse. It is a symbol that the writer uses willingly to illustrate the aftermath of the tragedy and the emptiness. No character is there on the stage and the space is empty which creates a desolate atmosphere of the ending.

These examples illustrate the bleak and ambiguous nature of the ending in the modern tragedy “The Crucible”. The writer has written the play from a modern perspective despite the fact that it is set in the late 17th century.