The Crucible, the Proctors and Me

I Corinthians 13:4-7

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.(NIV)

Last Thursday, I chaperoned another field trip. This time, we went to Indianapolis to see a community theater production of THE CRUCIBLE. The kids had just finished reading the play, which is about the Salem witch trials, the day before. Some of them got it, and some of them didn’t, but all of them were excited about the trip.

I had actually seen THE CRUCIBLE performed on stage before. I was nineteen. A friend’s dad picked her and me up from college and took us to Wayne State to see the play. Think I remember anything about it? I think I liked it, but what I remember about that night was that it was the first time I tasted caviar. Could be that I didn’t get the play any more than the kids that went on Thursday.

This time, though, I had a lot more information. Not only was THE CRUCIBLE written as a statement about the McCarthy “red scare” that went on in the fifties, it also had as background the fact that Arthur Miller had committed an indiscretion that had cost him. Or so the English teacher said. That’s one of the things that you don’t realize when you’re in high school. Writers write what they know. Maybe that’s why I viewed the play differently than I had before. I’m older. I know a lot more.

For instance, I know that there probably was no affair between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. However, there is an affair in the play, and the way John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth came to deal with it intrigued me greatly. See, when I was a young woman, I let my husband know that if he ever cheated on me, I would be gone. Maybe I would do him some damage before I left, but I would be gone. Period. Probably most young couples discuss such things. It wasn’t that I suspected him. I just thought there ought to be limits, and they ought to be clear. If cheating were to occur in our marriage, it would be him that did it. Of that I was sure.

And so it is in the marriage of the Proctors. Elizabeth is unwell after the birth of her second baby. Maybe John felt left out with two babies and a wife who had all she could handle. Maybe the situation just made him vulnerable. And Abigail Williams was there.

That’s one thing my husband told me. He was, for years, on railroad gangs that traveled, and their reputation for womanizing was quite widespread. My husband said he didn’t normally go to bars and such. He didn’t want to put himself in the position of being tempted.

I thought that was wise. But what if, for whatever reason, he was tempted? What if he gave in? Over the years I came to realize that men were vulnerable. I came to think that, even if he did slip, I would forgive him. I would hurt. But I would forgive. We would get through it.

I think that a man who truly slipped, who didn’t go looking for opportunities to cheat, a man who really loved his wife, would be remorseful. Certainly that appears to be the case with the Proctors, and although I read the words they said with the kids in school, it was much more powerful to see it acted out on stage. John comes home for dinner. He is trying to make pleasant conversation with his wife, but she is distant. Maybe she wasn’t, really, you know? I mean, sometimes after you do something wrong, you interpret people’s actions to fit your own guilt. Then again, I don’t know many women who don’t hold a grudge. Maybe Elizabeth wasn’t done making her husband pay for the way he had hurt her.

Elizabeth tells her husband that Abigail Williams is out to take her place, that the girl hasn’t gotten the message that John doesn’t want her. I can see that this would confuse the poor man. Men don’t think like women. Sometimes we get hold of a thing and “worry” it like a dog with a bone, gnawing and gnawing until all the flavor is gone. Women being what they are, sometimes that takes a while. And of course, being a man, John just doesn’t see this. He isn’t with Abigail, after all. The message should be clear enough.

Elizabeth’s point is soon made, though, when the town marshal comes to take her to prison. Abigail has accused her of witchcraft. And John is horrified. His wife was right. Just exactly what kind of girl had he “known”?

It isn’t pretty when you come face to face with the truth of something. Like I said, I used to think that is was only men that cheated. Those were the only stories that I heard. Then one summer, one of my closest friends confessed an indiscretion to me. I wish she hadn’t. I couldn’t figure out why she had acted that way. And in the way things have of coming around, I came to regret my wondering. That same summer, I found that I too could be tempted. And the temptation was there not because I didn’t love my husband, but because circumstances had distanced us for a time.

It’s pretty humbling to know what you are capable of.

As time goes on in the play, John tries everything he knows to save his wife. Whether it is wise or not, he goes and talks to Abigail. As you might guess, the talk doesn’t get him anywhere. Abigail is, at this point in the play, drunk with power. John, a principled man, tells her that he will expose their affair.

And he does. In the effort to save his wife, he makes himself known to be a lecher. Nobody really seems to care about such things nowadays, but the Puritans DID care. And if John Proctor is a lecher, then Abigail Williams is a whore.

John’s revelation might have saved his wife. However, he has made a previous statement to the court that his wife, his Elizabeth, cannot lie. And Governor Danforth decides to put this to a test. He calls Elizabeth Proctor into the room. Then he asks her why she dismissed Abigail Williams from her house. Did she know the girl was a whore?

This scene was really powerful in the play. Governor Danforth made both John Proctor and Abigail turn their backs while he questioned Elizabeth. Every time her eyes strayed to her husband, the governor roared, “Look at me! Look only at me!”

Now, after you have been married for a while, you can read your mate pretty well. I’m sure the look on John’s face would have told Elizabeth what she needed to know, that she needed to acknowledge the truth. But without being able to see, the thing on her mind was John’s reputation. She has come to realize during her imprisonment that her husband was a good man, adultery or not.

So…she tells the court that, in her illness, she imagined that her husband turned from her. She imagined that he fancied Abigail. He is a good man, she says. And no. She did not know Abigail Williams to be a whore.

And her husband says she cannot lie.

Elizabeth’s statements send her husband to prison. How her heart must have broken as he shouted after her to tell the truth. He had confessed.

In the last act, it is the morning of John Proctor’s execution. The governor and others ask Elizabeth Proctor to convince her husband to confess. Were they tired of the killing? Or did they know he was innocent?

Elizabeth promises nothing, but she agrees to talk to her husband. The woman has done a lot of thinking. She tells him she would have him alive, but she cannot tell him to confess. She is pregnant with their fourth child. I am sure she wondered how she would live without him.

I can only imagine her motivation here. Elizabeth states that she wasn’t always the loving wife John needed, so maybe some of it was guilt. Maybe much of it came from all the time she had alone in prison to think. When your world is turned upside down, you tend to sort out the things that matter. In a lifetime of good, does adultery tip the scales? Permanently?

There are, of course, larger issues to be considered at this time. People have already died. Would John’s confession cheapen their deaths? Is lying a greater sin than adultery? How could his sons live with their father’s acknowledged guilt? But what it seems to come down to for me in that last scene is that the Proctors have been stripped of everything else in their lives. They are down to survival. And such survival would have a bitter taste if it were based on a lie. They have had enough of that.

So John Proctor goes to his death. And although those who were there accuse Elizabeth of being unfeeling, I think her freeing him was an act of love. Her last line, said on stage with tears and a sob, was that John now had his goodness. She wouldn’t take it from him like she had when she was punishing him for his adultery.

Not being male, I don’t know for sure how it works for guys, but for women, I think what happened to Elizabeth will, eventually, happen to us all. Even if it isn’t adultery that you deal with, your marriage will hit rocky patches. And instead of annoying each other with the reliving of misdeeds, you need to look at the basics like Elizabeth did. Her husband was a good man.

And in some way, we all fall short.

Romans 3:23 …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.


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