A great play. Miller uses extensive stage directions when introducing many characters for the first time, using them to convey information about their individual histories and the times that they lived in. I suppose a lot of this information is lost when the play is performed, but it gives the reader a good deal to think about as he hears the characters speak on the stage of his imagination. It’s in one of those extended stage directions that Miller says this about the historical figures that populate his drama:
When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday. It is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.
And Miller is right—this is a play about the balance between order and freedom, and specifically order’s ultimate triumph over its weaker counterbalance. The historical setting is, of course, the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. The order is that of the theocratic state, its functionaries able to convict, jail and hang those they determine to be in league with the Devil. The freedom is that of John Proctor, his wife Elizabeth, and their fellow villagers, who are held hostage by the accusations of a group of vengeful teenage girls.
It may seem silly to our modern sensibilities, but these people very much believed in God and the Devil, and the way the two of them battled for people’s souls right here on earth. And Miller paints no one in his drama as a fool, just as people with clashing motivations interpreting the world as they understand it.
Proctor is eventually convicted and sentenced to hang, and the most compelling part of the play for me comes as he wrestles with the choice to confess to the crimes he has not committed. He has maintained his innocence and those of the other townspeople, but the situation has been manipulated against him, and the deputy governor is convinced he is a disciple of Satan. As long as he denies it, he is doomed. But if he confesses it, confesses to being a witch and publicly turns against Satan and back towards God, his life will be spared. And Deputy Governor Danforth very much wants him to do this, as he is one of the leaders of the community, and such an action by him will convince many others to make similar false confessions. And that will help restore order. As the dawn of his hanging day approaches, Proctor succumbs in anguish, ultimately deciding that his life is more valuable to him that his principles.
DANFORTH, with great relief and gratitude: Praise to God, man, praise to God; you shall be blessed in Heaven for this. Cheever has hurried to the bench with pen, ink, and paper. Proctor watches him. Now then, let us have it. Are you ready, Mr. Cheever?
PROCTOR, with a cold, cold horror at their efficiency: Why must it be written?
DANFORTH: Why, for the good instruction of the village, Mister; this we shall post upon the church door! To Parris, urgently: Where is the marshal?
PARRIS, runs to the door and calls down the corridor: Marshal! Hurry!
DANFORTH: Now, then, Mister, will you speak slowly, and directly to the point, for Mr. Cheever’s sake. He is on record now, and is really dictating to Cheever, who writes. Mr. Proctor, have you seen the Devil in your life? Proctor’s jaws lock. Come, man, there is light in the sky; the town waits at the scaffold; I would give out this news. Did you see the Devil?
PROCTOR: I did.
PARRIS: Praise God!
And it is here that I realize that Proctor’s confession is not the false one he thought it would be. In this action of the deputy governor’s, extracting a false confession out of an innocent man under pain of death, and then using it to impose order over the freedoms of the other villagers, Proctor is seeing the Devil, and the rest of the scene, seen through this lens, is a fascinating study.
DANFORTH: And when he come to you, what were his demand? Proctor is silent. Danforth helps. Did he bid you to do his work upon the earth?
PROCTOR: He did.
Indeed he did. Danforth is the devil here, and he has bidden Proctor to do his work upon the earth.
DANFORTH: And you bound yourself to his service? Danforth turns, as Rebecca Nurse enters, with Herrick helping to support her. She is barely able to walk. Come in, come in, woman!
REBECCA, brightening as she sees Proctor: Ah, John! You are well, then, eh?
Proctor turns his face to the wall.
DANFORTH: Courage. Man, courage—let her witness your good example that she may come to God herself. Now hear it, Goody Nurse! Say on, Mr. Proctor. Did you bind yourself to the Devil’s service?
REBECCA, astonished: Why, John!
PROCTOR, through his teeth, his face turned from Rebecca: I did.
And he has—to Danforth’s service.
DANFORTH: Now, woman, you surely see it profit nothin’ to keep this conspiracy any further. Will you confess yourself with him?
REBECCA: Oh, John—God send his mercy on you!
DANFORTH: I say, will you confess yourself, Goody Nurse?
REBECCA: Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot.
DANFORTH: Mr. Proctor. When the Devil came to you did you see Rebecca Nurse in his company? Proctor is silent. Come, man, take courage—did you ever see her with the Devil?
PROCTOR, almost inaudibly: No.
Of course he didn’t. She will not confess to crimes she did not commit and allow herself to be used by the power of the state. She, unlike Proctor, is not in league with that devil.
Danforth, now sensing trouble, glances at John and goes to the table, and picks up a sheet—the list of condemned.
DANFORTH: Did you ever see her sister, Mary Easty, with the Devil?
PROCTOR: No, I did not.
DANFORTH, his eyes narrow on Proctor: Did you ever see Martha Corey with the Devil?
PROCTOR: I did not.
DANFORTH, realizing, slowing putting the sheet down: Did you ever see anyone with the Devil?
PROCTOR: I did not.
No one is. Only Proctor. Because Proctor will help the state crush everyone’s freedom and impose order. All to save his own life. Proctor chooses order over freedom and keeps his life. The others choose freedom over order and they lose theirs. It’s a tight little package Miller has tied up for us, and although we’re no longer hanging witches, this same struggle between freedom and order is with us to this day.