The Crucible: Dramatic Tension

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The play, ‘The Crucible', illustrates how people react to mass hysteria created by a person or group of people, as people did during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s and the Salem witch hunts of 1962. Many Americans were wrongly accused of being Communist sympathizers. The activities of the House of Un-American Activities Committee began to be linked with the witchcraft trials that had taken place in the town of Salem. This provided Miller with the catalyst to write ‘The Crucible'. Without the knowledge of the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch hunts, ‘The Crucible' may be seen as a melodrama and the events in the play, sensationalised. It is not a melodrama because it is not overly dramatic; the McCarthy hearings and the witch hunts inject realism in the play. The play deals with historical events and with characters that have a historical context.

Through the use of dialogue, stage directions which enable us to envisage the scene on stage and characterisation we can see how dramatic tension is created by Miller. These aspects are to be explored for each act.

Act One begins with Reverend Parris praying fervently over his daughter, Betty Parris, who lies unconscious on her bed. The stage directions indicate that the room is quite dark with only a candle burning and sunlight through the window lighting the room. Parris is frightened, confused and angered by Betty's illness, perhaps wondering what he has done wrong to be inflicted with such misery. This shown by the way he prays, then weeps and then starts praying again as if he unsure even of his emotions. He is very tense and is quickly angered without provocation, for example when Tituba inquires about Betty he turns on her in fury and shouts at her to get out. He then starts to sob and in his fear he starts to mumble to Betty to wake up, his feeling of inadequacy is expressed through his fragmented, disjointed sentences. ‘Oh, my God! God help me! Betty. Child. Dear Child. Will you wake, will you open your eyes! Betty, little one…'

He turns on Abigail and confronts her and through the conversation between Reverend Parris and his niece Abigail, the audience learns that the town's girls, including Abigail and Betty, had engaged in activities in the forest led by Tituba; Parris' slave from Barbados. At this moment they are only provided with conflicting accounts of the truth from Parris and Abigail. ‘Parris: …Abominations are done in the forest-

Abigail: It were sport, uncle!
Parris: …I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you…screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. Abigail: She always sings her Barbados songs, and we dance.'
They are found out because Parris finds them and jumps out from a bush startling the girls. Betty faints and has not yet recovered, as she is afraid they will be punished. Mr. and Mrs. Putnam enter during Parris' interrogation of Abigail and we soon learn that Mrs. Putnam delights in others' misfortunes due to the number she has experienced herself. When she sees Betty lying unresponsive on the bed, she grips on to the idea that witchcraft may have a role in this incident. ‘Mrs. Putnam (full of breath, shiny-eyed): It is a marvel. It is surely a stroke of hell upon you. Parris: No, Goody Putnam, it is-

Mrs. Putnam: Why, it's sure she did. Mr. Collins saw her goin' over Ingersoll's barn, and come down light as a bird, he says!'
The way she cuts Parris off while he is speaking, shows her excitement at the possibility of witches. It also shows how she is unwilling to listen to common sense and rationale. Her response indicates to the audience that there is more behaviour like this to come. Mrs. Putnam continues pursuing her idea of witchcraft being present in the town and after a while Parris is forced to go down and reassure and the crowd which is growing outside his house.

Now it is just Abigail, Betty and Mary Warren on stage....
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