Witch Trials vs. Present Day

Topics: Salem witch trials, The Crucible, Salem, Massachusetts Pages: 9 (3157 words) Published: May 2, 2006
by Arthur Miller

"This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian. Dramatic purposes have sometimes required many characters to be fused into one; the number of girls involved in the 'crying out' has been reduced; Abigail's age has been raised; while there were several judges of almost equal authority, I have symbolized them all in Hathorne and Danforth. However, I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history. The fate of each character is exactly that of his historical model, and there is no one in the drama who did not play a similar-and in some cases exactly the same-role in history.

"As for the characters of the persons, little is known about most of them except what may be surmised from a few letters, the trial record, certain broadsides written at the time, and references to their conduct in sources of varying reliability. They may therefore be taken as creations of my own, drawn to the best of my ability in conformity with their known behavior, except as indicated in the commentary I have written for this text."

Because I've been working with the materials of the Salem Witch Trails of 1692 for so long as an academic historian, many people have asked me if I've seen the play or film The Crucible, and what I think of it. Miller created works of art, inspired by the actual events for the artistic/political purposes Miller intended: first produced on Broadway on January 22, 1953, it was in response to the panic caused by irrational fear of Communism during the Cold War which resulted in the hearings by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. * In Miller's tales (there are slight differences, which I won't bother to get into unless it's a major difference), a lovelorn teenager is spurned by the married man she loves, and in her revenge, she fans a whole community into a blood-lust frenzy. This is simply not history. The real story is far more complex, dramatic, and interesting -- and well worth exploring. This page, however, is only dedicated to separating the fact from the fiction in Miller's work.

Most popular understandings of the tale include their own inaccuracies -- for instance, that the witches were burned to death. People condemned as witches in New England were not burned, but hanged, and in the aftermath of the events in Salem, it was generally agreed that none of them had actually been witches at all. Some modern versions cast the story as something that has to do with intolerance of difference, that the accused were really just oddballs that the community tacitly approved getting rid of, but most of the people who were accused, convicted and executed in Salem were remarkable by their very adherence to community norms. In the 1970s, a theory was put forth that the afflicted had suffered from hallucinations from eating moldy rye wheat -- ergotism -- and although that theory has generally been refuted, its life continues in the popular explanation of the events. (A recent biological theory which also fails to hold up under the scrutiny of medical and Salem scholars alike, however, is that the afflicted suffered from encephalitis lethargica.) Lastly, Rev. Parris' slave woman, Tituba, is usually assumed to have been of Black African descent, but recent research indicates she was Amerindian, probably South American Arawak, always being referred to in the documents of the period as "an Indian woman." Had she been African or Black, she would have been so described.

As for Miller's tellings of the tale, I am always distracted by the wide variety of minor historical inaccuracies when I am exposed to his play or movie. Call me picky, but I'm not a dolt: I know about artistic license and Miller's freedom to use the material any way he chooses to, so please don't bother lecturing me about it. This page is part of a site about the...
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