Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, is a play examining the mass hysteria of the 1692 Salem witch trials. When the girls from the village are found dancing in the forest and the minister’s daughter Betty Paris falls into a coma-like state, rumours of witchcraft run riot, prompted by the girls ringleader Abigail Williams. This leads to the hanging of nineteen innocent people. Some themes in “The Crucible” connected with those of “St Joan” by George Bernard Shaw.
“St Joan” is set in 1400 France during the Hundred Years’ war, and based on the true story of a nineteen year old peasant girl. Joan makes claims of hearing the voices of saints instructing her to lead France, and convinces the heir to the throne to take his rightful place as King of France. Catholicism was the main religion in France at the time, and catholic rulers feared the rise of Protestantism, Joan’s claims of personal relationships with saints went against the Catholic belief that you must speak to God through the church. Ultimately she is betrayed, and captured by the English at the siege of Compiegne, then tried and burnt at the stake upon accusation of heresy.
The contexts of the two plays are very different as they are set almost 3 centuries apart, “The Crucible” focuses on the lives of the people in a village in Massachusetts where as “St Joan” looks at the life of one girl set against a conflict between France and England. However similarities remain, as both contain the execution of innocent people due to false accusations, implying that mistakes like these have occurred more than once in history, leading to questions of whether we learn from the past. Twenty years after the death of the innocent people of Salem, the government awarded compensation to families and victims. A similar redemption was made thirty years after Joan burnt, exonerating her from all guilt, and in 1920 she was made a saint. In this way both plays convey a message about how easily prosecution of the innocent can occur.
The context of these plays have a direct effect on the way in which they are performed. The Crucible examines the lives of puritans in 1600’s America, puritans was the name given to religious and political reformers who fled their native land in search of religious freedom, and settled and colonized New England in the 17th century. It was seen as a political parable, due to its many parallels to McCarthyism; which took place in the time at which Miller wrote. McCarthyism was the name given to the paranoid search for any American citizen with any adherence to communism under the chairmanship of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Through marking the similarities between the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, such as witnesses calling out names of their friends and neighbours, unfair trials, and arrests of those who refused to testify, Miller was trying to convey the madness and paranoia that McCarthyism had caused, suggesting that, as with the Salem witch trials, the situation had gone too far. Miller uses naturalism in the play, the events shown as if there were a fourth wall where the audience sits. This naturalistic technique helps to convey this message to the audience in that the events in the Salem witch trials are shown as they would have really happened, reminding the audience that “The Crucible” is largely based on true events and the witch trials did take place. Therefore helping the audience to empathise with the characters and the horrors that take place in “The Crucible” and enabling them to relate it to the events of McCarthyism.
George Bernard Shaw also uses naturalism in “St Joan” to create a realistic impression of the time in which it was set, the characters interact with each other in naturalistic way directly showing the audience the relationships between the characters. This helps the audience to understand Joan’s role as a women in a society ruled by men, the lords did not take women seriously and this increases the audiences’ sympathy and understanding of Joan and how difficult it was for her to achieve her intentions. However there were some non-naturalistic elements to the play, as elements such as the battle would have been difficult to express in a naturalistic way. Instead the battle is represented as a dance in a way that successfully creates an impression and atmosphere of war.
In “The Crucible” Miller brings out the theme of truth and righteousness. This theme is conveyed through the struggles of Miller’s main character, John Proctor, who once had an affair with Abigail Williams whilst she was working as a maid in his house. Proctor keeps a firm belief that Abigail is encouraging accusations of witchcraft in an attempt to have Proctor’s wife Elizabeth hanged. Similarly, this theme is also apparent in “St Joan” when Joan continues to believe that it was her bidding to help the French army even when her life is in danger, and refuses to confess to the crime of heresy to which she believes she is innocent of. In both plays the penultimate scene includes the tearing of a written confession that would save the character’s own lives, symbolising that both Proctor and Joan accept their own death in order to achieve righteousness by the end of the play.
“The Crucible” and “St Joan” successfully create effective interpretations of true stories. Overall it is the messages that the playwrights put forward to the audience that makes the strongest connection between the two plays. Both playwrights created strong protagonists to make the audience consider the importance of standing up for your beliefs.