THE CRUCIBLE

SUBJECTS — U.S./1629 – 1750, 1945 – 1991; & Massachusetts; Drama/U.S.;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Justice; Marriage;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Fairness.

AGE; 14+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 for intense depiction of the Salem witch trials;

Drama; 1996; 124 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

This Learning Guide contains curriculum materials that are helpful in presenting both the play and the film.

THE BEST OF TWM

One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.

MENU

DESCRIPTION

The Crucible is a film version of Arthur Miller’s classic play about Puritan society, the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, and, metaphorically, the Red Scare during the period 1947 – 1956. Miller wrote the screenplay for the movie, giving the film more credibility than most screen adaptations of theatrical works.

SELECTED AWARDS & CAST

Selected Awards: 1997 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Writing, Best Screenplay based on Material from Another Medium (Miller); Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen); 1997 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Scofield).

Featured Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell.

BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE

The play is a classic of the American stage and one of the premier works of historical fiction in American literature. The film makes Miller’s concepts applicable in terms of metaphor to situations that society faces today. Moreover, the film addresses individual responsibility in terms of honesty, integrity, and forgiveness.

By studying “The Crucible” students of both American Literature and U.S. History will better understand how a frightened society can ignore fundamental beliefs in justice, as well as its own basic principles of the primacy of law. In addition, with the curriculum materials provided by this Learning Guide, students will look at the underlying causes of historical events. Finally, through discussion and writing assignments, students will sharpen skills associated with analysis and persuasion.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS

Minor: There is some violence, but none as graphic or gruesome as the actual incidents that occurred during the efforts to exterminate witches.

HELPFUL BACKGROUND

The first film version of the play was produced in France in 1957 and entitled “Les Sorcieres de Salem”. The screenplay was written by Jean Paul Sartre and the film was directed by Raymond Rouleau. It was produced in France because movie makers in the United States were afraid of being branded as communist sympathizers if they made the film. The play was not made into a movie until 1996, some five years after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Arthur Miller (1915 – 2005) was one of America’s greatest playwrights. His works include “Death of a Salesman” and All My Sons; Miller and his plays have been the recipient of many awards including the Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the New York Drama Critics Awards. Most of Miller’s plays concern the responsibility of people to each other in light of the common goals shared by society.

USING IN THE CLASSROOM

Introducing the Movie

Introductory Class Discussion: Teachers may want to introduce the film with the following commentary and question. This should lead students to an open-minded approach to the movie both in terms of the historical events that occurred in Salem in 1692 and the machinations of the professional red-baiters in the l950s.

Many people argue that the threat of international terrorism with its fanatic ideology and its chief weapon, the suicide bomber, is much different than threats faced in the past whether from witches or communists. They contend that terrorism cannot effectively be countered without widespread surveillance and restrictions on the rights of the accused. They contend that protection of society requires invasion of privacy and limits on the civil liberties of all citizens.

How much privacy and how many of your rights are you willing to give up in order to feel confident about your physical safety in a society being attacked by international terrorists?

Points to Be Raised in the Discussion: Taking off shoes or being x-rayed at an airport may not seem important. Being subject to constant observation and having phone records, library records, and other information taken by the government without warrants may or may not be an issue. Torture, however, is another matter, and students will want to weigh in on this volatile topic. Teachers may want to remind students that those who argue that society needs to allow disclosure of private information or reduce protections for accused persons and scale back civil liberties are trusting the government not to go too far and to avoid targeting innocent people. Historically, even governments in Western democracies have a tendency to abuse their powers leading to the oppression of innocent people. The number of terrorism prosecutions that have resulted in juries acquitting the accused are a cautionary tale.

 

Information Helpful in Appreciating the Film:

Students will better appreciate the play and the movie if they know some basic facts about:

(1) The Salem Witchcraft Trials;

(2) Witchcraft Trials in Western Europe, and

(3) The Red Scare of 1947 – 1956.

A minimal presentation of this information is set out in TWM’s Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for “The Crucible”.

 

Presentation of the introduction can occur as follows:

(A) Assign groups of students to research these and other related topics and present their findings to the class;

(B) Students can be assigned to read and respond to the Worksheet in class or as homework; or

(C) Teachers can provide the information in the worksheet to the class through direct instruction.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. How does “The Crucible,” a story about the seventeenth century, relate to the Red Scare of the period 1947 – 1956, some 250 years later? What are the significant differences between the Salem Witchcraft Trials and the Red Scare?

Suggested Response:

Here are some similarities. Since society in the 1600s believed in witches and the threat of the devil, both societies felt threatened from powerful outside forces which had gained the allegiance (or so it was believed) of persons living within the community. In both, people felt that the foundations of society and their own basic beliefs were being attacked; both required ritualistic reaffirmations of faith in commonly held beliefs before the accused could be exonerated of guilt; both were used by unscrupulous persons to advance their own political or economic interests. In both situations, many innocent people were wrongly accused. In both situations, there was a feeling of hysteria, and the usual safeguards for protecting people were not observed.

2. While the similarities are striking, there were many differences between the situation in Salem and in the HUAC hearings. Which differences stand out most vividly to you?

Suggested Response:

In Salem, people were executed, while in the Red Scare, the worst punishments were several years in prison with the most frequent punishment being a ruined career. Another difference is that, in Salem, teenagers were the instigators of the hysteria. In the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s, adults were the accusers. In the 20th century hysteria, politicians played a leading role as accusers and instigators. Students may suggest additional differences.

3. What can be learned from the characters of John and Elizabeth Proctor? Where did they go wrong? What did they do that was right?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. John Proctor paid a terrible price for his dalliance with Abigail, which stirred feelings in her that he did not anticipate. By the end of the story, he shows the power of redemption, self-respect, and honor. He illustrates the price that sometimes must be paid when one stands upon principle against dishonor. Elizabeth is initially cold but by the end of the story shows the power of love, forgiveness, and honesty. All is lost in the one moment when she tells a lie.

Click here for additional Discussion Questions.

QUESTIONS RELATING TO THE WITCHCRAFT TRIALS AS A METAPHOR FOR THE RED SCARE OF 1947 – 1956:

4. Miller reports the following facts at the end of the play:
Twenty years after the last execution, the government awarded compensation to the victims still living and to the families of the dead. However, it is evident that some people still were unwilling to admit their total guilt, and also that the factionalism was still alive, for some beneficiaries were actually not victims at all, but informers ….

[Within 20 years after the witchcraft trials] to all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.
How do you account for the facts that Miller notes?

Suggested Response:

As time passed and the hysteria was long gone, people were able to look back and see rationally what had really happened. They no longer felt threatened.

5. Name other situations in which a feeling of hysteria caused the deaths of innocent people?

Suggested Response:

There are many. They include anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia; the Holocaust; the genocide in Cambodia, 1975 to 1997, and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

6. Do you believe that the torture of prisoners by U.S. authorities at Abu Ghraib, the prison at Guantanamo and other locations, was justified or did it betray American core values?

Suggested Response:

This is a matter of debate, but most people would answer that torture is against basic American values. In addition, torture has not been shown to be an effective interrogation technique. People in great pain will tell the interrogator anything to get the pain to stop.

7. One of the explanatory paragraphs Miller inserted into his play states the following:

When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we [America during the Red Scare] shall be pitied someday. It is impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.

Identify some social repressions in your life.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. Examples that students might cite are clothing regulations at schools, restrictions on what students can write in the student newspaper, restrictions on the use of profanity or hate speech, etc. 9. Does the fact that there were a few Soviet spies who may have been able to cause serious harm to the country justify the denial of rights to thousands of innocent individuals? Give your reasons. Suggested Response: A good discussion will include the following: The First Amendment protects the rights to free speech and political association. Membership in the Communist Party has never been illegal. One of the foundations of the American society, from the Founding Fathers onward, has been that it is much worse for innocents to be punished than for some of the guilty to go free. People are considered innocent until proven guilty. The government has many other resources with which to catch spies. As the character of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons said: “If you tear down all the protections of the law when the wind blows again where will you find shelter?”

 

QUESTIONS RELATING TO LITERARY ELEMENTS

8. In terms of story, rather than historical accuracy, which character serves as the narrative’s protagonist?

Suggested Response:

John Proctor is the protagonist. The story is his. It is his sexual philandering that rouses Abigail to generate the hysteria against witchcraft, he is the one who grows in terms of honor, and it is through his character that the moral lessons of the play are taught.

9. Which character serves as the antagonist?

Suggested Response:

Abigail is the antagonist. Her desire to seek revenge against John Proctor or to win his affections causes the tension in the film and provokes the changes in both John and his wife, Elizabeth, that create theme. It could also be said that the community which allows itself to become the prosecutor of John Proctor is also the antagonist. Abigail acts through the community.

10. What gives Abigail the power to disrupt the community and to get many young women to follow her lead in claiming witchcraft?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Students may suggest that a general sense of sexual repression existed in the time period in which the film is set and this may have given rise to pent up sexual frustrations released in the hysteria. The opening scene, with the fire and nude dancing exemplifies this. Guilt may have been a factor as well as fear of reprisal. It was easier for these girls to blame witchcraft for sexual longing than to admit the feelings themselves. Others may decide that John Proctor gave Abigail the power to provoke the hysteria with his sexuality and by his provocative behavior; Abigail seems to believe that it is Elizabeth Proctor who keeps John away from her, rather than his own desire.

11. In what ways does Elizabeth Proctor change through the course of the story?

Suggested Response:

Elizabeth Proctor is a cold and punitive woman until the moment she realizes that her husband is threatened. At this point she lies to protect him, choosing to value love over honesty. Ironically, this dooms her husband. She then forgives him for his adultery, admits her feelings of jealousy and insecurity, apologizes for her coldness and encourages him to remain true to himself. Her redemption results in her death.

12. Before Elizabeth forgives him, Proctor is willing to sign the false confession in order to save his life and hers. But after she forgives him he chooses to die rather than to admit to something he didn’t do. Can you explain this change of mind?

Suggested Response:

Here is one explanation. Once his wife absolves him of his guilt, Proctor is able to regain his self-respect and act according to his higher nature. He will not falsely name others. In his refusal, with his new found self-respect, he comes to the point where he will not name himself; he tears up the confession and gets on the wagon with the other doomed townspeople.

13. What irony can be found in the scene in which John Proctor and two others are hanged?

Suggested Response:

The three condemned citizens are reciting the Lord’s Prayer which includes the words: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This recitation brings into clear focus the merciless, even murderous nature of the good Christian people of the village who are watching the hanging. Those being trespassed against are doing the forgiving.

TWM’s Standard Questions for Use With Any Film That is a Work of Fiction and Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays help stimulate student interest and assist in the exploration of characterization, plot, theme, and other literary devices.

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING

JUSTICE

See Discussion Questions 1 and 2 in the Learning Guide and 5 – 8 above.

MARRIAGE

1. Was Elizabeth Proctor in any way responsible for her husband’s infidelity?

Suggested Response:

John Proctor was responsible for his actions. Many people misunderstand this type of question and take it as a question about factual causation. Certainly, a cold and unloving spouse will, as a matter of fact, contribute to any infidelity by the other spouse. This is especially true in societies in which divorce was not a practical option. However, people are responsible for their own actions and while John Proctor may have had complaints against his wife, he is the one who committed adultery.

2. Should Elizabeth have forgiven her husband’s infidelity?

Suggested Response:

Forgiveness liberates both the person who forgives and the person who is forgiven. When the transgressor is truly remorseful, forgiveness is a win/win proposition. Once Elizabeth forgave her husband, he was able to regain his self-respect and act according to his higher nature. Forgiveness allowed Elizabeth to get in touch with her feelings of love for her husband.

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

TRUSTWORTHINESS

(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)

1. Are there any circumstances in which a person should admit to doing something that he or she didn’t do? If so, when?

Suggested Response:

While it might be easier in the short run, many untoward consequences can flow when a person admits to crimes or offenses that he or she did not commit. Once the admission is made, it is very hard to withdraw it. In a criminal court, once a conviction occurs based on the admission, it is like any other conviction. Punishments for later infractions will be worse. Jobs may be lost, etc.

2. If you were John Proctor, or any of the other people accused of being witches, and you were faced with the choice of the hangman’s noose or confessing your own guilt to imaginary crimes while accusing innocent people of conspiring with you, what would you have done? Suggested Response: Condemning yourself is one thing. It’s risky, as described in the preceding questions, but implicating other people is clearly unethical.

FAIRNESS

(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)

3. What is wrong with guilt by association? What can we tell from the fact that one person associates with another?

Suggested Response:

That one person associates with another tells us very little about each of those persons. For example, if a person is seen talking to a member of Al Qaeda, this doesn’t tell us that the other person is a terrorist. It might be grounds for suspicion and heightened surveillance, but the fact of the association or of repeated association proves nothing. There is also a constitutional aspect of this question since the First Amendment protects freedom of association. It is illegal for the government to take action against a person because of a mere political association.

ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES

Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

 

1. Research information on one of the following topics and write a formal expository essay on your findings.

  • The nature of hysteria as a social phenomenon, including a reference to the Salem witchcraft trials, the War of the Worlds panic on the eve of World War II, etc.;
  • The effects of the Red Scare on Hollywood and on film in general;
  • The use of loyalty oaths in the Red Scare and their effectiveness as a tool for discovering subversives;
  • The underlying causes of the Red Scare of the late forties and early fifties; and
  • The use of fear to sell products or ideas, for example, the sale of underground bomb shelters after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the sale of information on suspected communists by Red Channels.

2. Develop a logical, informed opinion on either side of the following posits and write a persuasive essay directed toward your classmates as a target audience:

  • The Patriot Act contains provisions which infringe on the rights of Americans and should be repealed;
  • The McCarthy and HUAC investigations during the Red Scare of 1947 – 1956 served to strengthen the United States by eliminating communists from public life and government service;
  • Panic over the events of 9/11, including the anthrax scare and the fear of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, led to war in the Gulf region;
  • Religious intolerance was a tool used in the perpetration of the Salem Witch Trials, the McCarthy era investigations, and the current war on terrorism; and
  • Torture is an important technique used by those in authority that is sometimes vital in keeping society safe.

3. Debates can be organized for any of the topics raised in the discussion questions or in the assignments.

Click Here for Additional Assignments.

4. “The Crucible” provides opportunities for teachers to develop expository writing skills in a format that is important in terms of mass media today. Students can be asked to write investigative reports, as might appear in a newspaper or on an internet site dedicated to explaining in-depth information. The reports are expository, but are addressed to an audience other than a teacher. Students need to understand their audience and try to keep interest levels high as they explain the information necessary to hold the attention of an intelligent reader. Any of the following topics are ideal offshoots of the concepts presented in “The Crucible”.

  • The Inquisition as oppression of pagans;
  • Witch trials worldwide;
  • The underlying causes of McCarthy era investigations; and
  • Propaganda in film promoting government causes, such as WWII [Note that TWM has Learning Guides to Allied propaganda films from the Second World War: “Mrs. Miniver” (England) and “Ballad of a Soldier” (Soviet Union).]

5. Opinion pieces are an excellent tool to teach persuasion. Keeping with mass media as the audience for their essays, students can be asked to develop logical, informed papers that are supported with facts and pointed argumentation. Either side of the following posits can be addressed:

  • Fear is a potent tool of a repressive governmental system;
  • The First Amendment does not mean the government must accept as valid, religions that frighten the population;
  • The anti-pagan movement, including the witch trials, was misogynistic, directed primarily against women;
  • The Great Depression was the result of panic and fear.

Debates can be organized for any of the topics raised in the discussion questions or in the assignments. More sophisticated classes may want to address the following:

Which of the two Proctors, John or Elizabeth, was most culpable in creating the situation that resulted in their deaths?

All students can be asked to memorize the First Amendment and to recite this crucial addition to the U.S. Constitution aloud.

Any of the writing assignments can be presented to the class as oral reports by one or a group of students. See also additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction and TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.

 

Other Lesson Plans:

Case Study: The European Witch-Hunts, c. 1450-1750 and Witch-Hunts Today from Gendercide;
The National Archives has developed a lesson plan with copies of original documents entitled Telegram from Senator Joseph McCarthy to President Harry S. Truman;
Witchcraft in Salem Village: Intersections of Religion and Society from the National Humanities Center;
Teaching History through Film: Film Teaching Guide for The Crucible.

BRIDGES TO READING

This play was written to be read as well as performed. Miller has inserted explanatory paragraphs which describe the various characters in the play and which set out his views. See, for example, the first explanatory insert in Act One, in which Miller describes the fact that the dangers of Indians and famine, which the Puritan theocracy was organized to combat, were lessening and that certain people in Salem were chafing at the restrictions of Puritan society:

The Salem tragedy, which is about to begin in these pages, developed from a paradox. It is a paradox in whose grip we still live, and there is no prospect yet that we will discover its resolution. Simply, it was this: for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combination of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies. It was forged for a necessary purpose and accomplished that purpose. But all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space. Evidently, the time came in New England when the repressions of the order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organized. The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.

When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we [America during the Red Scare] shall be pitied someday. It is impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.

Classes can also read the following passages of Miller’s autobiography Timebends, A Life. Pages 332 – 335 contain a description of his meeting with Elia Kazan, the famous director of plays and television when Kazan tried to explain his decision to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. At pages 336 and 337 Miller describes his examination of the original court records in Salem and his discovery of the dramatic center of the play.

Historical novels suitable for middle school and junior high readers concerning the Salem witchcraft trials and witchcraft trials, in general, include: Beyond the Burning Time by Kathryn Lasky; Hester Bidgood – Investigatrix of Evill Deedes by H.W. Hildick; Tituba of Salem Village by Ann Petry, Crowell.

For an interesting look into the concept of witches, students may want to read The Seventh Son, by Orson Scott Card and Bless Me Ultima, by Rodolfo Anaya.

LINKS TO THE INTERNET

BIBLIOGRAPHY

In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • A Delusion of Satan, the Full Story of the Salem Witchcraft Trials by Frances Hill; Doubleday; 1995;
  • Timebends, A Life, Arthur Miller, Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1987;
  • The Portable Arthur Miller; edited by Christopher Bigsby; Penguin Books; 1977.