Saturday, December 4, 2010

The independent communitarian

 The following post is part of a work-in-progress. Comments welcome at

To put it most simply, the main difference between the stage and film versions of The Crucible is in the way the latter underlines the degree to which Proctor was an outside man. This was true in fact: the real Proctor, who was about 60 in 1692, lived on the Farms, where he operated a tavern. Yet he was apparently not comfortable attending church services there, instead going to town, in effect making him doubly marginal. Proctor appears to have been a local iconoclast: he was among the first to ridicule the proceedings; allegedly beat his servant, Mary Warren, who confessed to witchcraft and accused others; and stood up for Elizabeth, who was his third wife. This may be why he was the first male to be accused of witchcraft, and why he was hanged for it. He unsuccessfully challenged the legitimacy of the judges and sought government intervention from Boston while awaiting his death. In the play, Miller draws heavily on the documentary record but scrambles it by compressing characters and positing imagined situations, like a sexual relationship between Proctor (who is closer to thirty than sixty) and Williams. He also includes a real estate conflict with Thomas Putnam, which is not documented but is certainly in keeping the widely accepted belief that unresolved financial and legal conflicts played a role in who was accused of witchcraft. (The real Putnam and his wife were pivotal allies of Reverend Parris and in promoting the trials.)
 But the movie version of The Crucible, exploiting the possibilities of the medium, makes Proctor an outside man in a much more literal sense as well. Our first view of him, about ten minutes into the film, shows him threshing wheat in a field with his sons. The imagery seems to come straight from a Winslow Homer painting: big open spaces, water in the distance, brilliant blue sky. The camera rotates from the inlet to the interior (east to west?) to reveal Elizabeth Proctor calling John. This establishing shot of a family idyll outdoors was not incidental. In describing the search for locations in the audio commentary version of the film, director Hytner said “it became clear to us that the real authentic landscape of the first Puritan settlers of America was integral, very, very important not just to the world of the story but the story itself.” Noting that Salem was not the forbidding landscape of Maine or Nova Scotia, he described the sets on Hog Island – a mere few miles away from Salem – as “a land that promised everything,” one which offered the Proctors “a hard-won life, but a life infinitely better, more rewarding than their ancestors would have been enjoying in England.”
Over the course of the movie, a remarkable allegory unfolds: Proctor is pulled into ever-darker interiors. That first summons from Elizabeth begins his descent. Over the course of the next hour we see him in his house, where he is trying to repair his rocky relationship with his wife in the aftermath of his infidelity, and where it is clearly darker but where light still streams in. We also see him at various locations in town. At first, these interiors do not really diminish him. Although he’s not a large man (unlike the real Proctor), he nevertheless commands attention from all around him, something easy to accept when the Proctor in question is played by Daniel Day-Lewis. In part, this is a matter of costume; he arrives in town for the first time dressed in a rugged coat and hat, looking like the direct ancestor of Davy Crockett. He’s got a scraggly beard, but he seems like he’s illuminated from within – those grayish-blue eyes bore into you – and he’s confident in his conduct with residents, whether in his friendliness with Rebecca Nurse (Elizabeth Lawrence), whose flinty saintliness will cost her, and in his willingness to confront Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison), whose political maneuvering will intensify the crisis.
Significantly, his first two encounters with Abigail take place outside. In the first, early in the movie, he runs into her outside a building on a cloudy day, and while the wild spirit that led to his transgression briefly resurfaces with a kiss, he wills himself back from the brink and informs her he’d sooner cut off his arm than have sex with her again. Their second meeting, in which Proctor warns Abigail to cease her accusations of Elizabeth, takes place in the woods. It’s sunny, but the two characters are dappled in shadow. When they meet a final time, when Proctor is in prison, both characters are engulfed in darkness.
Indeed, literally and figuratively, the walls close in on John Proctor. Elizabeth is arrested at night. He goes to argue for her release in a low-ceilinged chamber amid a downpour outside. Desperate, he decides to confess in open court about his relationship with Abigail, which will make clear her vendetta against Elizabeth at the cost of his own reputation. The increasingly defensive and Machiavellian Judge Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield) is unwilling to accept this, and summons Elizabeth to corroborate his story, refusing to let Proctor talk with her first. Seeking to protect her husband, Elizabeth lies on his behalf – and in a moment of irony suggesting how this world has been turned upside down, a shaft of light streams through a courtroom window. When a series of new accusations leads to pandemonium in the courtroom, Proctor storms outside, the changeable New England weather has suddenly cleared. In bright sunlight, standing in an inlet that evokes the baptism of the adult Christ, Proctor angrily declares that God is dead, which appears to be the final nail in his coffin. He is tried, convicted, excommunicated and sentenced to death.
But there remains a ray of hope. Elizabeth Proctor is pregnant, and will not be executed while an innocent soul would also perish. Amid growing doubts surrounding the trials, Proctor is offered a deal: a pardon in exchange for a confession. (This is Arthur Miller’s nod toward the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, which were fueled by precisely this tactic, though it was not an option available to Proctor, or indeed most confessed witches, some of whom were still executed.) Elizabeth is summoned to convince her husband to accept the transaction; she makes no promises but is allowed to confer with him on the freezing, windy coast.
 To my mind, at least, this is the most moving scene in the movie, and one of the most moving scenes of marital love ever depicted in a Hollywood movie. Two ravaged people, braving the freezing wind of a New England autumn, confess their weaknesses to each other. Elizabeth admits that her severity about her husband is rooted in doubt about her own worthiness as a plain woman; John fears that his refusal to confess to witchcraft makes him feel fraudulent, guilty of the sin of pride: in his admitted sinfulness he lacks the true nobility of characters like Rebecca Nurse – or Elizabeth herself.  John decides for the sake of his wife and children, one as yet unborn, he will “confess.” If anything, the town officials are even more relieved than the Proctors. But not everyone is. “Oh John,” a heartbroken Rebecca Nurse, who is among those summoned to witness it in the vain hope they too will confess, cries out in disappointment.
But Danforth, overplaying his hand, is not content to get Proctor’s signed confession. He also demands that Proctor, in the parlance of the Communist witch hunts, name names. But this is where Proctor digs in. He will plead guilty privately, but not allow the authorities to nail his confession to church door or use it as a cudgel against others. When Danforth insists, over the objection of his colleagues, merely signing the confession in their presence is insufficient, Proctor tears up his confession. He will go to his death a redeemed man. “He have his goodness now,” Elizabeth tells the Reverend John Hale (Rob Campbell), once a believer but now a critic of the trials, who is desperately trying to end the process. “God forbid I take it from him.” The final scene of the movie shows Proctor and other recalcitrants mounting the gallows for the outdoor execution scene. They recite the Our Father; the final image of the movie shows a rope against the sky, suggesting the thread of guilt and obligation that connects us to him.
In art and life, the Salem Witch trials were a disaster wrought by Puritans. But in art and life, they were a disaster ended by Puritans. John Proctor was among a growing chorus of critics of the trials and their reliance on spectral evidence (i.e. unsubstantiated charges that people had seen others consorting with Satan), and this growing tide of critics in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the end of 1692 led to the end of the process. (London did not get involved, as indeed it had recently done in the reorganization of the colony, including an insistence on greater religious tolerance of other sects, which had accompanied the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution in 1688.) The death of nineteen people and the concomitant misery that resulted was byproduct of the social conformity implicit in the communitarian character of Puritanism. But one of the many paradoxes of Puritanism is that this communitarian impulse was accompanied by another, individualistic one, that was at least as powerful. The Puritans had always placed great value on the primacy of the individual conscience; the belief that one’s own relationship to God mattered more than what Pope or King might say is precisely what brought them to America.
This libertarian strand of DNA drifted across the ocean and found a hospitable climate that allowed it to grow. As Frederick Jackson Turner would later write in “Significance,” “the frontier is productive of individualism.” Turner would often define the “antipathy to control” in the frontier mentality in opposition to the Eastern establishment, but as he well knew, that establishment was itself the product of the frontier, and could never entirely control it. In an obvious and irrefutable sense, John Proctor is a tragic figure. But as embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis in this movie, he is a fierce and willful figure whose intensity cannot be contained by his death. His children, literal and figurative, will conquer a continent.