When Vengeance Walks the Town – A Review of “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller

Recently, a group of students allegedly shouted anti-India slogans at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, and the political and religious conservatives in India went virtually mad. Soon, any criticism of India was seen as unpatriotic and traitorous. The JNU, a leftist stronghold and a thorn in the flesh of the Hindu Right-Wing government at the centre, was termed a positive hotbed of crime and vice and a recruiting ground for terrorists. Many a Muslim, unless he wore his love of India on his sleeve for all to see, was branded a Pakistani agent – the refusal to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Victory to Mother India) resulted in intimidation and even physical abuse in many places.

What is interesting about this phenomena is that it is not only an orchestrated move from the right-wingers: many Indians are genuinely frightened that Pakistanis are in our midst, bent on destroying the country with the support of the leftists. There is a paranoia that is being exploited by the political vultures.

I am frightened by how much this resembles McCarthyism – the madness that gripped America from 1950 to 56 and destroyed many lives and careers. Wikipedia says

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute.

It seems that human beings don’t learn anything from history, and therefore keep on repeating it.

But then, according to Arthur Miller, the Red Scare of the fifties was a repeat of a much darker event from the seventeenth century – the Salem Witch Trails. He wrote this play in 1953 to remind fellow citizens on how mass hysteria can engulf a society and demolish civilisation.

in 1692, a group of children in Salem were afflicted by diseases which showed classical symptoms of hysteria, but were soon diagnosed as demonic possession by the church authorities based partly on the children’s own confused utterings. Soon, people were being denounced left and right as witches and executed. Malicious people with revenge and other material interests (such as grabbing a condemned person’s property) seems to have contributed enthusiastically to the madness. As John Proctor, an accused, says in the play:

Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers? I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem – vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!

These words are chillingly applicable to both McCarthyism and the events I quoted at the beginning: common vengeance is writing the law. Anybody can be accused – proof is not required, accusation is proof enough. Any kind of fair dealing and neutrality would be seen as potential collaboration, so the safest thing is to side with the accusers. Verily, the term “witch hunt” has entered the English language with strong credentials.

A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud – God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!

We will. We, the conformists who let the madness continue to save our own islands of comfort in this burning sea of paranoid anger.

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From the Oxford English Dictionary:

1 A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures

1.1 A situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new

It is evident that Arthur Miller put a lot of thought into the naming of his play. He wanted to emphasise the heat and the fire, the hatred and the horror: at the same time, he also wanted to point out that after the melting process, a refined product would come out. Times of extreme tribulations in society are usually followed by a period of rejuvenation.

The playwright takes a lot of liberty with history to make his point. This is nothing new: Shakespeare regularly did this, it seems. So in the play, the historical 11-year-old Abigail Williams, the niece of the puritan minister Reverend Parris of Salem is transformed into an oversexed teen. She has seduced John Proctor in whose house she was working as a servant, and has apparently tried out some black magic to kill his wife. During such a magic session in the woods with Tituba and other kids, the Parris’s Caribbean servant, they are surprised by the minister. Betty, the minister’s young daughter, falls into a dead faint and cannot be cured by the doctor. Abigail immediately shouts witchcraft, and others join in; and soon the subterfuge becomes mass hysteria.

Miller has chosen John Proctor to be tragic hero of this play; haunted by guilt at his infidelity (even more so because his wife forgives it), he seeks punishment for himself, at least inside his soul. His torment is further compounded as his wife Elizabeth is denounced as a witch by Abigail. To make matters worse, there is the cunning Thomas Putnam, abetting the hysteria to settle scores against old opponents and grab their lands. As the roller-coaster of paranoia rolls on towards its destructive end, Proctor himself is sentenced to hang for witchcraft but Elizabeth ironically escapes as she is pregnant.

At the insistence of friends and a few sane people who want to stop the madness, John Proctor confesses at the last moment: however, he immediately sees the falsehood and cowardice in it and immediately withdraws it.

HALE: Man, you will hang! You cannot!

PROCTOR [his eyes full of tears]: I can. And there’s your first marvel, that I can. You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.

Yes indeed: the courage to stand up for what one thinks is right is ultimately the refined product that comes out of the crucible.

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The character who impressed me most in the story was Giles Corey, an 81-year-old man who refused to confess or refute when faced with charges of witchcraft. He was subjected to a horrendous form of torture called “pressing” (thankfully it occurs offstage in the play) where more and more rocks were piled on his chest in an effort to make him speak. Giles endured this for a whole two days before he died – his last words, reportedly, were “more weight”. There’s guts for you!

Antisocial Media

I am having a phase of withdrawal from Facebook, and social media in general.

While the main reason for this is that I want to avoid wasting time on pointless browsing and facile discussions, I think that there is also another, deeper motivation – the amount of hostility and verbal violence I see there disturbs me.  Each and every opinion running counter to one’s political philosophy is a reason for some people to simply attack the proponent of that opinion in the vilest terms (that this is done mostly by conservatives is no surprise).

Vigorous debates with people arguing on both sides of a question is the sign of a healthy democratic society, and is to be encouraged.  However, our so-called media debates focus entirely on personalities, and all arguments are ad hominem.  For example, when Kamal, a prominent leftist movie director from Kerala criticised the actor Suresh Gopi’s decision to join the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, he was immediately targeted as a Muslim on social media (his full name is Kamaluddin, which was used throughout the posts insulting him to pinpoint his religion).  In such a scenario, any healthy debate becomes impossible, and the core issue is bypassed.

Another worrying factor is the “information” shared by people on FB as though this were the gospel truth.  Half-truths, hearsay, urban legends and outright slander are posted by amateurs who want to play investigative journalist.  This is immediately shared enthusiastically by their friends and people of a similar political persuasion until they attain a certain veracity in the minds of the uninformed, who never bother to check the credentials of the original poster.  (On the converse side, experts who are quoted on FB are sometimes attacked – I saw a post in which the poster urged the eminent historian Dr. M. G. S. Narayanan to go and learn history!)

Social media can be a live force – in the recent Jisha murder case in Kerala, outrage on FB caused police to wake up and launch an investigation with vigour.  But more often than not, it degenerates into a town square where bullies slug it out.

My reason for withdrawal is not that I am afraid of the bullies.  I am afraid that, the more I interact, I will slowly turn into one of them.