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“The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, Essay Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1758

Essay

In the history of human development, there were various ways for artists to express themselves and to send their message to a target audience. Although, in a literary world, author’s word was the most expressive, in the world of theatre, an author’s words had to be absorbed and performed on the stage. Thus, the meaning of an initial message depended greatly on performance of an actor, staging and even type of the theatre where it was staged. In this contest, the way each playwright organised his narration and structured the play was of particular importance, because it contributed to the efficiency of how his message was sent to the audience. Depending on the time when the play was written and subsequent theatrical tradition, it could be structured differently and have a different meaning and purpose. The aim of the present essay is to track elements of epic theatre developed by Berthold Brecht in the play “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller. In this context, the play is analysed through author’s application of traditional Brecht’s techniques – alienation and historification. Thus, the central thesis of this essay is that lack of visual features of epic theatre, the play is an example of epic theatre tradition.

In order to understand until which extent the play corresponds to Brecht’s epic theatre canon, it is essential to understand the main purpose of the epic theatre and its techniques. In this context, the main purpose of theatre for Brecht was to make the audience think and not just live heroes’ lives on the stage. In other words, he aimed at creation of vivid and expressive theatre which aimed at the description of crucial problems, but was not substitution one reality with another, turning into a fairy tale of main characters (Benjamin 62). It aimed and triggering thought which would be embodied in subsequent analysis of the existing reality the audience lived in. In this context, the main techniques would be alienation and historification. The first one was easier to be achieved on stage, because it could be done through partial decorations, bright light in the wrong places, change of decorations in front of the audience, interruption of the narration by actors through their personal comments on acting (Benjamin 82). On the other hand, historification was likely to be achieved through the comparison of described events or problems with the context contemporary to the audience. Although this can be achieved through specific decoration and actors’ comments, it would more efficient if the context were emphasised by the narrator. Although these elements are easier to be tracked in actual visual performance, they are present in the analysed play. In the next few paragraphs, it shall be shown how a playwright can incorporate these techniques in the text of the play and the actual structure of the play.

While Brecht achieved alienation through actors’ interruption of the narration and partial setting of the scene, in terms of the text Miller managed to achieve the same through a detailed description of the scenes and a broad participation of the narration in the whole course of the story in the play. Although the initial description of the place and general setting of the scene are quite common in plays of the classic theatre, Mills conducts it in specific details. For instance, in the beginning of Act One, he gives a description of the scene and names of the main heroes and then instead of proceeding with the main dialogue and action, he tells the life story of Reverend Parris and his family (Miller 5). In this regard, he does not only describe the relationship and emotional state of family members, but also situated them into the social structure of Salem community: “His house stood in the “town”… To the Europeans… a bar-baric frontier inhabited by a sect of fanatics” (Miller 7). By this facilitation of the main heroes into a specific historical and social categories, the author attempts not only to describe the essence of the story and its socio-religious conditionality, but also to   make a distance between the audience and the main heroes. In this regard, initial negative context and criticism of the town and it inhabitants prepares the audience to be quite cautious in self-identification with the main characters and thus aims at alienation.

This way of alienation becomes even more substantial with the introduction of a strong narrator, who expresses his opinion on various occasions: “It was also, in my opinion, one of the things that John Proctor would rebel against” (Miller 8). A particular feature of attitude expression is that it argues that the audience and the narrator are on the same side of the scene, and they are mere observers. In this context, the author uses “we” on various occasions in the description of commonality of ideas and general human problems, although in different dimensions – imaginary and real ones:

“They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would

light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us” (Miller 8). 

In this context, the use of “we” and commonality between the author and audience contributed both to the aims of alienation and historification. In the last quotation, the author did not only emphasise that he and audience belong to the same time, but also that they have a common past and the past was in Salem. Thus, just as Brecht, Miller argues that the contemporary audience should learn from the past or from the events described, since the problems are universally human: “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” (Miller 9). Making the aforementioned interference of the narrator and his explanation of historical and philosophical contexts of the whole play, already make it surreal and quite abstract to the audience. In other words, the narrator becomes a lens through which the audience can observe the described story. In this regard, the main message is that it is a story, although with a historical background.

From a strictly structural perspective, alienation is achieved by quite complex and reserved structure of each act and the   whole play in general. In this context, each act starts from the narrator’s description of the scene and further discussion of the events described with a subsequent opinion of the narrator and important message for the audience. Only then the actual events and dialogues would take place. The meaning of this procedure is not only in descriptive function and improvement of audience’s comprehension of the events described, but also in separating different acts from one another. In other words, the author wants the audience to switch attention from the last dialogue in the previous scene to the abstract ideas and context of the story in order to be able to feel that it is play and not real life or a surreal fantasy where people live lives of the main characters. In this context, it can be argued that this transition between acts worked as half-closed curtains in Brecht’s theatre. In other words, the audience was given an opportunity to look behind the story and observe its context, either theatrical in case of curtains or historical and psychological in case of Miller’s narrator.

Another structural element of alienation is an interruption of dialogues by description of character’s face expression or tone of voice, or general characterisation of actions:

“Proctor, with a grin: I mean to please you, Elizabeth

Elizabeth – it is hard to say: I know it John.

He gets up, goes to her, kisses her. She receives it.

With a certain disappointment, he returns to the table.” (Miller 54).

These distractions make alienation more constant and tangible. In this regard, the audience is constantly aware of the invisible narrator and also keeps attention to what the hero should feel. In this context, the author does not give the audience to interpret feelings of the main hero though simple words, and thus make its own ideas and identify itself with the character. On the other hand, he gives a ready-made situation with the exact description of feelings, which belong to the described character alone.

From the point of classical epic theatre elements, the studied play lacks a few. In this context, there is no guidance for the visual and sound effects of the play performance.  In other words, Miller does not mention half-curtains or their absence (Benjamin 52). In his case, curtains fulfil their usual function to cover the change of scenes and subsequent decorations. His actors are not advised to express their opinion on the characters’ problems and general appearance. On the other hand, the last element would have been difficult to advice in terms of the play’s text. A particular feature of the play is that there is no mentioning of the music in it. No chorus is interrupting the story. Not even the Barbados songs are sung or given in the full description. Thus, the play does not use canonical elements of Brecht’s theatre.

Irrespective of the lack of Brecht’s main elements of epic theatre, from all mentioned above analysis it can be argued that Miller followed Brecht’s epic theatre in its conceptual terms and achieved alienation and historification in his own way. In this regard, the introduction of the all-present narrator gave an opportunity to separate the audience from the main characters and also to guide their self-perception in the right direction. This direction was the same as it was intended by Brecht – ability of people to remain themselves and to consider described problems in terms of personal lives and their own contemporary society. In this case, Miller’s approach to historification entirely corresponded to   Brecht’s essence of it. Again through the narrator, he managed to explain the audience the connection between 17th century Salem tragedy and contemporary to him and target audience prejudices of McCarthyism and ongoing prosecution of those accused in communism in 1953. Although contemporary audience would view the play in a different manner and within an entirely different politico-sociological framework, the structure and incentives of the play remain generally human and comprehensible to audiences of various generations. Thus, it can be concluded that this play, in fact, can be identified as an example of Brecht’s epic theatre and guidance for human self-exploration and understanding.

Works Cited

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. London: Penguin Classics. 2000. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. Understanding Brecht. New York: Verso. 2003. Print.

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