The Crucible

The Crucible Historical Dystopia

Many labels have been attached to The Crucible over the course of its life – tragedy, allegory, political screed, historical fiction, even horror. But the historical nature of the play often leads people to ignore its place in genre fiction, as a dystopia.

The dystopia is a sub-genre of speculative fiction, derived from its more philosophical cousin, the utopia. Sir Thomas More coined "utopia" in 1516 as a name for an ideal and impossible society. Pure utopias are rare in modern fiction, except as a Shangri-la or Brigadoon sought by characters from a non-utopian world. The significantly more popular genre of dystopia subverts the original concept by presenting worlds that either appear to be utopias but suffer from a fatal flaw (such as The Giver); worlds that are utopias to their inhabitants but unappealing to us (Brave New World); and worlds that are just plain awful (1984, and many others).

Generally, a dystopia shares significant tropes with science fiction, employing advanced technology and post-disaster scenarios to create the universe in question. But The Crucible is no less a dystopia for taking place in the past rather than the future, in a time of farmers and butter churns rather than zeppelins and thought control.

Arthur Miller was no stranger to borrowing and adapting tropes from other genres of theater and fiction. His first hit, All My Sons, took its cue from the naturalist style of Henrik Ibsen, and Death of A Salesman borrowed elements from Yiddish theater and magic realism. The Crucible plays as a straight historical, like Shakespeare's history plays, but the particular unfamiliarity of the historical setting and the allegorical political argument being constructed lead The Crucible to share many elements of the dystopian narrative.

Salem itself features many characteristics that are common of dystopian settings: strict social stratification, as in Brave New World; restricted sexuality and the melding of church and state, as in The Handmaid's Tale; minimal privacy and required conformity, as in 1984; and invasive political apparatus, as in Fareneheit 451. But by virtue of having actually existed, Salem itself cannot be a proper dystopia, by definition. Rather, The Crucible is a dystopian narrative, making use of the tropes of the genre to dramatize the real history of the Salem witch trials.

George Orwell's 1984 is widely considered the most influential and well-known dystopia, and as it was recently published and popular when Miller was writing The Crucible, it serves as a good example for comparing the structure of the play to the classic dystopia.

In the first section, or Act One, of 1984 we are introduced to the world of Big Brother, establishing the particular rules of this universe. Act One of the Crucible is much the same, showing us the context of Salem and its inhabitants and how things work in their society. Act Two of 1984 has the protagonist, Winston Smith, beginning to realize that the world he lives in is unequivocally bad, and tries to fight back against the system. Act Two of the Crucible likewise shows Proctor understanding how far the trials have gone, and planning to stop the courts. Act Three of 1984 brings Winston to O'Brien, and there is significant debate about the nature of his society. The Crucible's third act is the courtroom arguments about the validity of the trials and their evidence. Finally, 1984 finishes with the defeat of the hero and the bleak continuation of the dystopia. Although in some dystopias the hero succeeds in bringing down the system or escaping from his society, The Crucible is like 1984 in that its hero is also ultimately powerless in the face of the state, and is executed.

Aside from the structural similarity, The Crucible also shares characterization tropes with the dystopia genre. Like John Proctor, the hero of a dystopia is almost invariably a member of the society in question, usually fairly high in social standing, who instinctively understands that something is wrong with the world. He is generally a lone voice of reason, expressing the audience's opinion of the world in question. His rebellion often comes at great personal risk.

Moreover, a dystopia isn't merely entertainment. The point is to show the connection to the world the writer currently lives in, to exaggerate existing social and political flaws and demonstrate the damage they can do when taken to their logical extreme. Arthur Miller does just that – by framing 1692 Salem as a dystopia, he makes an even stronger case about the present day. Not only can political oppression and "naming names" lead to a dystopia-like environment – they have, in the true and not so distant past, in this very country. For that is the true point of the Crucible, to show just what depths society is capable of, now and in our past and in our future.