A story like one’s own

In Text Messages this week, Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible reminds us of the imperishable value of conscience, integrity and keeping one’s good name.

Those familiar with the murderous reign in the Philippines of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos will have had a rude shock this week with the election of their son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, to that country’s presidency. Something other than a stripling at 64 years of age, the younger Ferdinand ran under the terrifying slogan “Together we shall rise again”. Given that his father had thousands of political opponents arrested, tortured and permanently removed from society, the promise of that catchphrase is ominous.

However, the young who eagerly put their Xs next to young Marcos’ name on the ballot sheet were brainwashed by wave upon wave of mendacious and lying disinformation peddled on social media. Killings and corruption in the era of Marcos the elder? What deaths, what thefts? Bliss was it in that Filipino dawn to be alive, and to be Imelda Marcos, collector of thousands of pairs of the most expensive shoes on Earth, it was very heaven! 

Again, the pernicious effects of inadequately regulated social media create a vast tragedy. It does not help that the world has embraced a culture of bombast, lying and evasion, and expedient omission or obliteration of inconvenient truths. More and more it seems that the work that speaks most directly to this situation is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

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Premiered in 1953, it came at a time of relentless seeking out and persecuting of alleged communists in the United States by senator Joseph McCarthy, who claimed he knew of 205 communists forming US policy in the Department of State. Though cut to 57 names, the inquisition was merciless and hounded many Hollywood screenwriters and directors out of the country, including Charlie Chaplin. It was to this process, which ran from 1950 to 1954, that Miller applied the outline, details and characters of an earlier and very analogous witch hunt, in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.

For decades The Crucible has been entwined with McCarthyism and “Reds beneath the bed”. But it is much more than that, a play for all seasons, all ideologies and despotic modes of ruling that routinely project falsehoods as reality. Whether it be theocracy and witchcraft, plutocracy and capitalism, dictatorship and communism or the doctrinaire imposition of a party line, Miller’s play addresses them all. It does so because it is concerned principally with the truth and the value of conscience and one’s name.

What’s in a name?

Long after The Crucible was a global icon, Miller mused in essays, always enlighteningly so. “It was not only the rise of ‘McCarthyism’ that moved me, but something that seemed much more weird and mysterious. It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming a holy resonance.”

In his 1999 essay “The Crucible in History”, he notes that, “And it is part of the play’s history, I think, that to people in so many parts of the world its story seems so like their own.” He gives a telling example of Chinese author Yuen Cheng, detained for six years in solitary confinement during the Cultural Revolution, about which she wrote Life and Death in Shanghai. Released, she was taken by a friend, a theatre director, to see his production of The Crucible, “a play and author she had never heard of”, writes Miller.

“As she listened to it, the interrogations sounded so precisely the same as the ones she and others had been subject to by the Cultural Revolutionaries that she couldn’t believe a non-Chinese had written it … A highly educated woman, she had been living with the conviction that such a perversion of just procedure could happen only in the China of a debauched revolution!”

The perversion of procedure is the extraction of false confessions from Salem residents who say they have seen the Devil and done his bidding. These liars are spared but those who will not confess, such as Goodwife Rebecca Nurse, are hanged. Surprised to discover that John Proctor, the protagonist of the play, is in the midst of confessing, Rebecca rebuffs an offer to do likewise by saying, “Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself?”

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Proctor eventually signs his confession but will not give up the paper on which it’s written to the authorities because, first, “I blacken all of them when this is nailed to the church the very day they hang for silence!” And, more pertinently and poignantly, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

Proctor tears up the paper and is hanged. He is, according to scholar ER Wood, “the Miller hero in the situation that matters to Miller: the rational straightforward man who clashes with the authorities demanding conformity … but who cannot in the end be forced to ‘hand over conscience’, for with conscience goes the man himself, the real integrity, the Name”.

There was another real-life person who faced the same dilemma of self: Sir Thomas More, who would not give in to King Henry VIII’s demand for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon nor acknowledge the king as supreme head of the Church of England. In Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons (1960), More declares: “In matters of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing.”

Taunted by the weaselly Thomas Cromwell – “Your own self you mean!” – More rebuts with: “Yes, a man’s soul is his self!”

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