The Unity of Good and Evil

Arthur Miller’s Portrayal of John Proctor in "The Crucible"

Term Paper 2009 14 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Arthur Miller's Concept

3. Realization of the Concept with Regard to John Proctor

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

One of the group members of an experimental theatre ensemble of the 1970s and 80s, called Wooster Group, commented on The Crucible that “the play was interesting to us because Arthur Miller wrote it as a moral play. He took responsibility, social responsibility. There was a hero.”[1] Since the hero is the most important character who has the task to convey this moral massage, this paper will mainly concentrate on his role, his character development, his portrayal by Arthur Miller and how the author realized his moral concept in the character of John Proctor. When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, he envisioned the “concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative”.[2] The first part of the paper shall thus explain Miller’s concept and what he actually intended to show in The Crucible. Essays, articles and interviews with Arthur Miller will serve as evidence to extract his notion of good and evil. In the second part, attention will be drawn to the realization of these concepts in The Crucible, where the protagonist John Proctor shall be of interest for the analysis. Elizabeth LeCompte, artistic director of the Wooster Group made an allusion to the work of Arthur Miller: “What people are calling responsible art is work that illustrates a theme toward which you already have a clear-cut ‘moral’ attitude.”[3] What she indicated was Arthur Miller’s threat of legal action against the Wooster Group who performed some parts from The Crucible in their play L.S.D (…Just the High Points…). Hence, LeCompte argued:

[…] Miller has, ironically, aligned himself with the very forces that The Crucible condemns, those authorities who exercise their power arrogantly and arbitrarily to ensure their own continued political and cultural dominion.[4]

She suggests that Miller’s action is not without contradiction. Therefore, my approach will be deconstructionist, as I aim to point out the contradiction between Miller’s intentions for the play and his actual realization. In conclusion, I will judge whether Miller successfully established his concept of good and evil in The Crucible or whether he fell into his own trap.

2. Arthur Miller's Concept

When literary critics comment on Arthur Miller's The Crucible, most of them address Miller’s critical allusion to McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Indeed, The Crucible is not only reflecting the Salem witch trials of 1692 but also obviously criticizing the political situation of those days. Arthur Miller assigned great importance to the dedication of public matters in theater.[5] Yet, Eric Bentley, drama critic, correctly noted that “no one is interested in anything but this reference”.[6] In an interview in 1965, Miller stated that he pursued wider intention, as well: “I saw the McCarthy thing, but I was writing underneath it, trying to express some universal element in man. Often the historical element is mistaken for the theme.”[7] Since then, critics have argued about this universal element and each of them identified a different theme. An explanation what kind of “universal element in man” Miller meant, could provide a passage from The Crucible. The commenting texts or “narrative interludes”[8], which Miller inserted within the dialogues, could then serve the purpose to convey these concepts. Miller uses the commentary on Reverend Hale to add more of his thoughts:

First, Miller indeed alludes to the political situation of the Cold War: “Ours is a divided empire in which certain ideas and emotions and actions are of God, and their opposites are of Lucifer.”[9] The Cold War divided the world into two opposing sides, the capitalist United States of America and the communist Soviet Union. Each side considered itself on the side of God, whereas the enemy would be linked to the Devil, as well as anybody who aligned with the opponent. He even reinforces his reference by saying that “the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes.”[10] Miller then provides an explanation for this political situation: The concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of

the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing, and

always joined to the same phenomenon – such a concept is still reserved […] to the few who have grasped the history of ideas.[11]

The extreme black-and-white mindset, which most men have wrongly internalized, is what leads to tyranny, “a political policy […] equated with moral right, and the opposition to it with diabolical malevolence”[12]. Once a government has pretensions to being absolutely unfailing, it is not democratic anymore. Worried that democracy could no longer persist in the 1950s, he reacted to this precarious political situation in writing The Crucible. Instead of the black-and-white mindset it shall promote “the concept of unity” which implies that there is always both a morally good and bad side in human beings. From an interview in 1953 we get to know that “Miller believes that the temptation toward diabolism has always existed in mankind and exists today.”[13] Thus, “the universal element in man” is neither purely good nor purely evil. These “narrative interludes” that will reoccur all over the play are especially noteworthy for they are not only a specification of characters but rather present Miller’s personal interpretation of the play.[14] In this way they will help us to detect the author’s world view and his intentions of The Crucible.

However, Miller does not always seem to be convinced of his “concept of unity”: In his Introduction to the Collected Plays from 1957, he affirms to have a “humanistic conception of man as essentially innocent”[15] but then changes his mind due to the historical documents of the witch trials: “In reading the record […], I found one recurring note which had a growing effect upon my concept […] of our modern way of thinking about people, and especially of the treatment of evil in contemporary drama.”[16] In fact, Miller affirms that the records reveal the „absolute dedication to evil displayed by the judges of these trials and the prosecutors.“[17] It is a striking change of his former conception of man and his world view opposed to any black-and-white mindset as detected so far. Although Miller has been criticized for the deeply evil portrayal of the judges, he even regrets having mitigated some evil of Danforth. If he had to rewrite the play again, he “would perfect his evil to its utmost”[18]. Taking into account that he aimed at decontructing the notion of absolute evil before, we can conclude that Miller's world view is quite inconsistent in his argumentation. Furthermore, contradictions occur within the same passage, as already indicated by Driver[19]: On the one hand Miller states: “Evil is not a mistake but a fact in itself.”[20] On the other hand he argues that “evil […] represents but a perversion of […] frustrated love.”[21] Whereas Miller detects an “absolute dedication to evil displayed by the judges”, he does not comment on the existence of pure good. As already indicated Miller was criticized for his absolutely evil portrayal of the judges in The Crucible. Moreover, many critics have argued that Abigail, as well, “is actually an embodiment of evil in the play.”[22] Hence, Eric Bentley has put the question: “The guilty men are as black with guilt as Mr. Miller says –what we must ask is whether the innocent are as white with innocence.”[23] In the following the paper shall therefore concentrate on the portrayal of good and evil of John Proctor. In fact, a purely innocent hero would mean that the author fell into his own trap and did not manage to establish his concept of unity in The Crucible.


[1] Savran, David, Breaking the Rules: The Wooster Group (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1991) 205.

[2] Miller, Arthur, The Crucible (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1990) 54.

[3] Savran 206.

[4] Savran 219.

[5] Driver, Tom, “Strength and Weakness in Arthur Miller,” Arthur Miller, Ed. Harold Bloom. (New York: Chelsea House, 1987) 17.

[6] Bentley, Eric “The Innocence of Arthur Miller,” The Crucible: Text and Criticism, Gerald Weales, (New York: The Viking Press, 1971) 205.

[7] Feron, James “Miller in London to See Crucible,” Conversations with Arthur Miller. Ed. Matthew C. Roudané, (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1987) 83.

[8] Adler, Thomas, “Conscience and communitiy in An Enemy of the People and The Crucible,The Cambridge companion to Arthur Miller, Ed. Christopher Bigsby, (Cambridge: CUP, 1997) 92.

[9] Miller, Crucible 53.

[10] Ibid. 54.

[11] Miller, Crucible 54.

[12] Ibid. 56.

[13] Griffin, John and Alice, “Arthur Miller Discusses The Crucible,” Conversations with Arthur Miller, Ed. Matthew C. Roudané, (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1987) 26.

13 Adler 92.

[15] Miller, Arthur, “Introduction to the Collected Plays,” The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, Ed. Robert A. Martin, Steven R. Centola (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996) 158.

[16] Miller, Introduction 157.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Miller, Introduction 158.

[19] Driver 25.

[20] Miller, Introduction 158.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Bhatia, Santosh, Arthur Miller: Social Drama as Tragedy, (New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1985) 61.

[23] Driver 24.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
566 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
unity good evil arthur miller’s portrayal john proctor crucible



Title: The Unity of Good and Evil