Since it first debuted in 1953, Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” has become an essential work within the canon of American drama. Set in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials, the play serves as an allegory for McCarthyism in which suspected communists were interrogated and subsequently blacklisted. As accusations fly, mass hysteria ensues, leading to moments of extreme tension throughout the play. The final moment of suspense rests upon the shoulders of the protagonist, a flawed man who struggles with the chance to redeem himself.
Setting the Stage
Rightly so, the final moment of suspense surrounds the play’s protagonist, John Proctor, a stern and honorable farmer who loathes hypocrisy. Proctor, however, has a fatal flaw: Early on, the audience learns that Proctor has had an affair with his 17-year-old former servant, Abigail Williams, the play’s vindictive, selfish and devious antagonist. Rejected by Proctor, Abigail finds power in accusing innocent townsfolk of witchcraft; it isn’t long before Proctor finds his own wife, Elizabeth, ensnared in Abigail’s wild accusations. Guilt-ridden, Proctor heads to the court to try to save his wife, resulting in the play's climax in which Proctor confesses his affair with Abigail to an open court. Elizabeth, trying to protect her husband and unaware that Proctor already confessed to the crime of "lechery," claims that the affair never happened. Proctor is arrested and sentenced to death.
Is It Getting Hot in Here?
From the small upper bedroom in Act 1 to the packed courthouse in Act 3 to the stifling jail cell in Act 4, Miller’s scene descriptions add to the claustrophobic feel of the play, contributing to its tension and suspense. In 1692, the village of Salem was populated by Puritans, who had very clear boundaries for what constituted good and evil. They forbid singing, dancing and entertainment of any type. The town itself was small and surrounded by forestry, which the elders considered the devil’s playground. All of these factors influence the way the characters play upon one another until the tension boils over, resulting in the arrest and interrogation of the honorable John Proctor.
Sealing the Deal
The final moment of suspense occurs in the play’s denouement, or final outcome. This occurs after Proctor, who has been withering in a jail cell, succumbs to pressure from the judges, who convince him to save his own life by falsely confessing that he had bound himself to the devil's service. The judges, who by now are aware, at least subconsciously, that the witchcraft accusations are the machinations of a scorned teenage girl, know that a confession from a respected villager like John Proctor will validate the hangings of so many others for "witchcraft." Wanting to live, Proctor agrees to confess that he did dance with the devil, but then, trying to retain what is left of his goodness and to protect his family name, he has a change of heart. As the judges press him to sign the confession, Proctor wrestles with his conscience. He realizes, at that moment, that he cannot "sign himself to lies," bellowing, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” With his distraught wife Elizabeth looking on, John tears up the confession, sealing his fate. He is sent to the gallows to die -- his honor restored and his courage intact.
Who Will Save His Soul?
Following the rejection of his confession, Proctor is chained and led to his death as drumrolls fill the air. Panicked, Judge Hale tries to convince Elizabeth to save her husband: “Woman, plead with him! What profit him to bleed?” The long-suffering Elizabeth refuses, stating, “He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him.” By coming clean, Proctor dies a good man, providing the character -- and the audience -- with a final moment of catharsis.