In Israel, one of my jobs is teaching literature in an Israeli high school. A recent assignment was reading The Crucible, the celebrated Arthur Miller play which later was made into a movie whose screenplay was also written by Miller.
When one of my students asked why we are still reading this play, I responded that although it deals with the Salem witch trials of the 1690s and originally was written as an allegory of Senator Joe McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities which took place in the 1950s, the play is still relevant today.
In a burst of creative energy, I googled “movies about the McCarthy hearings” and discovered three dealing with the topic: the 1991 film Guilty by Suspicion, the 2005 film Goodnight and Good Luck and the 2007 documentary Trumbo. I then downloaded the trailers for all three films onto my iPad and showed them to my students before we read the play. I then asked them what is the common thread between those films. The answer: they all address the issue of being true to oneself, about being a person of integrity even at great personal cost. That is a topic of significance today as much as it was over fifty years ago when The Crucible first appeared.
The movie begins with a scene of teenage girls running in the forest at night conjuring love potions to encourage the affections of young men in Salem. Their dancing is witnessed by the local preacher who sees their wild behavior as witchcraft, the work of the devil. This eventually leads to a myriad of false innuendos and false accusations made in court about upright citizens, which unravel the bonds of community.
A central figure is Abigail Williams. She has had an affair with John Proctor, and wants to get rid of Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, who stands in her way. In fact, she rejoices when Elizabeth, along with many others, is singled out as a witch condemned to death for trafficking with the devil. With her gone, John will be free to marry her. Absorbed in her own selfish needs, she threatens her peers not to contradict her perjury and they oblige.
Numbers of innocent people are sentenced to death on the testimony of this group of girls who have fabricated stories of devil worshipping among the righteous pillars of the town. To stop the hangings, John Proctor is compelled to admit his own moral mistake and he, too, is condemned to death.
In a powerful, poetic scene on a windy day by the sea, he has a frank conversation with his wife in which they finally communicate in an open and honest way with one another and confess their shortcomings as husband and wife. It is an emotional tableau of reconciliation that touches the heart and mind. In the end, Proctor values life and agrees to confess to Judge Danforth, the presiding judge in the witch trials.
But there is a problem. Danforth wants Proctor’s signed confession to be posted on the church door for the entire community to see. That will blacken Proctor’s name forever. In an impassioned speech, he cries out: “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!”
The Ethics of the Fathers tell us that our most important possession is not our wealth or our knowledge but rather our good name. More important than the priesthood or kingship is our reputation. John Proctor understands this well. He wonders aloud: “I have three children—how can I teach them to walk like men in the world?” If his name is besmirched, then how will his children regard him? Leaving them his farm or his wealth is meaningless if he cannot leave them his good name. A good reputation is a legacy that transcends the generations.