The American Theater of Change. Images of the Past in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"

Thesis (M.A.), 2010

90 Pages, Grade: 1,3


List of Contents

I. The American Theater of Change - An Introduction

II. The American Settlement and Colonial History
2.1 An Overview
2.2 Arthur Miller’s Salem
2.2.1 Prevailing Themes inThe Crucible
2.2.2 The People of Salem
2.2.3 The Villainy of Abigail Williams
2.2.4 Miller’s Changes
2.3 Early America according to Tony Kushner
2.4 Summary

III. The Age of McCarthyism
3.1 Cold-War America
3.1.1 The Political Landscape
3.1.2 The Crisis of American Masculinity
3.2 “Is the accuser always holy now?” - McCarthyism inThe Crucible
3.2.1 Parallels between Salem and McCarthyism
3.2.2 Misremembering history
3.3 “A Saint of the Right”: Roy Cohn
3.3.1 Kushner’s Roy
3.4 Summary

IV. The Administration of Ronald Reagan
4.1 Dr. Feelgood
4.2 Kushner’s America under Reagan
4.2.1 The American Zeitgeist of the 1980s
4.2.2 Family Values
4.3 Summary: Family inThe Crucible

V. The American Religion
5.1 Guilt and Responsibility inThe Crucible
5.2 Kushner’s Angels
5.2.1 Sexuality and Religion
5.2.2 Judaism and Mormonism
5.3 Summary

VI. The Reinvention of the American Dream
6.1 Dream or Nightmare?
6.2 Miller’s Disillusionment
6.3 Tony Kushner’s Message of Interconnectedness
6.4 Summary

VII. “History is about to crack wide open” - A Conclusion

VIII. List of Works cited
8.1 Primary Sources
8.2 Secondary Sources

I. The American Theater of Change - An Introduction

It all started with the image of an angel crashing through the ceiling of a bedroom. When Tony Kushner had this peculiar dream, little did he know that it was his first step on the way to writing one of the most spectacular plays in modern American theater history. As many authors have observed, the angel inAngels in America clearly hints at Paul Klee’s paintingAngelus Novus, which Walter Benjamin described in his essayTheses on the Philosophy of History. An essential part of Kushner’s own historic concept is based on Benjamin’s understanding of this painting: An angel is propelled forward by the storm of time. His gaze is fixed on the rubble of the past. A feeling of extreme longing makes him want to return to that past. However, he cannot go back because his wings are caught in the wind that carries him further and further into the future. For this angel progress is inconceivable, and the Now is a situation of unbearable pain (cf. Savran 1997, 17). According to Tony Kushner, we have to constantly observe history in order to understand the present and find our way through what is to come. In his view, contrary to many historians’ beliefs, historic events are not unique but repetitive. Kushner is especially troubled by the amnesia which has impaired the American nation. People do not recognize the past’s significance for the present and even the future (cf. McNulty 86). Following his idol Berthold Brecht, Kushner sees all theater as political and its main purpose as the teaching of history (cf. Kushner 1997, 28). Moreover, he wants to communicate that evolution and progress are inevitably linked to human existence. It is unnatural and impossible to live in the past or even to remain in stasis. As progress and forward movement essentially include loss and pain, one must be able to accept them as a natural feature of life (cf. Fisher 2008, 54).

Tony Kushner’s two-part-playAngels in America [1] has evoked an equal amount of praise and controversy since it was first performed in 1991. With more than five plot lines that gradually intermingle in the course of the play, a combination of comedic and tragic, realistic and fantastic elements and a total performance time of approximately seven hours,Angels in America virtually displays epic dimensions (cf. Reinelt 60). The Brechtian influence on Kushner’s work reveals itself in his use of historization, alienation and in the vast variety of topics addressed in the play: Politics, religion, sexuality, love, death, homophobia, racism and AIDS, among others. Kushner has had a remarkable impact on gay theater and the homosexual community. Gay issues and gender representation in his play have been discussed by many authors.[2] However, since Kushner does not only consider himself as a gay playwright but as a political dramatist as well, his views on history and politics play an at least equally important role. The title and subtitle ofAngels in America - A Gay Fantasia on National Themes suggests a thorough concern with specifically American social and political issues. “From the Mayflower to the Melting Pot, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, from McCarthy to Reagan, Kushner offers a wide array of ‘national themes’ in his plays. He also takes up American symbols, myths, and basic tenets of the American Dream” (Klüßendorf 178).

When writing about political drama and American national themes, the plays of Arthur Miller must be considered. Being a notorious critic of American society, capitalism and the American Dream (cf. Saddik 40), he has not only received a lot of attention because of his work but also due to his political activism.[3] As an artist with a left-wing orientation and affiliations with the Communist Party, the persecution of alleged Soviet spies in the first years of the Cold War affected Miller greatly. He himself was questioned and convicted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for contempt due to his unwillingness to co-operate with them. The procedure of ‘naming names’ in addition to the idea of a community falling apart due to fear and suspicion were some of the major inspirations for his playThe Crucible. Although Miller had been thoroughly interested in the witch trials in seventeenth-century Massachusetts for some time, only the oppressive atmosphere of the 1950s in the United States provided him with the proper understanding of the forces involved in such a phenomenon. Thus, Miller managed to reanimate the horrors of the Salem witch hunts and to identify the human follies which also caused the anticommunist movement. Moreover, by linking historic themes like the settlement myth and the Puritan legacy to modern society,The Crucible demonstrates the relevance of these narratives for the America of today.

Not only does Arthur Miller count as one of the most influential American playwrights, his preoccupation with history runs like a red thread through his works. It marks Miller’s great talent as a writer that he has the ability to connect past events with current experience, and thus convey a universally significant message to the audience (cf. Balakian 121). In this respect, some striking resemblances between Tony Kushner and Arthur Miller can be observed. One of Miller’s most significant works,The Crucible, stresses the perpetually repetitive nature of history. “For Miller, the horror of the Holocaust, like the mania of McCarthyism, is not confined to the past, since our present contains the past” (Balakian 127). Miller also thinks that a personal confrontation with the past is a moral obligation for everyone. So, in spite of the common opinion of many historians, that all events and people are unique and cannot be replicated, Miller affirms that history does in a way repeat itself. It is then the artist’s duty to make history believable to his audience by relating it to the experience of his own time (cf. Morgan 42-43).

The two authors and their plays, which have been briefly introduced above, will provide the material for the discussion in this thesis. Now, the question may arise why a comparison of Miller’sCrucible and Kushner’sAngels could be interesting. Although their plays seem to be quite different and peculiar in style at first sight, they both address related topics significant to American society due to their similar social backgrounds and the political views that have influenced both playwrights: Both are Jewish and of Eastern-European origin with strong leftist ideals. While Miller exposes the nation’s shortcomings through the depiction of two rather traumatic historic events, the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, Kushner offers an insight into the American society of the mid-1980s through the eyes of varying characters. Furthermore, both playwrights seem to have strong ties to the past. Although Arthur Miller was a contemporary of McCarthyism, he chose to use a historical allegory as a device for discussing current affairs. Similarly, Kushner often refers to past events in order to stress present issues; for example by likening the westward journey of European immigrants to the US to the search of the modern American for his or her identity (cf.Millennium 1.1). By creating this tight connection between past and present, both authors hint at the significance of history for the achievement of change in the world: One must not live in the past but should still cautiously observe it. All these differences and similarities will contribute to a worthwhile comparative analysis of Miller’s and Kushner’s plays.

The central questions of this thesis will therefore be: What are the functions of Tony Kushner’s images of the past as presented inAngels in America ? How do they relate to and differ from Arthur Miller’s depiction of history inThe Crucible ? And what do both of them contribute to their audiences’ ideas of the American nation and identity? In order to answer those questions, the following key aspects of both plays will be surveyed. The second chapter will evaluate how both playwrights describe America’s formation and growth. Miller’s play is set in New England of 1692 and offers an insight into the original principles which govern aspects of American life until today. A detailed analysis ofThe Crucible will therefore dominate this chapter. Kushner also employs some references to the origins of America in his play, which will be compared to the accounts inThe Crucible. The third chapter will deal with issues of the McCarthy era as presented in Miller’s and Kushner’s plays. Miller, as a contemporary witness, addresses the topic in a metaphoric manner, relating the hysteria of the anticommunist wave to the Salem witch hunts in colonial Massachusetts. Kushner only recounts McCarthyism through two of his characters: A fictitious version of real-life Roy Cohn, Assistant United States attorney and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s right hand at the time, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who was suspected of being a Soviet spy and executed along with her husband in ‘53. In the fourth chapter the Reagan era and the end of the Cold War will be discussed. Since Miller’s play was published almost forty years prior toAngels in America,The Crucible will have less significance for this chapter. However, some striking similarities between the age of McCarthyism and the Reagan era will make a comparative discussion of the two plays necessary.Angels in America mostly takes place between the years of 1985 and 1986, during Ronald Reagan’s second term of office. Kushner’s play depicts a rather dark time of extreme conservatism, selfish capitalism, criticizing the extensive cuts in social programs, the exclusiveness of Reagan’s ‘family values’ and the administration’s failure in appropriately reacting to the AIDS crisis. The fifth chapter will address the impact of religion on American society as depicted inThe Crucible andAngels in America. In order to sum up what has been revealed in the course of the thesis about the authors’ capacities as political playwrights, the sixth chapter will show what both Tony Kushner and Arthur Miller have achieved in deconstructing and reinventing the American Dream. Finally, the seventh chapter will reflect the results of this thesis and point out possibilities for further study. This conclusion will, however, be brief since summaries of the respective results will be given at the end of each chapter.

II. The American Settlement and Colonial History

Colonial history still plays an important role in the lives of modern Americans. Many ideas influential to the life of the pilgrims who first settled the new continent have survived until today (cf. Adams 15). They configure the common narratives of the American Dream like progress, self-reliance, the westward journey etc. For this reason, the settlement history remains a major source for the understanding of today’s US society and its identity.

The following chapter will be divided into four parts. The first section will provide some historical information about the first Puritan settlers in America. Specific regard will be given to the possible origins of the hysteria that led to the witch hunts. This account will exclusively focus on the Puritans and neglect other communities of the colonies. The second part will then analyze Arthur Miller’s depiction of Puritan life during the Salem witch trials in his playThe Crucible. After that, some aspects of early American history from Tony Kushner’sAngels in America will be dealt with. Lastly, Miller’s and Kushner’s images of America’s early development will be compared briefly.

2.1 An Overview

The Puritans had come to America in order to escape religious prosecution in the course of the Reformation in Europe. They were searching for a land free of the sins of papal rule where they could entirely devote themselves to their pure worship. The new continent of America offered unspoilt soil and an opportunity for a new beginning. This prospect particularly appealed to the Puritans due to their millennial beliefs. Thus, America became the place provided by God for his elect to build their New Jerusalem there (cf. Freese 94, 98-99). Since the Puritans believed in predestination - that some of them were chosen by God to gain salvation, and the rest would be damned forever - they constantly strived to deserve their place among the elect. Therefore, they worked hard every day, and whenever they did not work, they fully committed themselves to prayer. When their labor was rewarded with success, they understood their fortune as a sign that they would also be blessed in the afterlife (cf. Freese 107). The elevation of progress and the work ethic of the self-made man later evolved from this way of thinking.[4]

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the ideal society established by the Puritans in New England, encountered the harsh reality. “Massachusetts had been founded as a city on a hill, to be an example to the world of how a community could be organized in subjection to God’s commands” (Morgan 50). However, in the course of time the colony watched the rest of the world ignore their ideal and follow other evil ways. Moreover, their relationship with Great Britain was degenerating as the colonies strived for more independence from the Empire. After the king had been overthrown in 1688, the colonists rose against his governor in New England and sacked him, too. The Puritans were more than glad and thankful for this development, because they desired to escape the king’s rule in order to serve no one else but God. When a new governor was sent to make sure that the colonists still served the King of England, the Puritans despaired. They reasoned that something evil, which had caused this misfortune, must walk amongst themselves (cf. Morgan 51). Consequently, the Puritans became obsessed with the fear of the devil’s intervention destroying the dream of their utopia in America. This constant anxiety bred a habit in the American conscience, which runs like a red thread through the nation’s past: The conspiratorial notion of history (cf. Freese 101). This concept is relevant with regard to the complex relationships between Puritan Salem, the McCarthy era and the Reagan years, which will be outlined later on in this thesis Very early in American history, the colonists discovered the betrayal which hid behind the dreams and promises of the New World. The Puritans’ belief in a New Jerusalem and utopia was greatly disappointed when they recognized the hardships they had to face in this untamed and rough land. Early records show that the pioneers’ fight for survival even led some - on the verge of starvation - to cannibalism (cf. Freese 105). Hence, the establishment of a theocracy became the Puritans’ only chance of safety in this hostile environment. The reliance on an exclusive and strictly ruled community guaranteed their survival. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, after the Indians had been repelled, and starvation was no longer a problem, life in the colonies became safer. Instead of providing only for the bare necessities, people were now able to gather land and wealth. The communal society, which had made survival on the periphery possible, was now being replaced by a more individualistic and commercially oriented system (cf. Saddik 61). Thus, some of the Puritan standards were loosened. Their degenerating values and moral slackness led to fear and insecurity among the community members. The Puritans, like a group of people governed by a despotic system, were more susceptible to paranoia. Their political misfortune and dissatisfaction could, from their point of view, only be explained by the existence of conspirators from within their community. They grew more suspicious of each other, searching for those to blame for their disappointed expectations. Those who did not obey the strict rules of the community and were consequently noticed as potential threats to unity easily became scapegoats. Witchcraft was only a symbol for the loss of the theocracy’s control over its citizens (cf. Mason 106). In order to prevent the theocracy’s failure, and to create an outlet for the suppressed aggression and paranoia reigning society, the people demanded a blood sacrifice (cf. Livesay 17). This development caused the initial victimization of people with little influence in the community during the hunts. Witches were those who sported an independent spirit, who did not conform to the Puritans’ predominant values and thus endangered their community (cf. Saddik 62). Minor disputes and hostilities, which had emerged earlier among the citizens, could now be taken out on each other publicly. However, when the accusations and hangings began to affect citizens of higher social rank, public approval and toleration ceased. People came back to reason, and the hysteria receded. All these social and political influences partially contributed to the outbreak of the horrible events of the witch hunts in Salem.

2.2 Arthur Miller’s Salem

AlthoughThe Crucible is most often interpreted as an analogy to the US-anticommunist witch hunts led by Senator McCarthy, its main setting is Puritan Massachusetts in 1692. Robert Warshow categorizes the events in Salem as one of the most horrible episodes in American history (cf. 112). Although Arthur Miller had been fascinated with this particular historical period for a long time, only the anticommunist crusade after the Second World War provided him with the proper atmosphere and inspiration for writing his play. As he claims, “[…] fear, like love, is mostly incommunicable once it has passed” (Miller 2008, 84). So, McCarthyism became Miller’s medium to provide his audience with comprehension of the incident in Salem before the play was used vice versa (cf. Foulkes 295-296). Therefore,The Crucible draws various connections between America in the ‘50s and colonial New England in order to relate the particular atmosphere to Miller’s contemporary audiences.

2.2.1 Prevailing Themes inThe Crucible

Arthur Miller opens his play with many pages of commentary. This review, of course, remains unknown to theater audiences but nevertheless offers extensive background information about Puritan life, the origins of the witch hunts and characterizations of the play’s dramatis personae. Miller mentions many of the points from section 2.1 in his account, possibly to convey the essential historical circumstances to actors, directors or other readers. He begins by explaining the reasons for the establishment of a theocracy in Massachusetts. Life by the Puritan creed created ideal circumstances for mastering the new land. “So their self-denial, their purposefulness, their suspicion of all vain pursuits, their hard-handed justice, were altogether perfect instruments for the conquest of this space so antagonistic to man” (Crucible 15). Above all, their dedication to unity was the Puritans’ greatest strength. It meant safety and stability. Compromising their unity would accordingly mean the ruin of the whole community.

[…] for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies. (Crucible 16)

Thus, as Miller points out, a doctrine of exclusiveness and prohibition was promoted, and permanent pressure towards conformity was exerted. Christopher Bigsby explains this development by noting that any totalitarian system[5] relies on rituals of uniformity and hostility towards those who threaten it, in order to replace a missing sense of natural community (cf. Bigsby 186). The sovereign therefore has to establish a standard of what is right and wrong for the orientation of the obedient masses. For that reason, the theocracy in Salem made an example of citizens of questionable character: Tramps, drunks, slaves, widows, people who had premarital sex or illegitimate children etc. All of them would have been seen as a threat to the public order, morale and thus the very unity of the community. This diabolism - the fear and hatred of opposites - has had a lasting impact on American society and can be observed until today. The dichotomy of good and evil played a major role in public discourse during times of political oppression like McCarthyism and during the Reagan years. This thesis will therefore come back to this point in later chapters.

However, theocracy was not only threatened by disobedient individuals but also by a remarkable shift in the value system. Although their unity and discipline had worked to their advantage, when the Puritans had managed to survive during the first years of the settlement, their dependence on strict rules ceased with advancing safety. “[…] for the time of the armed camp had almost passed, and since the country was reasonably - although not wholly - safe, the old disciplines were beginning to rankle” (Crucible 14). Suddenly, the people of Salem realized that the system they were obeying was rather paradoxical. In the end, theocracy caused more problems for them than it solved. They desired the freedom which had been their initial reason for coming to America.

Evidently the time came in New England when the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organized. The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom. (Crucible 16)

In addition to the degenerating relations with Britain, the dissatisfaction with the theocratic system kindled a feeling of gloom that settled on the colonists. “It is not hard to see how easily many could have been led to believe that the time of confusion had been brought upon them by deep and darkling forces” (Crucible 16). Hence, in his notes Miller suggests that the witch hunts were inevitable due to the social disorder of the time.

Another important facet of the play, which Miller highlights in his commentary, is that it illustrates the hardships of pioneer existence, as well as the opposition of wilderness and civilization. According to the playwright, the colonial population was “forced to fight the land like heroes for every grain of corn” (Crucible 14). The wilderness of the woods and untamed land represented the negation of their safety and unity. “[…] the Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil’s last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand” (Crucible 15). Considering the Puritans’ terror of the wild, it is not surprising that the incident which sets the hysteria in motion takes place in the woods (cf. Foulkes 305). The hostile and rough environment contributed to a feeling of isolation and loneliness which had resulted from the colony’s existence cut off from the old world. Although England profited from its American colonies, their relationship was troubled. “To the European world the whole province was a barbaric frontier inhabited by a sect of fanatics who, nevertheless, were shipping out products of slowly increasing quantity and value” (Crucible 13). In fact, the kingdom derived advantage from the weakening of the colonial communities from within (cf. Marlow 146). England did not hinder the witchcraft proceedings because the unity of colonial society had previously only meant rebellion against the king and his local representatives. The utter isolation of the Puritan settlers is also accentuated in the movie version ofThe Crucible. [6] Although the real town of Salem is located more than a mile inland, the director moves it in sight of the ocean in order to intensify the atmosphere of desolation. The final act, the confrontation between Elizabeth and John Proctor, originally set in a prison cell, in Hytner’s version takes place on a wind-swept heath near the sea. Thus, the makers of the movie attempted to juxtapose the fate of those protagonists - and even that of the colony - with the fate of the whole land and continent (cf. Bigsby 206).

2.2.2 The People of Salem

It was not only the despotism of a theocratic system that caused the witch hunts but also the moral corruption of the people. Their religion taught them a preoccupation with their individual guilt and bred hypocrisy among them. Instead of facing their own vices, people tended towards blaming others for them. The accusations against neighbors had a cleansing effect on presumably righteous citizens. They projected their sins onto scapegoats. “The witch-hunt was not, however, a mere repression. It was also, and as importantly, a long overdue opportunity for everyone so inclined to express publicly his guilt and sins, under the cover of accusations against the victims” (Crucible 16-17). By revealing their own corruption, they were rewarded by the community and thus received a kind of absolution (cf. Adler 93). Revenge was another incentive of the accusers, and reached its climax during the crying-out. “Long-held hatreds of neighbors could now be openly expressed, and vengeance taken despite the Bible’s charitable injunctions” (Crucible 17). In the first act ofThe Crucible Arthur Miller introduces these motifs of suspicion and revenge. The audience at once gets an impression of the ruling dissatisfaction and hostility among the people of Salem. Accordingly, Miller establishes the hierarchy of cause and effect for the coming madness. The terrible episode of the witch hunts was the result of some persisting deeper conflicts in society and not vice versa. This realization plays a significant role throughout the play because by blaming witchcraft and Satan for their problems the Salem folk confuse cause and effect. On the first page ofThe Crucible Miller indicates another influential idea which originated in Puritan society and has survived through the ages: The paranoid notion of history. Due to the religious persecution that the Puritans had suffered in Europe, they fled to America in order to live unperturbedly and according to their convictions. However, their sense of being persecuted did not cease. A kind of natural paranoia emerged among them, which may be accounted partly responsible for the witch hunts. “[…] ironically, although their recent ancestors came to this land to avoid persecution, they have become intolerant and are constantly judging each other’s behaviour” (Abbotson 115). InThe Crucible Reverend Parris becomes a symbol of this struggle. He is the first person on stage, and Miller’s characterization of him at once establishes a wicked atmosphere on the setting. “In history he cut a villainous path, and there is very little good to be said for him. He believed he was being persecuted wherever he went” (Crucible 13). Indeed, Reverend Parris complains about some ominous enemies opposing his every move: “There is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit” (Crucible 19). In addition to that, he feels greatly unappreciated and mistreated because of his low salary: “I am not used to this poverty; I left a thrifty business in the Barbados to serve the Lord. I do not fathom it, why am I persecuted here?” (Crucible 34). When it comes to coping with poverty, Parris does not prove as righteous and dedicated to his faith as he wants to be perceived. Apparently, the position of power and respect as a minister was his main incentive to become ordained (cf. Mason 102). Miller questions whether Parris is suited for the role of a minister by drawing him as a spineless and greedy fool. Apart from that, Miller exposes through some of his characters, including Parris, that the witch trials were mainly caused by socio-economic reasons. This interpretation corresponds with historical facts (cf. Smith 134). “Land-lust which had been expressed before by constant bickering over boundaries and deeds, could now be elevated to the arena of morality” (Crucible 17). By giving a detailed account of Samuel Parris’ and Thomas Putnam’s characters, Miller insinuates the motif of greed very early in the play. Although Putnam pretends to be on Parris’ side, the commentary reveals that he has a different agenda. He is deeply troubled because his candidate for the position of the minister had been rejected in favor of Parris. Putnam consequently yearns for revenge, not only on Parris but all his enemies in Salem. The hysteria therefore offers him some great opportunities. In Act Three Putnam’s true objective comes to light. Giles Corey receives the information that Putnam ordered his daughter Ruth to accuse George Jacobs in order to buy his land after his conviction. Corey and Proctor realize that Putnam - and probably others - knowingly use the influence of their children for their advantage. “PROCTOR: [...] We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom and common vengeance writes the law” (Crucible 72).

Another character responsible for the vengeful and paranoid atmosphere is Ann Putnam. She is convinced, when she first enters the Parris’ home, that evil forces are at work, although she does not know any of the circumstances of Betty’s illness. The first thing she says is: “It is a marvel. It is surely a stroke of hell upon you” (Crucible 21). Even when Rebecca warns everyone of blaming spirits for their misfortune, Ann disagrees with her by saying: “There are wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires!” (Crucible 33). She claims that there are secret, supernatural conspiracies taking place among the people of Salem. Since Ann directs her accusations at Rebecca, she apparently has some particular culprit in mind. Ann Putnam’s suspicions are based on her refusal to understand why all her children except one could die just after birth. “MRS. PUTNAM: Reverend Parris, I have laid seven babies unbaptized in the earth. Believe me, sir, you never saw more hearty babies born. And yet, each would wither in my arms the very night of their birth” (Crucible 23). This leads her to blame her midwives for her misfortune, first Goody Osburn and then Rebecca Nurse. Ann Putnam’s motif is also jealousy because she envies Rebecca, who gave birth to many healthy babies and welcomed even more grandchildren.

The more people enter the stage during the first act the more conflicts come to light. When John Proctor arrives, his hostility towards Parris and Putnam is at once signaled. They argue about Parris’ greed and his obsession with hell. Proctor’s dislike for the minister urges him to express opinions that seem to underline Parris’ suspicions.”PARRIS […]: There is a party in this church. I am not blind; there is a faction and a party. / PROCTOR: Against you? / PUTNAM: Against him and all authority! PROCTOR: Why, then I must find it and join it” (Crucible 35). According to Lewis Livesay, this conflict foreshadows Proctor’s fate as a scapegoat (cf. 26). Rebecca Nurse is shocked at facing so much disunity in the community, and advises the men to make peace. “No, you cannot break charity with your minister” (Crucible 35). Rebecca may have foreseen the coming insanity that threatens their town. When the involvement of witchcraft is suggested, only Rebecca Nurse seems to perceive the origin of these allegations and warns her fellows: “There is prodigious danger in the seeking of loose spirits. I fear it, I fear it. Let us rather blame ourselves and -“ (author’s ellipsis;Crucible 33). Rebecca - apart from the audience - is not the only one who sees behind the façade of these righteous citizens and finds a deeply troubled and fragmented community. Giles Corey is also aware of the social disorder in Salem and tries to talk reasonably to the people assembled at Parris’ home. “It suggests to the mind what the trouble be among us all these years […] Think on it. Wherefore is everybody suing everybody else? Think on it now, it’s a deep, and as dark as a pit” (Crucible 36). For Giles there are no supernatural forces at work in town. Like Rebecca he rejects a demonization of the enemy because he knows that hell and the devil are basically human. In Miller’s commentary it is revealed that Corey did not even attend church and know any prayers before he married his third wife, Martha. Due to his lack of religious extremity, Corey may be an outcast in town but an example of sensibility for Miller. Nevertheless, his reason cannot save him or his family. As the play continues, neither Rebecca’s nor Giles’ advice can stop the development that has been set in motion. The people of Salem have accumulated a lot of aggression over the years, and now feel the urge to be relieved of their troubles. “Salem has reached a point where the tide of libidinous aggression has risen, and the people are prepared to listen, not to reason, but to the one who will provide an outlet for collective hysteria” (Livesay 25). Those few who predict the outrageous events become the heroes and martyrs of Miller’s play. After his wife has been charged with witchcraft and arrested, Giles Corey rightfully blames himself. “I have broke charity with the woman. I have broke charity with her” (Crucible 79). Although he is one of the few clear-headed people of Salem, he accidentally casts doubt on his wife when he reveals that she reads strange books. In contrast to other cowardly members of the Salem community, Corey takes responsibility for his deeds. He at least attempts to counter the escalation of panic by fighting for Martha’s life, and by refusing to incriminate others in front of the judges. Corey and his wife pay with their lives for his mistakes. In the end, the covert disorders that trouble Salem’s society in the beginning of the play come to the surface. They manifest themselves in the chaos that reigns the town after months of arrests and executions. “HALE: […] there are orphans wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotting crops hangs everywhere, and no man knows when the harlots’ cry will end his life - and you wonder yet if rebellion’s spoke?” (Crucible 114).

In the first act ofThe Crucible the audience gets an impression of how several people contribute to the initial witchcraft allegations. When Reverend Hale questions Abigail about the girls’ dancing in the forest, he asks her about various peculiar details of the incident. He more or less urges Abigail to tell him what he intends to learn from her report. Under this pressure Abigail creates an image of a demonic ritual, although she has described the dance as a mere sport before. Similarly, Hale, Parris and Putnam push Abigail to confess that she and Betty drank the ominous soup in the kettle. Abigail shifts from denying everything - “She [Betty] never drank it! […] She [Tituba] tried [to make me], but I refused” (Crucible 45) - to admitting that she drank the soup on Tituba’s orders - “She made me do it! She made Betty do it!” (45) - to confessing that she even drank chicken blood (cf. 46). This pressure is also put on Tituba when she is called into Betty’s room for questioning. Since Tituba as a black woman and slave has the lowest status in Salem’s society, she can easily be attacked. Ann Putnam consciously uses Tituba to her own advantage. Having certain scapegoats on her mind, Ann suggests their names and manipulates Tituba into accusing them. “Sarah Good? Did you ever see Sarah Good with him? Or Osburn?” (Crucible 47). Tituba has no chance of standing up to the whole village of white landowners. As a foreigner who has obviously been converted to Christianity by force, she lacks the knowledge to make up her own story and simply repeats her accusers’ suggestions. She confesses to what the people expect to hear, and incriminates citizens suspicious to them. All these examples show that the individual does not bear the blame for the outbreak of the hysteria but rather the whole community.

2.2.3 The Villainy of Abigail Williams

The sexual theme prevails throughout the play and specifically adultery constitutes another conflict that prompts the coming hysteria. In his commentary Miller suggests that diabolism in general is closely linked to sexuality and its corrupt connotations. “Our opposites are always robed in sexual sin, and it is from this unconscious conviction that demonology gains both its attractive sensuality and its capacity to infuriate and frighten” (Crucible 40). The very belief in witches stems from this notion and is embodied through Abigail Williams inThe Crucible. Abigail’s crimes but equally her excessive sensuality, confirm her as a witch according to the seventeenth-century understanding. She represents men’s fantasy of a lascivious and tempting female. The common perception of the time that women would surrender easily to lust and therefore be more receptive for the devil’s wiles[7] was one of the main reasons why the belief in witchcraft mostly affected females (cf. Booth 36). Men feared that women would eventually try to seduce them and then make them do Satan’s work. Hence, women had to be subdued in order to preserve the traditional hierarchy of the sexes and protect society against evil influences. According to David Booth, outspoken, disorderly and sexually confident women became the main victims of witchcraft allegations (cf. 38). InThe Crucible Abigail poses a similar threat to male hegemony because she is strong, clever, ruthless and driven by her sexual desire. Ergo, her profile fits the stereotypical seventeenth-century male idea of a witch. Abigail’s greatest strength is her knowledge - knowledge of the town people’s hypocrisy and the girls’ mischief -, which practically equals power in Salem’s society. Abigail first proves her capabilities when she blackmails the other girls into sticking to their story about the dance in the forest. “ABIGAIL: […] I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down” (Crucible 27). Abigail understands that she has to resort to all available resources in order to shield herself from punishment. “She rejects the alternative of submission, of letting the men call her to account for what they condemn as her misbehavior” (Mason 106). By the standards of her time, Abigail is guilty of dancing and maybe even of witchcraft, but she tries to hide her crimes by accusing others. During the crying-out Abigail possesses the greatest influence, because she does not hesitate to condemn others to death. When she realizes that Tituba might tell what really happened in the forest, she casts suspicion on the slave before the truth can be revealed. Abigail then realizes the power of the accusations and achieves to rise up in society due to her role as God’s instrument. The next opponent Abigail needs to get rid of is Elizabeth Proctor. Elizabeth knows of the adultery and may ruin Abigail’s reputation by revealing it. Therefore, she instantly recognizes her being mentioned in court as Abigail’s doing. “ELIZABETH: [...] I am not Goody Good that sleeps in ditches, nor Osburn, drunk and half-witted. She’d dare not call out such a farmer’s wife but there be monstrous profit in it” (Crucible 60). It is clear to Elizabeth that Abigail intends to get her out of the picture in order to enter matrimony with her former lover. John Proctor at first hesitates to admit his lechery and in consequence cannot save his wife from being arrested. Only when he has exhausted all his resources, does he confess his adultery. “PROCTOR: [...] She thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave! […] But it is a whore’s vengeance” (Crucible 98). Proctor’s lust for Abigail underlines the fatal character ofThe Crucible ’s sexual theme because he as well as his wife fall prey to it.

In spite of Abigail’s villainy, the play at least partially suggests Proctor’s responsibility for her corruption (cf. Rizzo 109). By taking advantage of her he makes her a whore and evokes her vengeful reaction. Before the affair Abigail was young and naïve, but Proctor’s influence awakens her strength. “I look for John Proctor that took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart! I never knew what pretence Salem was, I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men!” (Crucible 30). Abigail is empowered by the knowledge of Salem’s hypocrisy. Miller’s additional scene in Act Two[8] furthermore stresses Proctor’s role in Abigail’s murderous crusade. By affirming her promiscuous behavior, Proctor has unintentionally supported her rebellion. “ABIGAIL: [...] I used to weep for my sins when the wind lifted up my skirts; and blushed for shame because some old Rebecca called me loose. And then you burned my ignorance away” (Miller 1995, 256). Abigail perceives revenge on her enemies as righteous. In fact, in the section it is insinuated that she actually believes to be God’s instrument. “I ought to be given Godly looks when I suffer for them as I do” (Miller 1995, 255). Moreover, Abigail in her delusion claims that she constantly receives more injuries from the people that afflict her. Convinced that he wishes his wife to die, she also accuses the appalled Proctor of hypocrisy. “You are this moment singing secret hallelujahs that your wife will hang!” (Miller 1995, 258). Miller may have neglected this scene because Abigail’s zealotry could easily be misinterpreted as insanity.

Although Proctor’s responsibility for Abigail’s behavior does not get widely acknowledged in the literature, one may argue that it cannot be denied. The 1996 movie version ofThe Crucible fares a bit softer with Abigail’s depiction. Winona Ryder’s interpretation of Abigail’s character combines child-like naivety and innocence with awakening sexual desire (cf. Rizzo 109). In fact, Nicholas Hytner’s movie provides a more sensible motif for Abigail and the other Salem girls by stressing the significance of sexual subjugation contributing to the outbreak of their hysteria. “[...] the hypothesis of repressed sexuality emerging disguised into the emotionally charged atmosphere of witchcraft and Calvinism does not seem unlikely, it seems, on the contrary, an inevitable supposition” (Martin 284). Additionally, this interpretation was visualized by the costume designer Bob Crowley. By dressing the actresses and their blossoming bodies in very restrained clothing, the struggle of the girls’ sexuality against the literal corset of society is insinuated (cf. Rizzo 106). The very first scene of the movie, which displays the notorious dance in the forest, underlines this point as well. The girls all perform love charms in order to find suitable husbands or evoke the requited love of a specific man. The pubescent females of Salem simply act on their age-related obsession with boys and fantasies of love. However, their elders and their religion force them to hide out in the woods in order to experience the wonders of puberty. The movie rightfully interprets their rebellion against society as a logical result of their oppression.

2.2.4 Miller’s Changes

Though all characters inThe Crucible are authentic and played the same role in the historic Salem witch trials, some circumstances of the episode were altered by Arthur Miller.[9] Mainly, he simply narrowed the amount of people involved in order to decrease the cast of the play. “‘The afflicted’ comprised not just a group of a dozen teenage girls - there were men and adult women who were also ‘afflicted’” (Burns). Most prominently Miller has added the alleged adultery between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. Although such an affair may have been psychologically and historically appropriate in Puritan New England, the historical record does not confirm this exact arrangement (cf. Martin 282). The real Abigail was only eleven years old at the time of the crying-out while John Proctor was already sixty years of age. On the one hand, one could argue that Arthur Miller adjusted these features because the affair adds a strong sexual connotation to the witchcraft allegations.

[…] he made the change in order to introduce the sexual motif at the very beginning of a play in which sexuality is both the source of Proctor’s disabling guilt and, in some way, at the heart both of the hysteria of the accusing girls and of the frisson that made witchcraft simultaneously an abomination and a seductive idea. (Bigsby 184)

On the other hand, Miller might have modified this information in order to make sense of the hysteria that resulted from Abigail’s (and others’) horrible deeds. Herbert Blau calls Miller’s addition the “rationalist’s missing link to the mystery of the crying out” (cf. 127). Without the adultery, Abigail would have lacked a clear motif, and the strength of the play may have been diminished for the audience. James Douglass observes that

The total effect of Mr. Miller’s changes in fact (e.g., Abigail’s new motives), his shifts in emphasis (e.g., the absence of an intelligent and conscientious minister), and his omission of mitigating procedures (e.g., the government’s hesitation), is to evoke an atmosphere of almost unrelieved evil surrounding the condemned “witches”, John and Elizabeth Proctor. (147)

This opposition of an obvious villain against an unchallenged hero may have some dramatic advantages for the play, but it denies the impression of a more complex distribution of guilt that is indicated in the first act. In the beginning, Miller’s commentary exposes various factors and people who may be to blame for the hysteria. In the end, he tends to simplify the notion of evil through Abigail’s and the judges’ depictions and by doing so idealizes Proctor as the last honorable man. What Miller neglects by choosing John Proctor as the hero of his play is the fact that witchcraft allegations in history mainly concerned women. In Salem alone 76% of the accused and 14 out of 19 people hanged were female. Since the belief in witchcraft had its roots in the irrational fear of women threatening male hegemony, in general female victims were more often charged with witchcraft. Disobedient women were perceived as a danger to society because they challenged the traditional hierarchical order of the sexes as demanded by God. “Where the play presents Proctor as the victim of insatiable female lust, the more compelling sexual realities at Salem likely involved the subjugation of women justified by a stereotype about women’s lust” (Booth 44). Although the movie version ofThe Crucible tries to convey a fairer image of the play’s women, it does not acknowledge the predominance of female victims during the witch hunts either.

Miller’s depiction of pioneer existence in the colonies may be realistic, but some major features of the play differ remarkably from factual Puritan life. Miller introduces the reader to the strictness of life under theocratic rule in his notes. “Their creed forbade anything resembling a theatre or ‘vain enjoyment’. They did not celebrate Christmas, and a holiday from work meant only that they must concentrate even more upon prayer” (Crucible 14). However, as Edmund Morgan points out, the restrictiveness of Puritan life, that Miller describes, does not correspond with the historical facts: Their lifestyle was not in fact reigned by prudishness and prohibition. To the contrary, the Puritans perceived it as their duty to enjoy the things that God had provided for them (cf. Morgan 46-47). The play indicates sexual morals through the girls’ story about their dance in the forest because one of them, according to Parris’ account, was naked. Although dancing was forbidden, the historical record does not confirm any nudity during the forest ritual. Miller may have added the nudity in order to make the horror of the episode more relatable to contemporary audiences. When considering the religious discourse, which prevails conversation throughout the play, some peculiarities must be noted. The frequent references to the fires of hell above all were uncommon at the time (cf. Morgan 49). In fact, hellfire was absent from religious discourse until 1741. Miller’s reasons for employing this terminology can be manifold. One explanation may be that the audience of Miller’s time - and also today’s audience for that matter - might relate the religious vocabulary to Evangelical populism, the modern incarnation of Puritanism. Another possibility could be the connotations of fire with communism (cf. Marino 166), which Miller himself insinuates in his commentary. “[…] in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell” (Crucible 38). These associations might have been especially relevant and familiar to the audience of the 1950s.

2.3 Early America according to Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner’s playAngels in America does not deal with early American history in as much detail as Miller’sThe Crucible. However, there are a few references to the past that are worth discussing. The play offers several different angles on the formation of the American nation reaching from the seventeenth to the end of the twentieth century. However, all of these impressions evoke an equally pessimistic mood, because they address the pain of loss and disappointment. Central to Kushner’s historic record is Prior Walter, the most emphatic character inAngels. Through him the playwright refers to America’s connections to the old world and the importance of the Anglo-Saxon race for the rise of America. Prior originates from an ancient family that traveled to the new world among the first pilgrims. Louis explains Prior’s ancestry to Nurse Emily. “The Walters go back to the Mayflower and beyond. Back to the Norman Conquest. He says there’s a Prior Walter stitched into the Bayeux tapestry” (Millennium 2.2). Hence, Prior proves his status as a central character not only for the play but more importantly for the establishment of America (cf. Nielsen 39). Apart from that, the Walters’ lineage of white, Anglo-Saxon protestants underlines the common American “[…] conviction that the Anglo-Saxons were of superior racial stock” (Freese 141). The expectations associated with Prior’s WASP-background still conflict with his lifestyle. He lives of a trust-fund and only works whenever he feels like it. In addition, the American ideal of the white, heterosexual male, perpetuated in society, is ridiculed through Prior’s frequent allusions to camp. His references to gay popular culture also provides comic relief in the inescapable atmosphere of doom (cf. Fisher 2002, 64). However, as Prior knows from his family’s legacy, the American past was not as ideal as romantic narratives promise. InMillennium he tells Louis an anecdote about one of his ancestors, who was the captain of a ship that brought immigrants to America. When the ship sank in a storm, forty-five women and children were put into a rescue boat and lost at sea for weeks. When they arrived on shore, only nine passengers were left on board. The rest had been thrown into the ocean due to excessive weight (cf.Millennium 1.8). This story exposes the harsh reality of the American settlement. Common historic notions tend to neglect the innumerable lives that were lost in the course of colonization and migration. The character of Prior also serves as a foil for the prevailing patriarchal power structures in US society. All his male ancestors had the same first name. There were 33 Prior Walters before him. Two of them, an English farmer from the thirteenth century and a sophisticated seventeenth century Londoner, died of the plague and pay several visits to their successor throughout the play. Since Prior is a homosexual with AIDS and has no children, his name is going to be extinct soon. Due to Prior’s significance for America, his fate may signal consequences for the nation, too. By his death, Kushner suggests the end of the white Anglo-Saxon monolithic culture, which may be perceived as crucial to the rise of America.

In the first scene ofMillennium Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz displays a quite different account of American history by highlighting the immigrants’ role. The Rabbi himself is obviously a first generation American as he sports a strong Eastern-European accent. In his sermon at Sarah Ironson’s funeral, he describes the hardships and disappointments of European Jews coming to America. Mike Nichols’ movie underlines this impression by displaying archive footage of immigrants arriving on Ellis Island during the Rabbi’s speech.[10]

[…] the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania - and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow uphere, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. (Millennium 1.1)


[1] For reasons of better understanding this thesis will use the titleAngels in America (or abbreviated:Angels) whenever referring to the whole two-part play. When either one of the parts is particularly addressed in the text, this will be indicated by naming their specific titles: eitherMillennium Approaches (abbreviated:Millennium) orPerestroika.

[2] Indeed, the majority of published texts defineAngels as queer theater and AIDS drama. David Savran, Allen Frantzen and Michael Cadden for instance have written various articles on questions of gender and sexuality. Other authors like James Fisher and Ken Nielsen offer more general but useful overviews of Kushner’s work. Ricarda Klüßendorf’s book, however, provides the most detailed and extensive survey ofAngels in America. It should be noted as a shortcoming of the current state of research that many publications exclusively portray Kushner as a minority playwright - Jewish and gay. More general accounts of his politics are rather rare.

[3] Since the making of the 1996 movie version ofThe Crucible and Arthur Miller’s death in 2005, some versatile and concise anthologies have been issued, for example Christopher Bigsby’sCambridge Companion to Arthur Miller or Harold Bloom’s edition ofArthur Miller’s The Crucible. However, as these new publications point out, the less recent research from the ‘60s and ‘70s is still relevant when studying Arthur Miller’s plays. Authors like Robert Warshow, E. Miller Budick and Robert Martin should not be neglected. Some new monographs worth looking at are Bigsby’sArthur Miller 1915-1962, Susan Abbotson’sCritical Companion to Arthur Miller and Jeffrey Mason’sStone Tower.

[4] This correlation between the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the protestant work ethic and the development of modern capitalism in America emerged from a theory by Max Weber in the nineteenth century (cf. “Weber, Max”). Although many take this theory for granted as fact, it remains controversial.

[5] The term oftotalitarianism should be treated with caution. Bigsby, among other authors mentioned in this thesis, uses it quite carelessly and does not provide any proper definition in spite of the term’s complexity.

[6] In 1996 Nicholas Hytner directed the latest movie version ofThe Crucible. Since Arthur Miller himself wrote the screenplay and stated that he was content with how it turned out (cf. Bigsby 208), some of the movie’s aspects are worth discussing in this thesis.

[7] This notion of female sexual greed emerged in the ancient world but became widely popular through the distribution of the Malleus Maleficarum (Der Hexenhammer) in early modern times (cf. Voltmer 38-39, 47-48).

[8] “Act II, Scene 2, which appeared in the original production, was dropped by the author from the published reading version, theCollected Plays, and all Compass editions prior to 1970” (Miller 1995, 199). Due to its insignificance and absence from most secondary literature, the scene will not be discussed in further detail in this thesis.

[9] The American historian Margo Burns has created a useful website which exhibits in detail the differences between Miller’s play and the historical record of the Salem witch trials. Although most of Miller’s alterations were made for dramatic or aesthetic purposes and do not falsify the general impression of the events, Burns has a point by proclaiming that the play should not be understood as historically accurate. This thesis will only address the meaningful and relevant alterations. For more information see Margo Burns’ website: [12.01.2010].

[10] In 2003 HBO produced a television mini-series ofAngels in America which became a huge success. The director was Mike Nichols and Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay. Since this movie version can be seen as an enhancement of Kushner’s work, some of its attributes may enrich the discussion in this thesis.

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The American Theater of Change. Images of the Past in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"
University of Trier
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McCarthyism, Angels in America, The Crucible, Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, Ronald Reagan, AIDS, Colonialism, American Dream, Roy Cohn, American Drama, Theater
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Victoria Schmitt (Author), 2010, The American Theater of Change. Images of the Past in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: The American Theater of Change. Images of the Past in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"

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