This week, Creative Producer Fiona Lindsay sorts the fact from the fiction in Arthur Miller's The Crucible...
The Crucible is one of the most popular plays in the American canon and on this side of the pond is produced in leading playhouses on a very regular basis – in recent weeks both Manchester Royal Exchange and Bristol Old Vic opened versions of Arthur Miller’s signature play.
The play enables Arthur Miller to discuss the tension and suspicion that was rife during the early cold war years in 1950’s America through the prism of the Salem witch trials of 1692.
It’s well documented that Miller took certain key facts and spun them into a fiction to suit the purpose of his writing; the main anchor being a group of young girls who accused some of the inhabitants of Salem and the surrounding area of witchcraft.
Abigail Williams who was, reportedly, a servant in the household of John and Elizabeth Proctor, led the afflicted girls and it was documentation of a certain bit of the trial that recorded Abigail’s attempt to strike Elizabeth that inspired Miller to take this further.
Miller establishes that the reason for Abigail being dropped from the Proctor’s service was Elizabeth’s discovery that her husband and Abigail had become intimate. John Proctor suggests that the reason for his weakness was partly due to his wife’s coldness towards him. There is no evidence of either an affair or that the Proctor’s was a comfortless marriage.
John Proctor is presented as a fallen hero who strays from his duty towards his wife. The real-life 1692 John Proctor was a farmer and tavern owner who had two wives previous to being married for the third time to Elizabeth. He wasn’t a serial adulterer or serial monogamist however, and his second and third unions were as a direct result of the death of the previous wife.
The fictional role of Elizabeth Proctor is a coveted one for actresses; its depth offering a wonderful emotional landscape to mine. However the frame for the character has very little resemblance to the real 1692 Elizabeth. So, what are some of the documented facts about her?
Twenty years younger than her husband, she helped him elevate the farm and tavern to become prosperous business ventures, at the same time as supporting his children from earlier marriages and bearing six children of their own. She appears to have come from a long line of strong and independent women and one of the principle reasons for her being imprisoned was due to her grandmother being a Quaker and healer, which solicited suspicion in Puritan-dominated New England.
During 1692/93 (whilst pregnant) she had to suffer the indignity of court trials, imprisonment, her husband’s execution, giving birth in a cell, and discovering that she had not been provided for in John Proctor’s last will and testament –which he wrote prior to his hanging. This had devastating consequences for Elizabeth, her children and stepchildren, leaving her destitute and dead in the eyes of the community. She fought hard to clear her name, restore her family to its former position and reclaim the Proctor farmhouse - which she did. The family farmed the property for eight subsequent generations until 1851.
Miller’s Elizabeth Proctor is no pushover either but her extremely stoical nature can at times make her seem like a victim. The real Elizabeth Proctor was no such thing and her own story proves the old adage that fact is stranger (at times) than fiction. It’s interesting to watch The Crucible and navigate it with the actual facts of her circumstance. It makes me think there is another play waiting in the wings.
Today we release a full transcript of our exclusive interview with actor Anna Madeley, who played Elizabeth Proctor in The Old Vic's sensational 2014 production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Explore the interview here.