Sex and the Crucible: A Look into Arthur Miller's Inspiration with Tony Fels


            In doing the research for my book, Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt, I came across a surprising realization.  Not only did Arthur Miller take nearly the whole story of the Salem witch hunt for his famous play, The Crucible (1953), from his having read Marion Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts (1949), but he very likely drew the play’s central dramatic tension, concerning a former affair between the accuser, Abigail Williams, and the accused protagonist, John Procter, from Starkey’s history as well.

            Two famous literary archives, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, are currently jousting over custody of Arthur Miller’s voluminous private papers, including 160 boxes of materials and another 8,000 pages of private journals (see Jennifer Schuessler’s article, “Fight for Arthur Miller’s Archive,” New York Times, January 10, 2018).  When scholars gain access to these documents, longstanding mysteries concerning the central plot line of The Crucible may finally be solved.  In the play Miller reduced the real age of tavern-owner and farmer John Procter from sixty to the mid-thirties, elevated Abigail Williams’s age from eleven to seventeen, and posited a sexual liaison – wholly made up, as best as the Salem primary documents reveal – when Williams was said, erroneously, to have lived as a servant in the Procter household.  In reality, Williams, along with her nine-year-old cousin, Betty Parris, lived in the parsonage of the Salem village minister Samuel Parris.  Williams and Betty Parris were the two young girls whose contorted bodies and catatonic states led to the first accusations of witchcraft in the village.

            Miller himself obscured the sources for his play.  In the 1950s he would only say that he had traveled to Essex County, Massachusetts, and combed through the manuscript records of the trials to find his story, even though we know from Miller’s leading biographer, Christopher Bigsby, that the playwright only allotted seven days for this journey, far too short a time within which to have constructed The Crucible from scratch.  Only much later, in his autobiography, Timebends (1987), did Miller for the first time, it appears, acknowledge his debt to Starkey’s history, which he now revealed had served as the model for the play.  “In fact, there was little new [beyond Starkey’s account] I could learn from the court record,” he conceded, now explaining his trip to Salem as a way of hearing the sort of language that his seventeenth-century Puritan characters would have spoken.


            Yet Miller never disclosed his source for the play’s central drama, in which John Procter must reveal his former affair with the Procters’ “servant” Williams in a failed attempt to save Procter’s wife, Elizabeth, whom Williams had earlier accused of witchcraft.  Indeed, Miller did much to throw researchers off the trail.  In the 1950s he said he had found the evidence for this sexual relationship in the witch hunt’s examination records themselves.  In his later autobiography Miller stated he had discovered evidence for the affair in the leading nineteenth-century history of the witch hunt, Charles W. Upham’s Salem Witchcraft.  Neither of these claims has been corroborated by any researcher into these same sources – not surprising, because Williams was only eleven at the time of the witch hunt and was never a servant in the Procter household!  However, a hint of exactly the sort of personal situation, entailing extra-marital sexual attraction and jealousy, that Miller developed into his play’s plot line can be found again in Starkey’s history, when she describes the relationships between the Procters and their actual servant, twenty-year-old Mary Warren.  Starkey’s hint may have struck Miller with particular force, because the playwright’s own marriage was dissolving under the impact of his affair with Marilyn Monroe just in the years when he was writing The Crucible.

            The Devil in Massachusetts would thus seem to have supplied virtually everything Miller needed to produce the plot of his famous play.  And, as I show in my book, Starkey’s account offered Miller something even more important than this: the moral lessons to be drawn from the Salem witch hunt – how when a group of people fear something in themselves, they can run roughshod over all restraints in an effort to externalize blame onto scapegoats.  Under these circumstances, the call of conscience to speak the truth is extremely hard to follow, because it threatens the competing desire of each person to belong to a community, not to mention evade accusation themselves.

Tony Fels is an associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victime of the Salem Witch Hunt. 


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