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The Crucible by Arthur Miller - Barron's Booknotes

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Act I began in a state of tense anxiety, and built steadily to an
orgy of excitement. Act II, by contrast, opens with air of
tranquil domesticity. It is dusk, and upstairs a woman is singing
a lullaby to her children. The kitchen fire spreads its soft light
about the darkening room, and above the embers hangs an iron
pot of bubbling stew.

Into this peaceful scene comes John Proctor, home after
working all day in his fields. The children are going to sleep,
and Elizabeth Proctor, now comes down to serve up her
husband's supper. This could be any time in history, any place in
the world. The Proctors could be any mother and father relaxing
at last together at the end of a long day. They make small talk
about the boys, about the farm. Nothing could be more

Only the slightest hints of trouble disturb this placid picture:
Elizabeth's stew lacks flavor, John kisses her but she doesn't
respond very warmly, she forgets to give him cider to go with
his meal; there are no flowers in the house. These little things
may seem unimportant, but we notice them. We already know
this marriage hasn't been perfect-John Proctor did have an
affair with Abigail Williams. Maybe he had a reason. Twice in
Act I Abby said Elizabeth is a "cold, sniveling woman." Could
there be some truth in this description? Now the woman herself
is before us. Let's see what she's like.

Her first words are, "What keeps you so late?" Maybe she's only
worried that something happened to him. He wanted to finish
seeding the farm, he replies, and this seems to satisfy her for the
moment. But if she has more on her mind, his lateness will
come up again.

For the next few minutes John tries everything he can think of
to get her to warm up toward him, but the only time she smiles
is when he says the stew is well seasoned (and we know it
wasn't). Finally, he has to know what's wrong: "I think you're
sad again. Are you?" Sure enough, she's still bothered by his
being late. The rest of the scene will bring out everything that
makes this marriage so shaky.

NOTE: The Abigail-Proctor-Elizabeth triangle is perhaps the
most important subplot of the play, because it's these three
people that we follow most closely through the next three acts.
But the main story is the development of witch madness in
Salem, and we cannot be allowed to forget it for long.

Here we see Arthur Miller's ingenuity with "exposition," often
the hardest thing a playwright has to do. He must tell us what's
happened offstage or in the past, things we need to know in
order to understand what happens onstage. Eight days have
passed since the end of Act I, and somehow we need to know all
that has happened in the meantime. But Miller can't be too
obvious or clumsy. The worst kind of exposition is to have one
character say to another, "As you know, the following things
happened in the last eight days...." He might be able to make it
a little less awkward by changing the line to, "Did you hear
what happened in the last eight days?" but the audience will
still recognize what he's doing and say, "Oh, here comes the

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The Crucible by Arthur Miller - Barron's Booknotes

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