Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Crucible – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes Back to High School




            The Reluctant Son is taking an interdisciplinary course in High School – his US History Course is coordinated with his American Literature Course so that while he is studying the pre-Revolutionary period in History he is reading the Scarlet Letter and the Crucible (which will also be relevant for the post Second War period) in Lit. There are two sections of Lit and two of History, and they dosey doe during second and third bell. In order to facilitate the students meeting with both teachers at once, and to allow all of the students to interact, the teachers are hosting a weekend film series, inviting parents to participate in order to facilitate family discussion of the material and yesterday was the first of those.  As the title of this blog suggests, they showed the Crucible with Daniel Day Lewis starring as John Proctor, Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams and Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor, a 1996 production that I don’t remember coming out (it was not a box office hit), but one that is an excellent film. 

               Either the other parents didn’t get the memo, or their kids strongly encouraged them to stay home, but the reluctant ex-wife and I were the only parents there.  The film was shown in the High School auditorium, the kids watched from the balcony, and we watched from the main floor with one of the teachers, thus not embarrassing the Reluctant Son too much (he left the auditorium with the other kids after the post movie discussion and we discreetly hooked back up with him at our cars – he only acknowledged us with the slightest of nods in the auditorium).   The sound in the auditorium was not good, and we sat far enough away from the group during the discussion afterwards to avoid embarrassing our boy, but the students all had their backs to us, so we did not get all of the film or the discussion, and so I apologize ahead of time if I missed an important detail from either.

               This play, written as a commentary on McCarthyism and Puritanism by one of our great playwrights, was appropriately discussed primarily from the vantage point of the cultural and historical significance that it has.  From this vantage point it is, as told, the story of hysterical contagion – of a group of girls caught being naughty – dancing in the woods and dabbling in a slave’s spiritualist practices something that the Puritans perceived to be witchcraft and a sin – and the ways in which they transform their naughtiness, which puts them at risk of censure – into pointing their fingers at the rest of the community – using the community’s beliefs and rigidity against them in ways that create a tragedy – the tragic fulcrum being the rigid laws and mores of the community.  The high school group discussed the girls’ strategy or tactic of first implicating the most marginalized in the community – the beggar and the slave – before moving onto respected members of the community and eventually crossing a line when they accuse a pillar of the community – the minister’s wife – that finally strains and breaks their credibility.  This was compared to McCarthy’s first fingering writers and actors and the intelligentsia –people who are marginalized in the governmental system and the social system more generally - and it was only when McCarthy tried to take on military figures that  his indecent tactics were seen for what they really were.

               The group also discussed the potential corruption of a system that married the church and the state so that a legal trial, which physically took place in the church with the authority of the religious government behind it, was able to produce “evidence” that was based in belief systems rather than in consensually observable phenomena, producing a tyranny in which a well-meaning judge (Paul Scofield) was corrupted without knowing it, and one in which that judge fell more and more into the trap of having to stick with his method after it should have been apparent that things were terribly awry because, in part, to change in midcourse would be to acknowledge the fatal errors that he had made to that point.  This, in turn, became a discussion of the foundational importance of separating church and state in the US constitution. 

               The movie was also discussed as a movie.  The literature teacher also teaches film and encouraged the students to consider the director’s choices in framing particular shots and choosing to bring some characters to the fore at certain moments and how this helped move the story along and underlined important themes.  They discussed how shooting from below made some characters and moments larger – how shooting the dining room table to emphasize the distance between John and Elizabeth when they were eating represented the psychological distance between them at that point in the movie.  There was also a very interesting discussion of the use of music and how it influenced the viewer’s experience of the film.

The conversation went in other directions, all directly relevant to the course and the task at hand and, in so far as I could hear it, an informed, intelligent and lively discussion of an important work of art and two periods in history that interweave in interesting ways.  And a discussion that was diametrically opposed to how I would have approached interpreting the movie.  From the perspective of this psychoanalyst, the story is about the tension between three people – John and Elizabeth Proctor and the orphaned girl – Abigail Williams – whom they hire to help them around the house and on the farm.  John, a rigid and upright man, has an illicit affair with Abigail – he characterizes it as engaging in the sin of lechery – during a time when his wife, due to illness, is sexually unavailable to him.  He characterizes this affair as a bestial failing, though it is clear that Abigail became attached to the qualities he displays as a doting father and husband and fell in love with him – in addition to being powerfully sexually attracted to him.  She also became aware of her power as a sexual creature - as the person who caused him to fall from the perch that he had established for himself as an upright and perfectly righteous man - to sin - to become human.  Perhaps she became cynical – especially when he spurned her after his wife discovered them and fired her and he disavowed their love – and she may have decided that the entire society was corrupt and deserved whatever came to it.  Though it also seemed that she felt she could continue to use her power to make him love her and to bring them back together - believing, in effect, that they were star crossed lovers.  In any case, she began to act from a position of power, if corrupt power, calling herself high and mighty and throwing the town into turmoil, and murdering 18 or so members of it along the way.

This, then, from the perspective of the individuals involved is a tragedy; one that is based on John’s pride, his adultery and the rigidity of the moral code of the Puritans.  But it becomes clear in an achingly beautiful scene between him and his wife, when she owns her own part in it, that there is room for multiple tragic heroes here.  Elizabeth Proctor is as upright a woman as there is.  She would, for instance, never tell a lie, and John relies on this to stem the craziness.  Her loyalty to him overrides her aversion to lying, but this is but a road bump on the way to her true revelation.  While Elizabeth did withhold her love for seven months, about which she feels guilty, her true crime – or sin in this context – is a somewhat ironic one.  She, believing herself to be too plain to be loved, never engaged with John in ways that would have allowed his love to sustain them across the inevitable dry spells that enter into relationships.  This sin is ironic because it is a lack of pride – not an overabundance of it – that, from Elizabeth’s position, sets the whole tragedy in motion; and pride, as we know, is a sin that the puritans were vigilantly guarding against.

In this poignant scene, after Elizabeth has been asked by the judge to help John confess to cavorting with the devil in order to avoid being hung, John asks her to forgive him.  She clarifies to him that neither she nor anyone else can deliver absolution – the judge that he must satisfy is the one that lives within himself.  But in the very next scene it is clear that this psychoanalytic solution – the one that involves the relationship between John Proctor and himself – is not an adequate one.  In fact, what others think of him is important to him and simply being OK with God and Elizabeth is not enough.  John wants to retain his good name.

So, the literary, the historical and the psychoanalytic each bring something important to the understanding of this play.  In the ultimate moment, when John Proctor and the two women of integrity (as the reluctant ex-wife pointed out) are being executed (no spoiler alert necessary for that; I already told you it was a tragedy), the three say the Lord’s Prayer together to the assembled townspeople, including the request to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  In the context of the moment, those who are being hung poignantly forgive those hanging them, but we also see the integration of the perspectives that are socially derived (the literary and historical) and those that are psychologically derived (especially in the sense of the psyche as the soul).  The martyrs, for – in addition to being tragic heroes they are, indeed, martyrs (and this is another layer of the social/psychological dichotomy) – are forgiving those who have wrongly condemned them – and they, as tragic heroes, are asking for the forgiveness of the ultimate objective/subjective judge, God.   


One of the revolutionary and powerful tools that Freud afforded us was using the subjective perspective as the defining perspective from which to understand the ways in which the events in an individual’s life unfold.  As powerful as this perspective is it is not the only perspective that matters.  Certainly Freud’s case of Dora proved this, but so does a high school history and literature class. 

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