James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Wed May 15 16:53:44 UTC 2002

In a message dated Fri, 10 May 2002  9:26:34 AM Eastern Daylight Time, Adrian Pable <adrian.pable at ENS.UNIBE.CH> writes:

>is there anyone who can give me some advice on how to proceed with
>the topic of my phD thesis?
>My research will be focused on the PERCEPTION / REPRESENTATION OF
>SPOKEN EARLY AMERICAN ENGLISH in literary texts (prose but primarily
>drama), as well as movies and live enactments in heritage parks; my
>primary sources are Nathaniel Hawthorne (prose), Mary E. Wilkins and
>Arthur Miller (drama) and I want to compare these authors' ways of
>'re-createing' 17th-century colonial American in writing:
> What choices do Hollywood producers/directors make
>when having their characters speak through actors: do they simply
>talk like people from the 20th century? Here I will rely on
>productions of The Scarlet Letter (1926 vs 1995) and The Crucible
>Yours sincerely,
>Adrian Pablé
>University of Berne, Switzerland

I have some familiarity with "The Crucible", having been a stagehand on a 10-performance run.

"The Crucible" appeared during the "McCarthy era" in the United States, at a time when there was much concern with "witch-hunting" (a term that I'm sure was derived from the events at Salem.)  It is widely believed (and may well be true) that Arthur Miller wrote "The Crucible" as a political polemic which just happened to be set in 1692, rather than setting out to write a historical play about the 1690's.

While stagehanding, I wondered about this, and went to the trouble of going through the entire script to check this point.  (I was using a paperback containing the script and the author's directions.  Unfortunately I could not find my copy so I'm going from memory.)  I discovered that there was not one word in the script that (to me at least) sounded specific to the 1950's.  HOWEVER, in one of the author's notes (somewhere in Act I Scene I if I remember correctly) there is a statement that makes it clear Arthur Miller was definitely thinking of the 1950's witch-hunting.

You should also realize that the Salem witch trials are as well-known to Americans as, say, Francois de Bonnivard is to the Swiss.  That is not to say that all Americans are familiar with the details, but almost all will recognize the subject.  Descendants of the accused at Salem will boast of their descent; on the other hand Nathaniel Hawthorne was ashamed of being a descendant of one of the judges.

Furthermore, the Salem witch trials are well documented, down to actual speeches from many of the participants.

The following conjecture is no more than an educated guess, but it is quite plausible:  Arthur Miller didn't give a damn about the niceties such as vintage dialect.  He was writing a 1950's polemic, and he knew that his audience, once cued in by the mention of "Salem" and "witches", would automatically accept that the setting was Salem in 1692.  As long as he did not make any gross blunders, such as mentioning George Washington, the audience had no need of subtle details such as vintage dialect to accept that the setting was 1692.

Of course some of the dialogue is correct 1690's vintage, since Miller copied some actual wording from historical records and I am sure patterned some more of his dialogue to match the verbatim wording.  This however was not for the purpose of making for correct vintage dialect, but was rather the usual playwright's care to have each character's speech remain consistent.

1.  There is reason to doubt that "The Crucible", due to its being a 20th century political play, is a good example of a play with a historical setting.
2.  Any correct 1690's diction in the script may be due to Miller's having copied verbatim from historical records giving actual speeches of actual people present at Salem.

I would like to draw an analogy to Shakespeare's "King Henry V".  To the English of Shakespeare's day, Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt were as well known as Salem is to present-day Americans.  The audience would accept the 1415 setting without needing to be cued in by proper archaic language.  I have not checked the script, but I doubt that Shakespeare went to any trouble to use the English (or the French!) of 1415 in the play.


What historical drama could you replace "The Crucible" with?
Here's a suggestion:  there was a playwright named Paul Green who wrote a number of historical dramas about specific areas of the Southern US, some of which are presented regularly in these areas for the benefit of tourists.  The only one I have ever seen is "The Lost Colony" at Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and I was only 11 at the time so I don't remember much. (Its setting is a century BEFORE "Crucible"). For a list of these plays, go to URL


For a horrible example of how NOT to write a historical drama, consider the Walt Disney movie "Pocahontas".  The legend of how Pocahontas saved the life of John Smith is well-known to Americans, which is lucky for the movie because it is difficult to find any historical detail in the movie which is depicted correctly.  The artists used a Filipino model for Pocahontas, so that she is drawn as an Asian rather than as an American Indian!  This is about as plausible as drawing slaves with purple skins.  There are no mountains anywhere near Jamestown; the area is flat and swampy.  Etc. Even the minor details are wrong.  The artists drew a very buxom Pocahontas; the one known portrait of her shows her as small-breated.

     - Jim Landau

P.S. a piece of non-verbal historical "dialogue":  for the production of "Crucible" I worked on, all the furniture was made in the theater's own shop.  The wood used was mainly "two by fours", which are 3 1/2 inches by 1 1/2 inches, or a ratio of 7 to 3.  The carpenter shaved the two by fours down to 3 inches, creating a ratio of 2 to 1, which is not standard for US lumber.  The idea was to show, subliminally, that the furniture was NOT modern.

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