Hegemony, Hatred, and the Scapegoat Mechanism in Two Miller Dramas: Playing for Time and The Crucible

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Author: Lewis Livesay
Date: 2007
From: Miller and Middle America: Essays on Arthur Miller and the American Experience
Publisher: University Press of America, Inc.
Reprint In: Drama Criticism(Vol. 31. )
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 4,525 words

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[(essay date 2007) In the following excerpt, Livesay discusses how The Crucible and Playing for Time "feature totalitarian attempts to impose a purified homogeneity upon society," and ultimately show "how repressed aggression can reemerge as hegemonic totalitarianism sanctioning murder."]

Much in American history, such as the Indian genocide and early religious intolerance, conveniently gets erased in the interest of creating a national mythology that celebrates ideals of diversity and freedom. We live in a world that Zygmunt Bauman recently described as a "radical melting" of truths, origins, and interior restraints, resulting in a new order in which "free agents ... remain radically disengaged, to by-pass each other instead of meeting" (5). When the truth gets lost or too easily glossed over, for whatever reason, a writer like Arthur Miller will accept the responsibility to make us remember that beginnings are never quite as pure as myth implies them to be. We must forever face and reinterpret the struggles and conflicts from which we issue, because as Miller understands, in the words of George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (284). Miller wrote The Crucible to ensure that we will not readily forget how the paranoiac pursuit of anti-American sentiment during the McCarthy years repeats the intolerance rampant in early Salem intolerance and persecution. Any community, seeking to purify itself by annihilating every taint of otherness, promotes a totalitarian vision. Good people must realize that utopias run the risk of becoming fascist organizations when ideals of togetherness are upheld through exclusion. Miller points out, in the stage notes to The Crucible, the unfortunate human tendency in which "all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition" (6). The Crucible and Playing for Time present us with Miller's two great dramatizations of organizations fueled by intolerance. And amazingly enough, amidst these dramas of inhumane brutality, Arthur Miller will reveal to us images of human courage and altruism that offer cause for hope.

Many demons drove Joseph McCarthy to see himself as an absolute protector of American values, thus justifying in his mind an assault on values and people who threatened his ideal of America. We hear in The Crucible one fleeting echo of McCarthy's famous question "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"; this moment comes, weighted with irony, in Act Three, when Danforth asks Proctor: "Have you ever seen the Devil?" (84)--the ironic twist being that it is the interrogator who has in effect become demonic in his accusatory zeal to exclude another. In a fascist organization, the judge assumes dual right to accuse and convict. Faced with this situation, Proctor cannot point out the obvious as any rebuttal of the holier-than-thou judge would only inflame the community's rapidly rising paranoia and its concomitant need for a sacrificial scapegoat. This scene may very well remind us of how Jesus avoids eye contact with the mob while trying to deflect anger from Mary Magdalene when she is about to be stoned. As René Girard explains, Jesus realizes that he must avoid eye contact, which would provoke a "mimetic contagion" (Satan 26); thus, Jesus averts his glance, keeping his focus upon figures that he is sketching in the dirt with his finger (Satan 59). In Girard's reading, Jesus does not want to engage the mob from fear that they might decide to substitute him as the victim to alleviate their wrath. Anger always seeks a target. This awareness explains Proctor's trepidation before the bench. In Miller's play, as in life, paranoia is sustained by a will to accusation. Paul Ricoeur, in "The Demythization of Accusation," has noted how Kantian law and Freudian father are held in place as ideals by "the false transcendence of the imperative" accusation that creates a myth of unity (336). Someone must be excluded for the totalitarian state to solidify itself. This sacrificial condition makes us realize why, in a hierarchical social order with an imbalance of power, citizens need protection from those who possess privilege. Whatever is good about our American society issues from a belief in diversity and how no one person should be allowed the power to control the destiny of another as both judge and jury.

The Crucible and Playing for Time present visions of idealism gone wrong in which masters exercise a right to accuse and punish others for being different and contaminating their social order. In a world where might makes right, the weak will forever be victimized by the strong. Only with a regulating order, a third term, can we ensure that the self-other binary does not transpose into a Master-Slave relation. This third term, of course, depends on how we write and maintain law. This law must be kept within the realm of social debate, and never be assimilated to the more totalitarian impulses of religious or fanatical dictates. In fact, just recently, Miller has proclaimed that the Salem witch-hunt may be seen as having inspired "the wall of separation between church and state in America, for in Salem theocratic government had its last hurrah" ("Clinton" 269). Despite conservative attacks claiming otherwise, Miller has always been a strong exponent of law and order; he is a pragmatist who believes in regulation, and nothing, I would venture to say, appears to need more vigilant regulation than the foundation of our society based in the theory of the two swords, keeping church and state forever separate.

Playing for Time and The Crucible feature totalitarian attempts to impose a purified homogeneity upon society. Blood sacrifice is demanded in any "rites of spring" to unify a paranoid community. The Nazis could not be the Nazis without the Jews, and the Puritans could not be the Puritans without their witches. These two plays dramatize social extremes demanding that all members of a group be the same. Any "otherness" or difference must be identified and obliterated. Freud opens Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego with the observation that "in the individual's mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent" (69). This observation depends of course on that mechanism called "the Oedipal complex." Each human starts life connected to a mother, and for most of us, that first connection to a primary caretaker is symbiotic. It is pre-relational. The child exists assimilated to the body of another who provides all that the infant needs to remain in a utopian bliss. Slowly, the child becomes aware of being usurped. If the first human emotion is a pre-relational sense of maternal love, the second emotion, prompted by the father, is relational hate. Love begins as a passive emotion, one to which the human tragically may feel entitled, and then hate can be understood as the first active emotion. Oedipal longing, as Freud describes it, leads the child to want to possess the mother and kill the father to sustain the original state prior to the order of individuality and relations. This longing for utopian bliss presupposes excluding the third, namely paternal authority. As we all know, Freud goes on to explain that maturation demands the child must separate from the mother, seeking a substitute as love object, while the child must simultaneously learn to identify with the power and authority of the father. Oedipalization requires giving up the mother as direct love object and stifling initial rage and hatred aimed at the father. This development comes at a price: we never entirely relinquish our quest to sustain symbiosis; desire for a love that is pre-relational gets repressed into the unconscious, where it continues to foment. The tragedy of life is that no relation to another, no matter how intense or fulfilling, can ever parallel the completeness and abundance of symbiotic absorption into what Jacques Lacan calls "the libidinous investment on the mother's body--a mythical stage, certainly" (256). At the same time, the hatred first targeted at the father also has to be repressed or the individual will never learn to adjust to social authority. Respect for law imposes limits that dictate how human energy must be channeled through acceptable restraints. In Group Psychology and Civilization and its Discontents, Freud projects the Oedipal complex onto society. In fascism, we discern the attempt to return to a maternal-like absorption through immersion in a group feverishly united to share a common dream. Freud warns that "in a group the individual is brought under conditions which allow him to throw off the repressions of his unconscious instinctual impulses" (Group 74). A lessening of restraint activates primordial aggression that must be assuaged by sacrifice. In fascism, like bonds with like, as the group then seeks to target for sacrifice any interloper marked with threatening difference. According to Freud in Totem and Taboo, we must confront this very disconcerting possibility that social organization is founded in satisfying a repressed need through institutionalized murder:

The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers: and in the act of [killing and] devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each one of them acquired a portion of his strength. The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind's earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things--of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion.(142)

Not just social order, but religion, originates in violence--a point attested to by René Girard in his Violence and the Sacred. This position makes sense when we allow for how violence so often energizes zealotry. Freud's discovery of a destructive mechanism at the core of exclusionary organizations helps us to understand the fanaticism that Miller is exploring in Playing for Time and The Crucible.

Miller's plays--from The Crucible to his most recent work, Resurrection Blues--focus very much on failed societies. In these dramas we can read how ego, with its formation out of the first active emotion, namely hatred, disrupts social relationship. The inherently violent need to find a scapegoat and kill someone in order to sustain a society is a social sickness that potentially pervades organization. Group Psychology presents a theory of identification motivated by blood-lust. The protagonist in Playing for Time makes a telling remark about such sickness toward the end of the play. At this point Fania Fénelon has spent years in a concentration camp, frequently fawning before her Nazi torturers and negotiating space and food with fellow inmates. With the Allied forces approaching the camp, Fania becomes convinced that she and her fellow prisoners will never be freed because the Nazis will have to kill them to eliminate witnesses to years of atrocities. This thought of death provides relief because Fania suspects that she would never be able to return to normalcy, having seen what she has seen. Fania declares, "All I mean is that we may be innocent, but we have changed. I mean we know a little something about the human race that we didn't know before. And it's not good news" (78). Having been a targeted victim, a scapegoat, for Nazi hatred of difference, Fania has looked into how extreme organization unleashes an aggression to destroy. This sadistic urge to destroy otherness and create a social order without any taint of difference disgusts Fania. This character's ethical response to the barbarity of extreme hegemony aimed at excluding otherness conveys Miller's attitude toward intolerance. The Crucible and Playing for Time both reveal how repressed aggression can reemerge as hegemonic totalitarianism sanctioning murder.


In the social realm, we can see the lure of totalitarian thought. Totalitarianism is nothing other than the ego writ large on a grandiose scale. In both Playing for Time and The Crucible, Arthur Miller creates dramatic parallels to what Freud accomplished in projecting the destructive impulse within individual ego onto the social landscape. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud examines how insecurity and rivalry destabilize social organization. In coming to terms with Freud or Miller, we must confront evil. It is right there at the origin of conscious life in the first actively human emotion, the hatred that the infant feels to the invading third that breaks up its preconscious, pre-relational, sustained symbiosis within the mother/child union. Miller's plays powerfully contain an awareness that the taint of evil intrinsically pervades each one inside our social organization. Evil is not just Hitler or Puritanical judges or McCarthy; evil is human. It is endemic to the process of trying to live together. It can be restrained, but never eliminated. It can rear its ugly head in Salem, in Wisconsin, in Washington, in Europe--anywhere and everywhere.


Hegemony is a concept closely associated with power. "Hegemon"--we should recall--is the Greek word for leader, and when an organization demands extreme leadership, the stage is set for a dictator to assume control. Freud explains in Group Psychology how the "hegemon" perpetuates his mystique by evoking libidinal impulses associated with power. The leader becomes an ego ideal. The most effective way for a tyrant to gain sway over the primal horde involves an understanding of how hatred underlies all uncritical idealization. Freud emphasizes this point a number of times in explaining how libidinous excess blinds to the point that "a group ... has no critical faculty" (78). The "hegemon," therefore, must incite violent energy but deflect it away from himself and onto a scapegoat who has been depicted as demonic. For Hitler, the scapegoat was the Jews; for the Puritans, the scapegoat was the witches.

To grasp hegemony in The Crucible, the key figure for us to focus upon is Hale. At the outset Hale shows the same self-centered assurance that we will eventually see manifested to an extreme degree in Danforth. Hale is described as "the specialist" (31) who sees himself as indispensable in ailing the woes of others. The one redeeming positive about Hale is foreshadowed in the stage notes when Miller attributes to him a "searching scrutiny" in examining evidence (31). We are told that Hale had once stood down a town ready to hang a person accused of witchcraft when he exposed the woman as a charlatan. Unlike the despotically confident Danforth, Hale can suspend judgment about appearance to analyze what has been concealed. He has some independent sense of an analytic method not at the mercy of the crowd's blood-lust. Hale becomes what James J. Martine calls a "dynamic" character transformed from "complete intellectual" into a humbled man whose "sense of his own guilt fathers his awareness" (55). But Hale has his limits. Unlike Giles Corey, Hale remains in the dark concerning what Miller calls the "land-lust" that impels Thomas Putnam (7). Unlike John Proctor, Hale cannot grasp how Abigail's predatory vengeance fuels her need to destroy her rival, Elizabeth Proctor. Despite these economic and sexual blind spots, Hale comes to represent, in the final act of the play, the voice of reason by making a concerted effort to uncover the truth. Stephen Marino cites Act Two, the scene where Elizabeth is arrested, as the moment when he believes that Hale first awakens to how the conflict has become about power, with truth being annulled. Marino finds this moment significant for how Hale reaches a "realization that the weight of the court is now outweighing the weight of his authority" (491). One can also discern a similar awareness taking form in the recent Introduction to the new Penguin edition of The Crucible, when Christopher Bigsby stresses, several times, how the play deals with struggles to maintain communal order. However, a subtle shift occurs with the following touchstone sentence: "The question is not the reality of the witches but the power of authority to define the nature of the real, and the desire, on the part of individuals and the state, to identify those whose purging will relieve a sense of anxiety and guilt" (xi). Hale finds himself in a situation where he no longer is capable of standing down a town. Salem has reached a point where the tide of libidinous aggression has risen, and the people are prepared to listen, not to reason, but to the one who will provide an outlet for collective hysteria. Hale does not quite understand the various lusts that can efface reason, but he does realize that the situation is beyond his powers to assert a dispassionate perspective. Since hegemony depends upon maintaining power over the libidinal constitution of the group, the primal horde dictates that the so-called "real" must now be defined, or rather satisfied, at the narcissistic level of sadism, because the mob's binding hatred has reached such a frenzy that the only resolution can come from purgation; hence, we have the sickness that demands a scapegoat.

My reading is that Hale stands up for tolerance, but it would appear that Miller is not quite as taken with this character. In the stage notes, Miller writes, "Better minds than Hale's were--and still are--convinced that there is a society of spirits beyond our ken" (31). I find this observation to constitute a perplexity open to several interpretations. On the one hand, the sentence may urge that we see Hale as a man who did not do nearly enough to oppose the witchhunt. Indeed, the credit that many attribute to him for trying to save the day can be explained away by claiming that he acts not on behalf of others, but out of solipsism in wishing to save his own soul. On the other hand, I am willing to allow that Hale makes what appears to be a serious effort to save lives. He is no Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of a mob affair over which he has little influence. Hale returns to Salem because he listens to his guilt and assumes responsibility for John Proctor, more responsibility than Proctor's own wife. Hale experiences an enormous fear, envisioning the blood of Proctor on his hands. Hale responds the only way he knows how, by becoming an advocate. The others respond with accusation. Pure hatred inspires no other response than accusation leveled at the one who is marked for exclusion.

At the beginning of Oedipus Rex, a plague has swept across the land infecting the society on a cosmic scale. This same proportion is mirrored in The Crucible, when Hale warns Danforth:

Excellency, there are orphans wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotting crops hangs everywhere, and no man knows when the harlots' cry will end his life--and you wonder yet if rebellion's spoke? Better you should marvel how they do not burn your province!(121)

Social malady has infected the entire world, and this sickness can best be seen in the impulse to accuse. From the beginning of the play, Proctor has been the target of an incredible series of accusations. Some of this, Proctor brings on himself, being described in the stage notes as a man who has "a sharp and biting way with hypocrites" (19). Proctor's own arrogant sense of independence opens him up to become a target for resentment. But in no way does this justify the litany of accusations against Proctor that dominate the play. Abby accuses Proctor of being incapable of not wanting her (21-22). Parris accuses Proctor of being an infidel for not attending service (27). Corey gloats about how he had won his case against Proctor, by proving Proctor guilty of defamation (30). Putnam accuses Proctor of stealing wood from his land (30). Of course, Elizabeth will eventually join this long line, accusing her husband of having betrayed their sacred bond (59). If ever a character were foreshadowed as a scapegoat, it is John Proctor.

Danforth will ultimately represent the "hegemon" who deflects anger away from himself and onto Proctor as sacrificial fall guy. In Act Four, Hale warns Danforth that it is a wonder that the mob has not yet come to "burn your province" (121). This choice of words suggests that Hale did not grasp the significance, in Act Three, of Proctor's rant to Danforth: "A fire, a fire is burning! ... God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!" (111). The thematic implication is abundantly clear: when the entire social order is permeated with unadulterated evil, everyone must be held accountable. No one sacrifice can cure a sickness that has become endemic through ego and accusation run amok. In Freud's one hopeful moment in Group Psychology, he urges that "love alone acts as the civilizing factor in the sense that it brings a change from egoism to altruism" (103). The Crucible is a world almost devoid of love. Whatever love John Proctor has for others, he is in much the same position as Fania in Playing for Time. Neither one is able to connect with another and merge identities through a process that engenders altruism. Yet they each long to do so.

The dénouement in The Crucible involves Danforth and Hathorne pushing a pattern of accusation against Proctor to its inevitable conclusion. The intensity of the accusations, totally devoid of reason, exist in what Miller once described as a "mirage world" sustained by the "fundamental absurdity" (284) of "spectral evidence" ("The Crucible in History" 289). This insanity awakens Hale to Proctor's innocence. The intensity of charges, fueled by an underlying hatred aimed at Proctor, leads Hale to his perception that Proctor must be innocent. But it's too late to reason with the collective libido that has invested itself in a totalitarian hegemony. In egotism's sadistic binary of Master-Slave, Proctor is positioned to be the weak one who must be sacrificed. Without a dispassionate third who is empowered to question both sides, the master will have his pound of flesh.

The play ends with Proctor being given an impossible choice: if he declares his identification with the devil, he will be granted his life; if he refuses the offer, he will die. Saint Augustine once proclaimed that "an unjust law is no law at all." This realization would seem to justify Proctor's recanting in order to save himself; however, the absence of any law at all in Salem is the real dilemma. There is no escape from the endemic sickness that infects this entire world where accusation makes its own law. The absence of law itself becomes the very factor that motivates Proctor to ascend the gallows. Only by following his own conscience can Proctor establish a norm that has the categorical weight of law. We should remember that in Jacques Lacan's rewriting of psychoanalysis, he transforms Freud's concept of the super-ego into what Lacan calls "the Name-of-the-Father"--a concept which "sustains the structure of desire with the structure of the law" (34). With this revised concept, Lacan explains how maturation depends upon transferring the child's sense of love away from maternal assimilation and transferring hatred away from paternal intervention. According to Lacan, the social and symbolic controls function by providing an entire set of sublimations and competitions more healthy than fixation upon a dyadic binary become internecine rivalry. Proctor acknowledges the import of the social order when he declares: "How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" (133). Proctor's reason for refusing to sign a false confession is that he loves his children: "I have three children--how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?" (132). In refusing to sign his name to a lie, Proctor establishes his name as something more valuable than the libidinous insistence of the horde. The ultimate truth--to which The Crucible attests--establishes how parents must love their children out of altruism. Giles Corey chooses to die in order to ensure that he can give to his children the gift of his land. John Proctor then turns Giles into his paternal role model. Giles's assertion of conscience becomes the law of altruism for Proctor who chooses to die in order to ensure that he can give to his children the gift of "the Name-of-the-Father." Proctor calls the court's bluff, much as did Socrates, the father of philosophy, in choosing to drink the hemlock. Giles Corey and John Proctor take a final step beyond Hale's development: they act on their conscience. Without conscience, there can be no responsibility for the other. Without responsibility for the other, there can be no altruism. And without the law of altruism, there can be no community.

Works Cited

Abbotson, Susan C.W. "Re-Visiting the Holocaust for 1980's Television: Arthur Miller's Playing for Time." American Drama 8 (1999): 61-78.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, England: Polity 2000.

Bigsby, Christopher. Introduction to The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Cook, Kimberly, K. "Self-Preservation in Arthur Miller's Holocaust Dramas." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 14 (1993): 99-108.

Fénelon, Fania. Playing for Time. 1976. Translated by Judith Landry. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. 1929. Standard Edition 21. Translated by James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1961. 59-145.

------. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. 1921. Standard Edition 18. Translated by James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1955. 69-143.

------. Totem and Taboo. 1913. Standard Edition 13. Translated by James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1955. 1-161.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Translated by James G. Williams. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001.

------. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Gottfried, Martin. Arthur Miller: His Life and Work. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2003.

Halio, Jay L. "Arthur Miller's Broken Jews." In American Literary Dimensions: Poems and Essays in Honor of Melvin J. Friedman. Edited by Ben Siegel and Jay L. Halio. Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1999. 128-35.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1981.

Marino, Stephen. "Arthur Miller's 'Weight of Truth' in The Crucible." In Modern Critical Interpretations: Arthur Miller The Crucible. Edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1999. 177-85. First published in Modern Drama 38 (1995): 488-95.

Martine, James J. The Crucible: Politics, Property, and Pretense. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Miller, Arthur. After the Fall. 1963. New York: Penguin, n.d.

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Ricoeur, Paul. "The Demythization of Accusation." The Conflict of Interpretation. Edited by Don Ihde. Translated by Peter McCormick. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974. 335-53.

Santayana, George. The Life of Reason. Volume 1: Reason in Common Sense. New York: Scribner's, 1905.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420082431