The Crucible: what’s in a name?

Reading a play and seeing a play are two different things. I read The Crucible at school, and liked it well enough then, but years later I was part of an amateur bilingual production in a small theatre in Wales, and the acting in some of the scenes was so brilliant that my scant knowledge of Welsh was no impediment.

Two scenes will always stay with me. The first takes place in the courtroom, where Mary Warren is trying to tell the truth and the other girls are pretending that she is one who is in league with the devil. Eventually, their hysterical behaviour wears her down into once more half-believing that the lies and play they engage in is in fact reality, and she abandons the loneliness of truth for the comfort of a collective lie. Manon Wyn Williams, who played Mary Warren, was heart-rendingly good. I saw her perform this scene in Welsh during a dress rehearsal and was so harrowed by the experience that I was unable to watch her do it again.

The second scene is at the end, when John Proctor (played with passion and creativity by Gwion Gwilym) reluctantly decides to sign a confession that will mean freedom for himself, but condemnation to those remaining accused who refuse to admit to a lie. However, at the last minute, he balks at having the signed document made public:

PROCTOR: I have three children – how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?

DANFORTH: You have not sold your friends –

PROCTOR: Beguile me not! I blacken all of them when this is nailed to the church the very day they hang for silence!

Tell them I confessed myself; say Proctor broke his knees and wept like a woman; say what you will, but my name cannot –

DANFORTH [with suspicion]: It is the same, is it not? If I report it or you sign to it?

PROCTOR [he knows it is insane]: No, it is not the same! What others say and what I sign to is not the same!

DANFORTH: Why? Do you mean to deny this confession when you are free?

PROCTOR: I mean to deny nothing!

DANFORTH: Then explain to me, Mr Proctor, why you will not let –

PROCTOR [with a cry of his soul]: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

John Proctor sees his soul as a negotiable thing that may be given up and lost, a measure perhaps of grace or integrity. But his name is more; it is the very stamp of his reality, the one thing that must stand for truth. If it does not, it means his destruction – not in a literal, physical sense, but a destruction no less real for all that.

The power of the name is a serious matter in both myth and everyday life. Formerly, in less literate, more oral societies, it was one’s word or spoken oath that counted; now we rely on the tangible evidence in the form of the written name. Even that writing is something unique – your name written by you in a distinctive manner that no-one could or should imitate.

In stories, the act of changing a name can be as significant as becoming an entirely new person, and heroes and villains keep their true names secret so that no-one will gain power over them. In real life, changing your name can be an important undertaking involving bureaucracy or rituals or both, and knowing a person’s name allows you to wield Google and Facebook without mercy, as job applicants and employees have discovered to great detriment.

The girls of Salem claimed to have seen witches signing their names in Satan’s book, a parallel of the Christian belief that the names of the redeemed are written in the book of life.  The name of God has immeasurable power, perhaps even equivalent to God, according to both Christian and non-Christian belief systems.  To sign your name to something is to give it some part of your presence, your essence, and this can endure to death and beyond.  No-one gives a child an infamous name, but the names of saints, heroes and respected ancestors are assigned to people and places and entities and inventions, thus achieving a form of immortality.

To make, and keep, a name for yourself is to take responsibility for the continuous creation of your very being.