The Absence of Precise Answers

My family and I attended a play last night: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at PlayMakers Theater.

It’s difficult to say that this is a wonderful play, or even, perhaps, a good one. You don’t witness a drama about false accusations, terrible lies, and gross injustice and feel good about it afterward.

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Cast of The Crucible, photo by Jon Gardiner

Which isn’t to say that the play doesn’t resolve. It certainly resolves–but perhaps not in the way you might wish it would. It doesn’t resolve with the wicked getting their just desserts. And whether or not you believe in wickedness, it’s a thought that occurs to you when you’re watching this drama unfold. Miller understood the human condition: that gnawing need we have to find reasons for things, the desire for security and esteem, the terrible but nearly irresistible tendency to look for fault in those we envy or, with undue cause, hate.

It is an excellent play, creating and sustaining tension wrought by characters acutely themselves: as in real life, they play their part the only way they can, hemmed in by belief and experience and desire. The maddening part comes when no one will listen to sense, when the light of reason and bald fact glance away instead of making impact. Along with the rest of the audience, we sat pinned to our seats, impotently armed with the truth, and watched a small society devolve into chaos.

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actress Allison Altman, photo by Jon Gardiner 

***

When I entered high school, I found myself in the honors English program. I didn’t really know what that meant, but it was soon enough defined for me by lots of writing and reading text after sorry text. To a title, they were depressing: books and plays and short stories about nuclear disaster, dystopia, heroes failing miserably just before they hit their mark. I made bold to ask my 10th grade teacher why, exactly, this was inflicted on us. Why all the unhappiness, I wanted to know.

Her answer was a wise one about tragedy showing us the dignity of humankind, of life. Most comedies, she pointed out, ultimately ridiculed the human condition. But a tragedy asks us to look our failings in the face, to reckon with them, to provoke questions about ourselves, our societies, even our world.

We read both Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Death of a Salesman in 11th grade. Excellent, worthy texts.

***

One month and a few weeks since my book’s release, I’m finding myself in an interesting place. More people than I can count have asked the same question: why couldn’t the story have ended like this?  They propose the same small turn of the plot, and it’s an exceedingly comforting one–one that, in all the time I wrestled the story into place, I never for a moment considered. The story goes the way it goes. It could never go a different way. Were it to have gone the way they propose, then Maddie would be a different person.

Which is true–with certain decisions, certain moments–for all of us.

***

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Actors Ariel Shafir, Sarita Ocon, photo by Jon Gardiner

Miller’s John Proctor has a decision to make at the end of The Crucible. His entire life is staked on it. And in making the choice Proctor does, Miller turns the play out to his audience: he asks a question of all of us.

The questions that tragedy asks are the unhappy ones. On a good day, they make us shift in our seats; on a bad one–with the most excellent of stories, perhaps–they set us thinking hard. They release us to a cold October night with churning minds. They humble us. They set us back on our heels, in our place as people with finite time and limited agency, who had best make the most of both.

***

A recent reader of my novel asked the same question so many have asked: “Why couldn’t….?” She already understood the answer and as good as gave it with the question. But she also expressed what I was feeling in the 9th grade, in 10th: the discomfort of our frailty as humans, as finite lives. She wanted the happiest possible outcome.

Don’t we all?

She wrote, “I would have let Beth March live, too. And Bambi’s mom.”

I also would have liked that.

The job is to ask questions–and to ask them as inexorably as I can. And to face the absence of precise answers with a certain humility.

-Arthur Miller

 

 

 


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