Module C: Representing People And Politics -the Crucible And Dogville

The Crucible by Arthur Miller (1953)

Dogville (2003) directed by Lars von Trier

THESIS: Effective representations of political acts reveal power as the driving force.

  1. Effective portrayals of political acts are capable of showing that those who present a perceived threat are often the first to be scapegoated.
  2. Representations of persecution demonstrate how individuals who have knowledge of hidden truths will be silenced in order for a society to maintain status and power.
  3. Powerful depictions of political acts expose the masking of hidden political and individual motivation.

A study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville provide with us with a window into the hidden and overt agendas of people in positions of power. Through authorial commentary, narrative voice over and characterisation, both composers explore the dangers of ruling through collective tyranny and the dangers of silencing society to ensure a maintenance of the status quo.

Effective portrayals of political acts are capable of showing that those who present a perceived threat are often the first to be scapegoated. Representations of politics are able to reveal how marginalised people groups can be targeted and mistreated by those in power. Those that are outspoken and who will boldly stand up for their own morals will be the first to go. Miller’s authorial intrusions give background to the characters, encouraging the responder to speculate the motives behind the deeds within the play. In regard to Proctor, it is explained that ‘he had a sharp and biting way with hypocrites,’ using plosive consonants to connote the threatening image that the villagers see in Proctor, despite his moral standings. On the other hand, the marginalised, low status members of a society are often the first to be blamed. When Tituba enters the room in Act 1, the stage directions reveal that Abigail ‘instantly… points at Tituba,’ displaying how instinctively such false accusations can be made. Tituba was at a disadvantage by being a foreigner and a servant, standing in the lowest class of the society, making her an easy target as her word would not be taken over Abigail’s.

The minority are easily scapegoated as they will not retaliate as a result of their low-ranking status. In Dogville, when Chuck is confronted about his affair, he immediately blames Grace, insisting that she made advances toward him. Grace is the outsider, the easiest to scapegoat as the whole town will side with Chuck. Vera accosts Grace for her involvement with her husband, her dominance is seen through the positioning of her higher as she stands while Grace is sitting, looking up at her, reinforcing Grace’s position as the victim. LINKING SENTENCE.

Representations of persecution demonstrate how individuals who have knowledge of hidden truths will be silenced in order for a society to maintain status and power. Information has the potential to be used as power. As a result, when concealed truths are uncovered, people become uncomfortable as they are now exposed and vulnerable. When Mary Warren testifies against the girls, Abigail immediately begins to target her to get rid of her before they are discovered. The cues reveal a swift change in the austere mood and serious tone of the scene as Abigail moves from an ‘accusatory attitude’ to being ‘truly frightened’. The drastic shift satirises the entire scene, ridiculing the behaviour of the people and standing as a direct critique on the McCarthyiest era. Miller used Salem as an allegoric representation of the greater political injustices that had occurred throughout history, but particularly that of the late 1940s where people were blacklisted due to accusations of affiliations with communists.

Those who can see through the lies and the scapegoating are accused as they are a threat to the power the governing body possesses. Giles is put to death for not answering the charges of witchcraft laid upon him after hyperbolically claiming that Danforth ‘(meant) to hang (them) all!’ He could could see the injustice of the court and meant to expose this but was immediately accused of witchcraft. This is another attempt by Miller to comment on the nature of courts, where reason is not regarded. This occurs as a result of the narrow mindsets cultivated by oppressive ideological societies.

Individuals that possess too much knowledge of the hidden veneer behind the façade of a community are hastily driven out because they post the threat of revealing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities, or as Dogville put it, ‘lies and accusations spreading.’ The people of Dogville persisted in their façade when Grace confronted them and it became clear that ‘appealing to their consciences stowed further and further away by their owners everyday… proved quite a task.’ The personification of the people’s consciences ironically suggests they were aware of their behaviour but ignorantly chose to hold to their veneer. von Trier utilises a narrator to commentate on Dogville’s conduct, mentality and façade. Dramatic irony occurs throughout the entire film as the town is set out as a stage play without walls or doors. The responders are able to see the full extent of Dogville’s veneer despite the ignorance of the township.

The political nature of the world is one of selfishness and ignorance in order to achieve what is most beneficial to themselves. His use of pathetic fallacy through the snow covering all of Dogville reflects the coldness of the people’s hearts and confirms the façade that they have put upon themselves. Society dislikes their flaws and vulnerabilities to come to light. Grace describes why the town did not deserve to survive saying, ‘somebody happening by, revealing their frailty…’ The ellipsis exhibits her disappointment and horror at the townspeople’s actions towards her. Von Trier uses the town as an allegory for any society. He covers various walks of life including ethnic, disabled, elderly, middle aged and young characters. This accentuates the universality of such behaviour, forcing the responder to further postulate the political mentalities of the world.
Powerful depictions of political acts expose how those who have power manipulate people in order for these actions to be carried out. In their position of power and influence, they are able to cultivate attitudes in the people. In theocratic societies, such as the one in Salem, it is often the court against the people. Miller wrote in an authorial intrusion that ‘the Catholic church… is famous for cultivating Lucifer as the arch-fiend’. The use of a narrator provides context to the novel, prompting responders to question the political motives in the play. Miller refers to their hidden agendas as ‘the (whipping of) men into a surrender,’ using metaphorical language to emphasise the cruel nature of the practice. Those in positions of influence achieve this through cultivating fear in the people.

By manipulating the people, they are able to carry out their personal agendas. With the widespread fear of witchcraft already instilled in the minds of the Salemites. Abigail was able to use it to fuel her hidden mission, to ‘dance with (John Proctor) on (his) wife’s grave.’ Dancing, symbolic of child’s play, reduces Abigail and her actions to that of a child, but to a greater extent, Miller diminishes these kinds of political acts to being immature and juvenile. Danforth admits his ulterior motives behind his severely pragmatic approach to the trials, claiming that a ‘postponement now (spoke) a floundering on (his) part.’ He realised that his position and reputation were at stake if he granted Parris’ wish, but through personification, subtly blames it on the postponement, and therefore Parris, however, his intentions remain overt.

Manipulation to achieve ulterior motives may also be a form of blackmail. von Trier uses children, in particular Jason, to depict the cruel, cunning nature of the town. Jason circles Grace as if she were his prey, displaying his dominance. He is a child, yet he holds more power than her, seen in his height and her upwards gaze to him standing up. He threatens Grace in an interrogating manner with short imperatives, rhetorical questions and ultimatums. He used her fear of losing refuge in the town to make her do what he wanted. Often in the political arena, people are manipulated in order to achieve the society’s desired outcome or goal. The use of a handheld camera throughout the film bring the audience into the play. The shots frequently pan across between two conversing characters, immersing the audience thoroughly into the discussion, commanding the attention of the responders to regard and respond to what is in the frame. This invites the audience to consider their own individual political state and to draw on the ideas in the film and apply them to their lives.

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