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A Study of People and Politics in The Crucible and Citizenfour

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Composers represent the ultimate powerlessness of ordinary people through the ways in which they explore the complex and dynamic relationship between people and politics. Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” written in a communist fearing period within American history known as the “Red Scare”, aims to reveal the effects of mass hysteria upon society and the danger of oppressive governments. Similarly Lauren Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour” reveals the ultimate powerlessness of ordinary people through her exploration of mass surveillance of citizens globally by governments. Both composers represent the innate tension between people and the political sphere, reconstructing audience’s beliefs and attitudes by promoting their views on freedom and liberty whilst undermining alternate perspectives

The abuse of power by those who manipulate their political power undoubtedly impacts the individual, removing their sense of autonomy and identity. Miller attacks the abuse of power within the Red Scare, with characters such as Danforth and Hathorne representing the unjust use of power for political gain within America’s rigorous attempts to rid communist sympathisers from society. The hyperbole used within the quote “A person is either with this court or must be counted against it, there be no road in between” accentuates to the audience how those in positions of power may reflect their own rigid and unbending values within society and hence impacting upon ‘ordinary people’s’ autonomy; as such as rigid political ideologies prevail. Similarly through the supernatural allusion to God “You are God’s instrument put in our hands to discover the devil amongst us” Miller challenges the audience to consider how easily political ideologies can be corrupted to engender emotional and intellectual conformity, leading to ultimate powerlessness. Miller further used characters such as Mary Warren to critique societies complicity with such corruption; alluding to his own societies failure to protest against the actions of the “Un-American Activities Committee”. The use of stage directions enhances the emotional reaction within the audience, the descriptive body language highlighting the insecurities and vulnerability of ordinary people “ Mary Warren utterly confounded and becoming overwhelmed by Abigail’s – and the girl’s utter- conviction, starts to whimper, hands half raised, powerless”.

Likewise, Poitras represents the NSA’s surveillance practices as corrupt and pervasive, positioning us to recognise how this impacts upon our individuality. Poitras manipulates the cinema verite form, constructing Citizenfour as a film of revelation and discovery through which she unveils the illegal practices of the US government. The inter-title in the opening scene “every border you cross… every call you make is in the system whose reach is unlimited” elicits uncertainty and dramatic suspense by foreshadowing the loss of freedom and privacy under pervasive political surveillance. Throughout the documentary Poitras challenges opposing political perspectives and thus enhancing the authority of her own representation that the mass surveillance of America has subsequently lead to the oppression or ordinary people. Just as Miller uses dramatic irony to question the motives of those in political power, Poitras’ clever editing provokes us to further question the motives and socio-political agenda of bureaucratic leaders. Indeed, footage of National intelligence director James Clapper’s uncomfortable body language coupled with his hesitant response “No, not wittingly… they could inadvertently, perhaps” exposes the deceptive and unreliable nature of opposing political perspectives. However through the recurring motif of the media as a symbol of power, Poitras reveals how the government still is able to use mass surveillance as a tool for conformity: “They have been tasked to use government pressure where appropriate to persuade the media to refuse publication.”

Miller’s “The Crucible” also however promotes political activism and awareness amongst ordinary people to challenge the absolute power government and political agencies hold. Miller metaphorically demonstrates through the victims of the Salem witch-hunts, the maintenance of moral standards. Through derogatory remarks made by the protagonist John Proctor evidenced within the quote “You are pulling down heaven and raising up a whore” ”, the audience is able to discern that characters such as Proctor are a strong symbol resistance and able to overcome the ultimate power that politics holds. Such figures of resistance empower other individuals to become more engaged with the political sphere; rhetorical questions posed by John such as “is the accuser always holy now?” unveils Miller’s hope for justice and restoration, and positive political advancement. Authorial intrusions also form an integral part in enhancing political awareness amongst the audience. Inclusive language within the opening pages of the book “ It is a paradox in whose grip we still live” enhances the universality and relevancy of Miller’s text to modern audiences and allows them to question the similarity between modern society and the fear that gripped both 1950s America and Salem, Massachusetts.

Parallel to Miller, Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour” also positions audiences to be politically proactive through creating awareness of the political constraints that society is under. Citizenfour is about how America’s leadership has used the most high-profile tragedy of the 21st century to subvert the Constitution and covertly transform the nation into a surveillance state. It’s also a breathless political thriller, and a clear-eyed portrait of how personal agency assumes new power when it’s threatened the most. Poitras utilises handheld camera and a lack of planned techniques to reveal to the audience the authenticity within the play. This in itself becomes intensely meaningful as it allows the audience to perceive Snowden favourably as the director provides a more authentic platform for the audience to foster a connection to the protagonist Edward Snowden. Close up shots of Snowden as he exclaims “for me it all comes down to state power ; people’ ability to meaningfully oppose this power” frames him as trustworthy and a moral agent who opposes the US governments political agenda to retain our freedom and civil right for privacy. Thus, she constructs Snowden as a selfless individual who sacrifices his autonomy to open our eyes to the rife manipulations and exploitation by the American government. Footage of a lecture with a public servant agent reinforces these messages, whereby shots of the public involving and educating themselves about covert government operations reveal active participation, in contrast to Miller whom metaphorically encourages the audience to become more politically aware.

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