Arthur Miller’s seminal play, The Crucible, tells the story of the small town of Salem, Massachusetts, which in the late 17th century became caught up in allegations that various townsfolk were engaged in witchcraft. The play offers an analogy of the McCarthyite trials of communists during the Fifties, which were famed for abandoning due process in the name of rooting out and punishing accused radicals at all costs.
The play has become the go-to cultural reference for illustrating the dangers of pursuing mob justice in a time of hysteria – and for good reason. In the first act of the play, after his wife is accused of witchcraft and bundled away on shaky evidence, the protagonist John Proctor proclaims, ‘Is the accuser holy now?’. Proctor’s line points to the danger of unquestioningly accepting the narrative of accusers and abandoning any obligation to establish the truth. Today, after the surreal chain of events that has led to the prosecution of comedian Bill Cosby, Proctor’s words still have a haunting ring.
Cosby has been charged – or ‘finally charged’, in the words of his many detractors – with sexual assault against former basketball player Andrea Constand. In the lead-up to what is the first step of criminal proceedings, events have unfurled in the most public, persecutory way possible. In fact, Cosby’s case would not have been pursued had it not been for internet comedy. In October 2014, a YouTube clip emerged showing comedian Hannibal Buress publicly, and rather casually, accusing Cosby of rape during a stand-up routine. This rape joke – the kind of rape joke that is apparently okay because it makes light of rape for some kind of greater good – was the catalyst for the proceedings against Cosby. Since the clip emerged, more and more women have come forward to accuse Cosby of sexual assault. While most of these cases are barred from prosecution because of statutes of limitation, Cosby nonetheless faces eight civil lawsuits, along with criminal proceedings.
At the end of The Crucible, Proctor pleads with the prosecutors: ‘How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name.’ Today, in the era of the Twitter trial, a person’s name is often the first thing to be sullied. Cosby’s reputation was irreversibly tarnished before any evidence was even considered. Various institutions have revoked honorary degrees awarded to him, and TV networks have ditched reruns of his programmes. Whatever the outcome of the prosecution, Cosby has lost his name forever.
What Cosby’s case has in common with the witch trials of old is the same quest for simple narratives and swift justice. In Miller’s play, the inhabitants of Salem seek to shame their subjects instead of investigating them. The truth of what is alleged is proven by the act of making the allegation itself. Both Cosby’s accusers and the religious zealots of Salem are willing to use a showtrial to denounce and deliver retribution, rather than take the time to investigate the evidence.