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A Parallel Between The Crucible and The Era of Mccarthyism

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Throughout the early 1950s, America’s fear of communism was, arguably, at an all-time high. Mass hysteria was prevalent and largely impacted current politics. As a result of this anti-communist ideology, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was at the forefront of Congress, largely due to his ideas that correlated with ongoing moral panic. Infamously known as McCarthyism, this campaign allowed for hundreds to be accused of treason, often without evidence. A movement that struck fear into the hearts of Americans across the country, McCarthyism highlights how simple paranoia can have devastating impacts. Similarly, in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the town of Salem also suffers from such irrationality, though their witch-hunt is literal. As with McCarthyism, many were willing to condemn those whom they had known for years. Others were accused for someone else’s benefit, still, the principle is the same. People regularly questioned these charges in both Salem and 1950s America. But, those with a reasonable level of doubt towards each policy were then in danger themselves. Furthermore, confessed “witches” or “communists” would give names of other “witches” or “communists” and were thus usually forgiven. In this sense, Miller’s account of the Salem witch trials in The Crucible and 1950s America share glaring similarities. The Crucible was written in order to spread a message during the time of a largely publicised Red Scare. It persuades people to remain calm and to not jump to conclusions, as they can have harmful effects. As shown, hysteria sometimes prevails over common sense. However, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible says that one should not allow themselves to be controlled by fear, as many were in 1950s America.

To begin with, The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller in 1953, is a play outlining the Salem witch trials. Although partially fictionalised, this historical event occurred from1692 to 1693 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Between February and May of the following year, hundreds of individuals were put on trial for witchcraft. Some were found guilty and subsequently executed. Considered the deadliest witch hunt in America, Miller did make slight alterations to the story so as to create a parallel between Salem and 1950s America: “American society in the early 1950s directly affected the shaping of the drama.” For example, the theme of adultery between John Proctor and Abigail Williams was added to explain her hesitation to incriminate him. Also, Miller improved Proctor’s personality to create a sort of resemblance between those accused in the 17th and 20th centuries. Specifically, “Miller has equipped Proctor with all the trappings of political innocence: he belongs to the right social class, per-forms manual labor, and has the appropriate dash of skepticism and pragmatism.” This created further symmetry. Miller’s concern for factual accuracy wasn’t necessary, he stated this himself. In reality, the playwright simply provides an example of how “‘the sin of public terror is that it divests man of conscience, of himself.’” In other words, Miller purposely wrote The Crucible to display the dangers of McCarthyism.

Moreover, analogies between The Crucible and the era of McCarthyism are drawn in relation to how contemporaries viewed the world. In Salem, for example, people saw everything as black or white; people preached to either God or Satan. The court and government of the town thought themselves to be of God, while those who opposed this concept were, of course, an object of the devil. And Proctor, by questioning the trials, became one such enemy. As Danforth stated “You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time — we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.” In other words, only God’s work was practised by the Court. As was Miller’s intention, this directly mirrors 1950s America and McCarthy’s desire to expose the “evil” of society, so to speak. Though in this case, it was not God versus the devil, but liberty and democracy versus communism. Before the play opened in 1953, “public investigations had been examining and interrogating radicals, former radicals, and possible former radicals, requiring witnesses to tell about others and not only about themselves.” Senator McCarthy, with the help of the House Un-American Activities Committee, grew prominent thanks to his awareness of dissident within the United States. Because of this, the term “McCarthyism” become synonymous with the practice of baseless accusations. After the presidential election of 1952, McCarthy was appointed the chairman of the Government Operations Committee; “his power was greater than ever.” Congressional investigators, under the authority of the House Un-American Activities Committee, had substantial influence. For one, blacklists prevented some Americans from working. And unsurprisingly, these negative aspects of McCarthyism soon struck Miller. He became “a somewhat unfriendly witness before a congressional committee in 1956. He described his own flirtation with Communism but refused to give the names of Communists he had known. He was ultimately absolved of the charge of contempt of the committee.” Miller’s ultimate conviction was undoubtedly aided by the themes within The Crucible. So, notable similarities between the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism further emphasised Miller’s message: one must suppress fear and paranoia — both can easily be manipulated as a means to control.

All in all, the fundamental argument within The Crucible, as expressed by Miller, is that one should be mindful of how often governments abuse power. Under McCarthy, the United States abandoned widespread interests, opting instead to serve those with local concerns. In Salem and 1950s America, aiding the particular men and women prosecuted became difficult; the powerful few abused their level of influence. Miller seems to urge individuals to oppose anything operating against public interests. By remaining fearful, any sense of unity is destroyed — there is little hope when it comes to silent complicity. The connection between The Crucible and 1953 is unquestionable; Miller writes on Salem, “The times, to their eyes, must have seemed as insoluble and complicated as do ours today. It is not hard for us to see how easily many could have been led to believe that the time of confusion had been brought upon them by deep and darkling forces. No hint of such speculation appears on the court record, but social disorder in any age breeds such mystical suspicions, it is too much to expect people to hold back very long from laying on the victims with all the force of their frustrations.” Although initially sceptical of Miller’s intentions with The Crucible, critics were quick to point out the similarities between the story of Salem and the United States in 1953. One such critic stated, “And lest the passage of time prevent later readers from realizing that the play is about 1953 as well as about 1692, Miller prefaces the action of his tragedy with a statement that makes his intention pellucid.” As is expected, The Crucible purposely mirrors 1950s America, though the reasons for this are still highly debated. Most agree that Arthur Miller’s intention was to lay the foundation for a discussion on McCarthyism. By identifying the obvious drawbacks of these “witch-hunts” — like, in most cases, the lack of evidence — Miller did just that. Though, he also hinted at the less noticeable, more dangerous implications McCarthyism could have on society: government-sponsored fear and paranoia have the power to threaten the very fabric of a community.

From the early 1950s, America was thrust into an age of gross paranoia and fear. At the forefront of this was, of course, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The Republican congressman shared his supposed knowledge on members of the Communist Party working within the Department of State. And from there on, hundreds more were indicted. Now known as McCarthyism, this campaign allowed for individuals to be accused of treason, often without evidence. In the same way, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible highlights how many were willing to condemn friends or neighbours — Confessed “witches” or “communists” would give names of others and, because of this, were usually forgiven. A movement that struck fear into the hearts of Americans across the country, McCarthyism highlights how simple paranoia can have devastating impacts. Even those who questioned charges of witchcraft or sympathy towards communists in both Salem and 1950s saw themselves in just as much danger. The Crucible, however, maintains that it is better to remain calm and rational rather than to jump to conclusions. Needless to say, Miller’s account of the Salem witch trials in The Crucible and 1950s America share a clear resemblance. The Crucible was written in order to spread a message during the time of a largely publicised Red Scare. And, as shown, hysteria oftentimes prevails over common sense. Nevertheless, when it comes to 1950s America, Arthur Miller’s play shares a message of strength. In other words, The Crucible says that one should not allow themselves to be controlled by fear in the era of McCarthyism.


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