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When The Crucible opened on January 22, 1953, audiences greeted it with lukewarm applause. Critics did what they do best by berating the new play. What is now arguably the most influential allegorical play on the subject of Communism written during the Cold War era, did simply horribly during its first production run. Broadway audiences took the play as a history lesson, while critics were hesitant to promote a play hailing the hunt for Communists as downright incredulous. Yet less than one year later, with the House of Un-American Activities Committee’s trials in full swing, and with Hollywood in turmoil, an entirely new production of The Crucible swept the nation and became an instant hit (Miller, Why I Wrote) .Today, some 40 years later, The Crucible is known internationally, performed in dozens of countries, and is a symbol for a myriad of political and social ideas. Based on the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts, The Crucible is open to different interpretations. However, to truly understand the original underlying message that Miller attempted to create, one must look to the reasons behind his writing of this play and examine how Miller embodies his ideas within the play itself.
Surprisingly, Miller’s original inspiration to scribe a play referencing the Salem witch trials came not from the prosecution of supposed Communists in the courts of illegal proceedings, but rather in the days of his college education at the University of Michigan, after reading a thousand-page study on the subject of the Salem witch trials. This study was written in 1867 by Charles W. Upham, who was the mayor of Salem when he wrote the study (Miller, Why I Wrote). In fact, someone without extensive prior knowledge of the Salem witch trials might be led to believe that Miller’s version of events is fairly accurate in a historical sense. Without prior knowledge of Miller’s motivation in relation to the Communist witch-hunts during his time, one might even believe that The Crucible is actually a historical play offering an accurate rendition of the Salem witch trials, with the sole purpose of entertainment through education. To be certain, The Crucible does indeed offer a fairly accurate overview of the Salem witch trials. The setting, the names of characters, and the general events of the Salem witch trials can all be directly compared with a history book pertaining to the era. Miller himself claimed that he did not approach the subject of witchcraft from purely social or political reasons (Miller, Why I Wrote). Yet, upon careful examination, the historical aspect of the play is revealed as extraordinarily flawed. Major characters, exaggerations, and changes to the social standards were dropped, changed, or brought to life (Burns). Although these changes might not be apparent to most readers, Miller’s purpose in altering these events must be examined.
For the Broadway audiences of Miller’s day, The Crucible used history to emphasize, to enlighten, and most of all, to criticize. Today, however, most who read Miller’s The Crucible read it for its artistic value. As a “classic” modern American play, The Crucible is now analyzed for its ability to emphasize, enlighten, and criticize, but what it criticizes has become more and more questionable with the passing of years. Rather than see The Crucible as a badly produced history lesson (as did the original audiences of the first production), one now must actually go through a history lesson to understand what exactly went on behind the witch burnings and false accusations. To do so, one must examine the story behind Miller and the history behind him, as well.
The transition from World War II to the Cold War was a time of great tension. The United States had grudgingly agreed to collaborate with a decidedly Communist Russia for the sake of winning the war, and signed away control of Eastern Europe in the Treaty of Yalta. This was when the United States was clearly a superior nation whether through propaganda or through statistics. Five years later, however, the tables had turned. What was once a strong Communist Russia had suddenly splintered into a number of different factions that were gaining political strength throughout the world. This, coupled with the clear and concise message of world domination sent by Communist groups, sent the United States into an uproar. The Berlin Airdrop blatantly proved that Soviet Russia was out to sabotage the efforts of Democracy. Furthermore, the Korean War proved that the spread of Communism was a very possible scenario. What tripped the wire for the American public, however, was McCarthy’s speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, which incited the infamous period of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare.
McCarthyism was originally shunned in the United States. Senator McCarthy’s claim of having a list of 205 covert Communists in the government was quickly withdrawn, and the fact that the list was faulty information was soon publicly known. Yet, slowly, he gained power. His uncovering of the few true agents that he had stumbled upon gave him the power to publically scrutinize nearly any official he wished to put under the eye of The House of Un-American Activities Committee, ensuring that the person in question would lose power and stature. The persecution of real Communist agents elsewhere, such as the extremely publicized and extraordinarily disturbing case of the Rosenbergs, gave even more power to McCarthy and those who supported him (Broudin). Individuals declared to be Communists were blacklisted from working ever again. Entertainers in Hollywood, writers, songwriters, and directors were tried in court if it was determined that they had ever expressed an opinion that ran contrary to the government’s. As Miller noted, “[t]he Red hunt, led by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and by McCarthy, was becoming the dominating fixation of the American psyche” (Miller, Why I Wrote). As the number of common Americans being blacklisted grew, the public become more and more nervous. Meanwhile, authors, playwrights, and others in the arts who were prosecuted sought to speak out against McCarthy’s often illegal practices in subtle ways.
“The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding images of common experiences in the fifties: the old friend of a blacklisted person crossing the street to avoid being seen talking to him; the overnight conversions of former leftists into born-again patriots” (Miller, Why I Wrote). It comes as no surprise that when Miller wrote The Crucible it came as “an act of desperation” (Miller, Why I Wrote). While seemingly a simple historical event brought to the stage due to its sheer ability to be dramatic, Miller laces The Crucible with excessive dry humor, sarcasm, and a good dose of sheer idiosyncrasy – along with quite a few direct references to Communism and the “present day.” Beginning with the Overture, Miller mentions that “[n]o one can really know what [the Salemites’] lives were like. They had no novelists” (Miller, The Crucible). Through this statement, Miller conveys that one, The Crucible is not necessarily accurate, and two, that novelists write history. Simply put, Miller is stating that he is writing of history in the making. Naturally, not many contemporary events fit the category of witch-hunts. In fact, in Reverend Hales’s prolonged introduction – which has little to do with Hale himself – goes into detail about an analogy between Communists and Capitalists, and the Church and the Devil’s will. Along with using a very conspicuous double entendre with the phrase “Red hell,” Miller mentions that “Sex, sin, and the Devil were early linked, [there still] are today” (Miller, The Crucible). He then goes on to compare the Devil to Communist Russians, effectively insinuating that everything remotely bad in his society was considered to be affiliated with the Communists. Throughout the book, we see characters such as Putnam take advantage of the situation for their own gain, even though they realize the witch trials are unjust, just as the “far right[s were] licking up all the cream” from the Communist trials (Miller, Why I Wrote). The parallels between The Crucible and the real world are undeniable.
Four years after The Crucible was first put into production on the Broadway stages, the inevitable happened. Miller was put on trial in the courts of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, and, due to his unwillingness to name Communists, was found guilty for contempt of Congress. This was, of course, repealed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1958 (Broudin). By this time, the McCarthyistic methods of rooting out Communists and the second Red Scare were coming to an end. However, even though the Red Scare and Communist “witch hunts” were over, The Crucible remained a hit among the international community. The Chinese started production in retaliation with the frenzy brought on by the Cultural Revolution, and even all these years later, with the revolutions and social changes around the world stabilizing, The Crucible remains a significant play, and the reason is simple. While the themes behind The Crucible are universal, the contemporary events of his day (the Red Scare, McCarthyism, etc.) led Miller to realize that the hysteria and mob mentality of the Communist trials in his time were not only a direct threat to the average American citizen’s rights, but to the minds of man, and to man’s ability to chose his own actions without fear of retaliation or guilt by association. Unfortunately, such events are bound to happen again, given the selfish nature of humanity and man’s need to further his or her own agenda. Indeed, one must take Miller’s words to heart lest such atrocities happen again, and the burden lies on the shoulders of every man and woman, for it is our responsibility to speak out for what is right, not for what is most beneficial to our own selfish needs.
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