The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, is a dramatic re-enactment of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in the late 1600’s. Although the play centers on real events, it is not actual “history” – Miller changed the ages of characters and consolidated several historical figures so that there are fewer actors on stage. It was first produced on stage in January 1953. Arthur Miller intended to use the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory about the anti-communist Red Scare and the congressional hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy going on in the United States at the time. For more information about the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy trials, please see Shmoop History on "Colonial New England" and "Cold War: McCarthyism & Red Scare."
There is something about the cocktail of fear, anxiety, passion, and jealousy in The Crucible that we find disturbingly familiar. As wild as The Crucible’s plot is, we’ve seen this episode in history over and over again. The Crucible drives home how often history repeats itself.
As we mention in “In a Nutshell”, The Crucible is a parable that tells the tale of a similar "witch hunt" that went down in author Arthur Miller’s time. Fearing the spread of communism and seeing it as a threat to government and individual freedoms, the American government, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, sought out every single communist in the U.S. They put suspects on trial and forced them to “name names” and rat out their friends and compatriots. Soon the whole country was whipped into a moral frenzy. (Learn more.)
Arthur Miller, playwright extraordinaire, realized that the lingo being thrown around by McCarthy sounded very similar to the language used in the Salem Witch Trials (some 300 years before), a historical period he researched heavily while in college. In comparing the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy era, we see a similar cocktail of fear, anxiety, passion, and jealousy pervade the country. Check out Shmoop History's coverage of "Colonial New England," and learn more about the parallels between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy era.
Where would you stand if history were to repeat itself once more and you found yourself in the middle of a “witch hunt?” Would you agree to say something that wasn’t true in order to save your family? What would you do if you became the scapegoat, the person on whom all blame is placed? Arthur Miller helps us try to think about how we would handle ourselves if we were to find ourselves in this situation, and he also makes us think about how emotional humans can get when justice is on the line.