Imagine a super-constrictive time in history. Think confining apparel. Think proper social etiquette. Think mass hysteria that makes entire communities suspicious and paranoid.
If the first image that popped into your head was of Mad Men's Betty Draper—bingo, you're 100% correct. If, on the other hand, the first image that popped into your head was of Salem's Anne Hale—bingo, you're 100% correct.
Yep—Arthur Miller's The Crucible gives us a parable that spans centuries. This play is a commentary on the claustrophobic Puritanical-code-of-conduct-fear-of-witches nonsense of Massachusetts in the 17th century and a commentary on the claustrophobic, girdles-white-picket-fences-fear-of-Communists nonsense of America in the late 1940's and 1950's.
Sure, on the surface this play appears to be totally about the Salem Witch Trials. But Arthur Miller intended to use the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory for the anti-communist Red Scare and the congressional hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy going on in the United States in 1953, when the play was first performed.
The similarities between Miller's portrayal of Puritan fear-mongering and McCarthyism don't quit. Compare the rallying cry of the McCarthy era—"Are you now or were you ever a member of the Communist Party?"—with the question that haunts The Crucible—"Did you see (insert name here) with the Devil?"
And compare the life (and—spoiler—death) of protagonist John Proctor with one of the many people whose lives were derailed because they were accused of being a Communist. John Proctor, whose affair with a young girl jumpstarts the witch-hunts, is accused of being a witch when he tries to stand up to the insane-o accusations that plague Salem. As a result of this, he's asked to name names of other "witches." When he refuses, he's hanged.
Although the penalty for being a Communist wasn't death during the McCarthy era, it was the complete loss of respectability and career. For example, some of the most brightly shining Hollywood stars of the era lost their jobs because of Red-baiting.
And many more—including Arthur Miller—were disgusted and horrified by the way that American politics circa 1950 had started seeming an awful lot like Salem politics circa 1692.
This play caught on like wildfire...a wildfire that's still burning today. It won Miller a Tony. It's been made into three movies and a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera. And it's been introducing students of literature to two periods of fear-mongering in American history (double your pleasure, double your fun?) for more than six decades.
We wish we could say you should read The Crucible for its awesome costumes. Or its snappy dialogue. Or its hawt forbidden love story. Or the fact that, hey: witches are cool.
We wish we could... but we can't.
There is something about the potent 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 just how sickeningly often history repeats itself.
The Crucible is a parable that tells the tale of a similar "witch-hunt" that went down in playwright Arthur Miller’s time. Fearing the spread of Communism and seeing it as a threat to the nation and to 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.
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. So he wrote The Crucible.
This might sound moderately cool to you, even if it contains two layers of retro—the 1950's and the 1690's. "Oh, how nifty," you might think, "A dated morality play."
Except these aren't the only two examples of witch-hunting in history.
In the 1980's, a similar a witch-hunt developed over the issue of child molestation. Stalin's Great Purge was eerily similar to a witch-hunt in its erratic and demented nature. Today in Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific, there are still witch-hunts taking place... and yes, they're hunting actual witches. And in America, parallels are being drawn between the events of McCarthyism, the Salem Witch Trials, and measures being taken to guard against "the threat of homegrown Islamist terrorism."
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? 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.
And, on a lighter note: the Puritan costumes on display in The Crucible are pretty dang stylin'.
1996 Film Production
The Crucible, directed by Nicholas Hytner.
1980 Film Production
The Crucible, directed Don Taylor.
1967 Film Production
The Crucible, directed Alex Segal.
Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe
Arthur Miller with Marilyn Monroe (scroll three-quarters down the page).
More Arthur Miller with Marilyn Monroe
Here, have another picture of this dynamic duo.
Miller's Daughter With Daniel Day-Lewis
Arthur Miller’s daughter, Rebecca, with her husband Daniel Day-Lewis.
An Older Arthur Miller
Here he is giving a lecture in 1989. (There's a link to the lecture on this page, too.)
Film Productions About McCarthyism
A website that catalogs film productions that dealt with McCarthyism, including The Crucible.
Fact and Fiction
An article on the historical accuracy of The Crucible.
Salem Witch Trial Papers
This page includes court documents.
The Crucible on Broadway
Here's the cast of the original Broadway production of The Crucible.
Arthur Miller’s Obituary
The playwright's obit from the New York Times.