Jun 11, 2019 in Review

The Crucible

The play “The Crucible,” written by Arthur Miller, appeared in 1953, at the same time when McCarthyism took place (Miller, “The Crucible” 154). The author was an American playwright who did not want to participate in McCarthy’s political affairs, but he could not resist him openly and decided to write a play. It depicted the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts which Miller considered to be similar to the events during the time of McCarthyism. The play is based on a true story. The protagonists of “The Crucible” are Abigail Williams and John Proctor, who lived in a small town Salem, Massachusetts, at the end of the 17th century. In the play, Abigail wanted to bewitch John who had spent a night with her and whose wife Elizabeth fired her. She gathered other girls in the forest and organized dances. They were noticed by Abigail’s uncle, Samuel Parris, who blamed them on witchery. To defend themselves, the girls made mass hysteria, claiming that they saw the Devil and accusing innocent people of witchcraft. This is how the Salem witch trials occurred. Although McCarthy did not hang innocent people, his actions reminded Arthur Miller of mass hysteria in Salem, and they were embodied in the famous play “The Crucible.”

Biographical Information about Arthur Miller

Arthur Asher Miller was born in 1915 in New York in a family of a clothing company owner (Galvin). Although his family was wealthy, they lost their business during the Great Depression and were forced to move to Brooklyn (Galvin). Miller began to write plays when he was a student of the University of Michigan. His first works were “The Man Who Had all the Luck” (1944) and “All My Sons” (Galvin). For his play “Death of a Salesman,” Miller got the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 (Galvin). The playwright was socially engaged and tried to reveal his thoughts and beliefs in his plays. “The Crucible” is a good example as it illustrates terrible events of the witch trials in Salem.

Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trials took place in 1692 and became one of the tragic periods of the USA (Brooks). As a consequence of those events, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft, and 20 of them were killed (Brooks). The major instigator of hysteria attacks was Abigail Williams, an 11-year-old girl, who supported her 9-year-old friend, Elizabeth Parris. Everything began when Elizabeth fell ill, and no one could define the origin of her disease. Thus, Abigail and other girls pretended to have the same disease, and the Puritans, who lived in Salem, decided that their illness  related to witchery. In several days, the girls started to call some names; among them were the names of Tituba, Goody Good, and Goody Osborn (Brooks). Tituba was the first person who was blamed because she was a black-skinned maiden, known for her sorcery. In order to defend herself, the girl confessed that she saw the Devil, and her confession became the beginning of the Salem witch trials (Brooks). As a result, she saved her own life, but other women, who refused to confess, were hanged for nothing. Thus, a play of selfish teenagers developed into severe trials for innocent people.

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It should be noted that citizens of Salem were convicted due to evidence. A special court was created, and only specific cases, such as witch trials, were heard in that court. The judges admitted five types of proofs. The first one was a test – the accused had to recite the Lord’s Prayer (“Witchcraft in Salem”). The second proof was physical evidence, such as signs on the body, freckles, birthmarks, etc. The third one was witness testimony and the fourth - a vision of some ghosts. The last one was confession of the accused. If a person did not confess after all those tests, he or she was accused of witchery and imprisoned, and later such person might be hanged. Thus, the only way out for the defendants was to confess. However, many people did not want to state that they were guilty for something they did not do. As a result, they were imprisoned and killed.

McCarthyism

McCarthyism was a movement against communists, initiated by the Senator of Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s (“McCarthyism”). His work as a Senator was not successful, and he had to invent something to attract his voters’ attention. Thus, in February 1950, McCarthy proclaimed his speech in which he stated that there were 200 members of the Communist Party who constituted a danger for the USA (“McCarthyism”). As the events of World War II were not forgotten, and the domination of the communists in the world was obvious, people believed him. Therefore, the Senate gave McCarthy the possibility to provide evidence for his statement. However, as no evidence was found at the first hearing, the Senate insisted on a better investigation. McCarthy began to blame different government representatives; however when he accused the heroes of American Army of communism, it was his blunder (“McCarthyism”). People noticed that his blames were groundless, and he was censured. In several years, McCarthy died from alcoholism (“McCarthyism”). However, his anti-communist campaign influenced political, social, and cultural life. 

During McCarthyism, many politicians, as well as writers, actors, and other famous individuals, were afraid of being convicted of communism. People were so afraid of communist spies that every accusation could have ended with a trial. McCarthy manipulated them, and their faith resembled mass hysteria in Salem. McCarthy became a witch-hunter, who was searching for communists even if there was no one in the USA. As a result of his trial, cultural and intellectual life of the nation underwent changes. Thus, many books, newspapers, and films were banned, and writers as well as producers were blacklisted. Television showed only political programs, and newspapers published blacklists. Many books, including Robin Hood, was forbidden since it propagandized stealing money from the rich and giving them to the poor, that was the main idea of collectivism (“McCarthyism”). Although McCarthy’s politics was ended, its effect influenced Americans for several decades. Therefore, despite the fact that McCarthy himself did not kill people, McCarthyism as a movement may be compared to the Salem witch trials since it changed lives and ideologies of thousands of people.

Writing “The Crucible”

Arthur Miller experienced the period of McCarthyism as all nationals at that time did. Miller understood that the situation in the country was terrible, and something had to be done, but he did not know what exactly. He decided to write a play, but it had to reflect the events without naming them openly. Then, Miller read a book about Salem by Charles Upham, which had a great impact on him. He realized that he had to write about that period in a form of a play (Miller, “Why I Wrote The Crucible”). He went to Salem in 1952, where he conducted his research about witch trials and discovered interesting relations between the citizens of that town (“Why I Wrote The Crucible”). While reading the reports, written by the Reverend Parris, Miller drew a plot of his play in his head. He saw many similarities between the Salem witch trials of the 17th century and McCarthyism of the 1950s. Thus, he created the play “The Crucible,” which title may be identified with severe ordeals, experienced by the country. 

One of the major similarities between those two periods was paranoia and hysteria. Nevertheless, there is one difference: if in Salem these were teenage girls who made  hysteria , in Wisconsin, there was an adult man who began to spread paranoia. As a result, many people were accused of crimes they did not do. However, in Salem they were hanged, and in Wisconsin – censured or imprisoned. Consequently, the citizens of both cities were afraid of being accused of witchery and communism accordingly. Later, in his article “Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible,’” Miller stated, “so many practices of the Salem trials were similar to those employed by the congressional committees that I could easily be accused of skewing history for a mere partisan purpose” (“Why I Wrote The Crucible”). However, it did not stop him from writing, and he continued his work. Eventually, “The Crucible” became an identification of McCarthyism with the witch trials in Salem in the 17th century. Moreover, the readers can notice some similarities between the author and his protagonist, John Proctor, who had also seen the absurdity of the whole situation but did not know how to explain it to other people. Therefore, Miller revealed the fact that even if a person knew the truth, no one would believe him/her when mass hysteria took place. That is why “The Crucible” and McCarthyism are often associated with such facts. 

Conclusions

Arthur Miller wrote his play “The Crucible” basing on real events, which happened in Salem in 1692 (Brooks). However, the major reason for his writing the play was McCarthyism – the period of “hunt for Reds” and repressions (Miller, “Why I Wrote The Crucible”). The playwright realized that it would be not so easy to reveal all the events without being accused of communism. Thus, he made his personal investigation in Salem and discovered many similarities between those mass attacks of hysteria and paranoia of McCarthyism. As a result, the actions in his play may be identified with the actions of McCarthy. The last organized hunting for communists, while Abigail and other girls initiated witch-hunt. Moreover, the citizens of Wisconsin and other cities were afraid of being suspected of communism like the citizens of Salem were afraid of being accused of witchcraft. The ideas of obsession, mass hysteria, and dread captured people’s minds, and exactly they stimulated Miller to open their eyes and write a play “The Crucible.” The play brought him success and it is well-liked by the present-day audience.

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