3-Historical Context

The Crucible remains charged in terms of its historical setting as well as the historical context in which it was written. During the 1950’s in America, McCarthyism arose as a judicial doctrine antagonizing any Americans suspected of sympathizing with Communist ideas. This doctrine led to the formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, which questioned and scrutinized government officials, artists, activists, and all others suspected of liberal leaning ideas. Arthur Miller characterizes this political climate of fear in the United States by setting The Crucible during the frenzied witch trials of Salem Massachusetts. The play both mirrors the era of McCarthyism as a whole, and also shows how Miller was implicated and testified in hearings that sought to eradicate Communism without due process or constitutional rights. Miller’s contemporary, Elia Kazan, serves as another historical agent who shows just why The Crucible was written. The play must be understood in the context of its Twentieth Century premiere in order to understand from its Seventeenth Century setting and its place in the present day.

The era of McCarthyism brought an era of fear to America. The threat of communism seemed to be threatening the American way of life in the aftermath of World War II, and fear-mongering politicians responded with “enhanced surveillance, black-listing, and repression as part of the right-wing ideologues’ tactics against government employees, educators, entertainers,” and anyone else who may have had liberal sympathies. [1] During the preceding decades, liberal political ideology flourished in America as an opposition to the Fascism and Nazism that swept through Europe and led to such a devastating war. However, with the war’s end, communism became the new threat to democracy. The secretive nature of the American Communist Party enhanced the misunderstandings surrounding it, and this fear brought with it the idea that anything unknown must be “Un-American.” [2] These sentiments led numerous Congressional sub-committees to be reorganized and rebranded as the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC, shown in meeting left), led by a Junior Senator from the state of Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. [3] McCarthy sought to find, question, and punish any American Citizens who had past or present associations with the Communist Party. This sweeping policy of fear and persecution offers the backdrop amidst which The Crucible would be written.

Arthur Miller avoided subpoena to HUAC until 1956, when he was forced to testify on June 21, three years after the premiere of his allegorical work, The Crucible. [4] While the play was written before Miller himself faced persecution, he was well aware of the encroaching environment of blame and accusation that had engulfed his country and profession. McCarthyism sought to bring every aspect of the world into the public light as a form of spectacle. The Salem witch trials showcase this spectacle because both McCarthyism (cartoon shown left) and the trials involved law and order where “failure to defend oneself against incrimination was considered proof of seditious activities against the state.” [5] All of the subtly and nuance of justice had been eradicated from both sets of proceedings. In the eyes of HUAC, the world existed merely as a binary set of responses, American or Communist, good or evil, and God or the devil. While the latter example plays much more prominently into the historical fiction Miller penned, this sentiment still served as the justification for the cruelty imposed by HUAC on so many Americans. In the same way that the witchcraft spread from the innocuous youth of the town to much more seriously culpable adults, affiliation with Communism was seen as a symptom of youthful naivety in the American population that required confession, retraction, and penance. [6] Despite the way these problems were presented to the public in this stage of history, the motivations for the trials were quite clear. In The Crucible, young white girls instinctively feel that a black slave has gained power through her accusation of another, and they use this realization to gain power for their advantage. [7] In HUAC, it was no different. Accusation served as a tool for political advancement, where the spectacle of the hearings lifted the accusers up while denigrating the accused down below.

Miller witnessed the alienation of himself and his peers while understanding that in effect, the state had supplanted all divine power through HUAC. McCarthy’s purification acted to suppress the fundamental liberties which the United State had been built upon. Miller saw through the hearings to legislation which gave a tenuous constitutional backing to legalize the new witch hunt that plagued the 1950’s. Of course, the Salem witch trials underwent the same cycle of persecution, but with far less need for justification. In the defense of God’s law, the judges portrayed in The Crucible had no qualms about executing anyone they chose at will. [8] In the era of McCarthyism, condemnation by HUAC was tantamount to the gallows of Salem, as condemnation could lead to loss of employment, friends, opportunity, and reputation, essentially ending one’s life. This was the context Miller faced when he went to testify in June of 1956. Miller cooperated almost fully, answering every question save two, both of which involved naming alleged Communist Party associates. “His refusal to pay symbolic tribute to the Committee’s theme of subversive conspiracy was paid for with a charge of contempt.” [9] Scholarship notes that in The Crucible comparisons can be drawn between Miller’s testimony to HUAC and the structure of his play. [10] John Proctor exclaims in the face of death, “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” [11] Miller refuted and rebuked all evidence offered against him, essentially playing the hero in his set of trials to foil John Proctor’s role in Salem. This was the historical nightmare that Miller and so many of his contemporaries lived in. The Crucible faced criticism because “while there were no witches in Salem, there were Communists in Washington.” [12] This reality would touch Miller in a very personal way through the testimony of his friend, Elia Kazan.

Elia Kazan (right) was a close collaborator and personal friend of Arthur Miller. Kazan had directed several of Miller’s plays to critical acclaim in their debuts, and he was a true master of his craft, stemming from the Group Theater. Kazan had joined the Communist Party during his time with the Group, but had eventually become disillusioned and left the political ideology. [13] This past led Kazan to face HUAC in 1952, during which he complied with all questioning and proceeded to name names of his suspected Communist associates. This direct affront to Arthur Miller destroyed the friendship between the pair and made the professional relationship between Miller and Kazan unworkable for ten years. Many scholars believe that “had it not been for the investigations and the finger pointing of his best friend Elia Kazan” in 1952, The Crucible would likely not have been written in 1953. [14] Despite the historical context of McCarthyism and HUAC, the betrayal of Elia Kazan may have been the most influential factor in Miller’s world that led to his allegorical play. Miller faced the reality that he did not share the same convictions as his esteemed colleague, and it would take over a decade for their relationship to recover. While Kazan folded under the pressure of condemnation as so many do in The Crucible, Miller chose to stand tall in the face of such persecution and protect his name. This historical reality plagued Miller through the era and led him to write such a poignant work about an equally destructive time in American history. Recognizing the relevance of these issues as Miller saw them allows a contemporary exposure to The Crucible to carry the implications it deserves.

[1] Aziz, Aamir. “Using the Past to Intervene in the Present: Spectacular Framing in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.” New Theatre Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2, 2016, 171.

[2] Ibid, 171.

[3] Parry, Dale D. Exploring the Morality of Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan to Show How It Affected Their Work, Friendship and Society. MA Thesis, University of Nevada Las Vegas, 2002. 3.

[4] Aziz, 171.

[5] Ibid, 170.

[6] Ibid, 169.

[7] Miller, Quentin D. “The Signifying Poppet: Unseen Voodoo and Arthur Miller’s Tituba.” Forum for Modern Language Studies, vol. 43, no. 4, 2007, 443.

[8] Aziz, 174.

[9] Sabinson, Eric Mitchell. Script and Transcript: The Writings of Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller in Relation to Their Testimony Before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. Dissertation, University of New York at Buffalo, 1986. 315.

[10] Ibid, 316.

[11] Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Bantam Books, 1963. 138.

[12] Sabinson, 319.

[13] Parry, 14.

[14] Ibid, 30.


Images: Above left: Lights, camera, action in Committee hearing. October. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/2010646093/>. Below left: Block, Herbert, Artist. We now have new and important evidence. [6-1] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/2012633209/>. Below right: Kavallines, James, photographer. [Elia Kazan, full-length portrait, standing before bookshelves at Brentano’s book store / World Journal Tribune photo by James Kavallines]. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/96516144/>.