The award-winning author of The Crucible, best known for his play, “Death of a Salesman,” craftily puts a 1950s political allegory in a play with hysteria at its heart. The four-act play “The Crucible” was published in 1953, when America and the Soviet Union were in a non-combat contentious economic and political rivalry, the Cold War. This contentious era from 1957 to 1991 has many political and economic scars on America. McCarthyism, which The Crucible records, is one of the political scars of America from the Cold War (Montesdeoca, 2017). Noteworthy, the time setting of the play is the Salem witch hunt of the 1600s and 1700s, which the author uses to explain the dangers of mass hysteria. In American society, the Red Scare, a moment during the Cold War in the US when mass hysteria about communism hit the country, represents a distressful political time. Arthur Miller writes The Crucible for three main reasons. First, to dramatize the hysterical effects of McCarthyism. Secondly, to demonstrate parallelism between Salem’s witch hunt and the Red Scare, to warn about the effects of the hysteria. Miller authored The Crucible as a way to use the archaic English of the seventeenth century that he desired to use.
The infamous witch hunt of the 1600s and 1700s in Salem, Massachusetts, is the main story of the play The Crucible. During this time, a witch hunt of people practicing witchcraft was underway, where a majority of the accused were innocent but still underwent execution (Miller, 2015). As the play represents, this time in Salem was terrible for anyone accused of witchcraft, where evidence or lack of it was enough to execute people, provided one accuses another. In the 1600s and 1700s, witchcraft remained a core element of importance in the theological system of the time, and the newly acquired beliefs of spirituality, especially demonic power, heated the hysteria. A hysteria surfaced after the courts exchanged leniency for calling out names of people practicing witchcraft (Miller, 2015). Salemites weaponized this snitching, where people accused others of witchcraft, especially those they did not like. For instance, Abigail falsely accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft because she wanted her husband. The community lost faith in the fairness of the trial, and the government financially compensated the heirs of the executed victims. Miller’s play vividly explains this witch hunt to allegorize the political environment of his time.
The authorship of this play is a dramatization of the anti-communist mass fear spread during the McCarthyism era using the Salem witch hunt of the 1600s to 1700s. After World War II, the US and the USSR became rivals as the spread of communism threatened the democratic ideology flagged by the US. This contention led to anti-communist actions in America. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy started an investigation to gauge the loyalty of the American government employees and the Hollywood film industry (Montesdeoca, 2017). The actions taken for communist and communist sympathizers were apprehended and forced to name names of other communists. In a democratic country believing in personal and political levels, these actions spread a hysteria similar to Salem’s in the 1600s. This hysteria touched Miller’s personal life when his friend Elia Kazan named seventeen people from the Hollywood industry as communists to secure the anti-communist program’s leniency like in Salem. In other words, the hysteria drove people to accuse others of communism, to secure sincerity perception from the people and get lenient consequences, just like in Salem.
The author also warned about the dangers of mass hysteria, using Salem’s witch hunt as a parallel narrative to mid-1900s McCarthyism. Miller authors The Crucible as a trial to discourage the behaviors and attitudes of the McCarthyism era in the future (Montesdeoca Martín, 2017). As Salem went desolate due to the effects of a hysterical environment, America was heading in the same direction where people weaponized accusations of sympathizing with communists and victimizing innocent people. The parallel nature of the two events, the Salem witch hunt and the 1950s McCarthyism gave Americans an image of where the country was heading with the intensifying hysteria. With some communism accusations found false, Arthur Miller’s allegory stands as a warning of the dangers of hysteria.
In a New Yorker article in 1996, “Why I Wrote the Crucible,” Arthur Miller confesses his desire to express himself in the old language as an inspiration to write the classic play. He says that the English of the seventeenth century was “strangely sensuous,” which felt liberating to him (Miller, 1996). The legalistic terminologies combined with the metaphoric possibility of the Salem witch hunt was an inspiration for him to take the year writing the play. Through his classmate’s help, he could copy the archaic language to be perfect for an American stage with American actors.
In closing, Arthur Miller authors The crucible majorly as a way to express his liberal affiliations without getting into the jaws of McCarthyism. The anti-communist hysteria drove people to demonstrate sincerity through falsehood and hypocrisy. As mentioned above, the play dramatizes the political hysteria spreading during the Cold War’s anti-communist era, McCarthyism. Secondly, Miller’s desire to create a similar demonstration between the 1690s Salem witch hunt and McCarthy’s oppressive ways of fighting communism inspired his authorship. This parallelism warns Americans about the dangers of attitudes of the forties and fifties to curb the spread of communism. Also, the old English of the 1600s tickled Miller’s artistic nerve that drove him to write the crucible.
- Miller, A. (1996). Why I Wrote The Crucible: An Artist’s Answer to Politics. New Yorker, 21.
- Miller, A. (2015). The crucible. Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Montesdeoca Martín, I. (2017). Fanning the flames of hysteria: McCarthyism and moral decadence in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (Bachelor’s thesis).