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Arthur Miller's allegorical play, The Crucible, was written in 1956 about the historic witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts. The Crucible shows how fear can inspire hysteria, intolerance, and paranoia and mirrored what was happening in America in the 1950s when a different kind of witch hunt was afoot.
Arthur Miller's inspiration for The Crucible came from the events surrounding the McCarthy trials and their similarity to the historical Salem Witch Trials. John Proctor, a main protagonist of the story, says, "We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!" (73) These powerful words perfectly draw the parallelism between the two different, yet immensely similar times.
The Crucible takes place in 1692 in the Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts. The fear of evil, the devil, and witchcraft goaded the people of Salem to enforce strict rules about not dancing or even celebrating. It was natural for the people to assume witchcraft after two young girls were struck with an unknown illness and appeared to be catatonic.
The night before, Reverend Samuel Parris discovered his daughter, Betty; his niece, Abigail Williams; his slave, Tituba; and several other girls dancing in the woods around an open fire. In an effort to stave off consequences, Abigail admits to being under the spell of witches. Abigail threatens and ultimately persuades the other girls to keep up the ruse and go along with accusing the town's people of being the witches that corrupted them. The girls use the town's fear of all things supernatural to fuel their campaign of lies and pretenses to seek vengeance on those they had grudges against.
Arthur Miller's Life
Arthur Miller's writing style was shaped by his experiences. He was born into a prominent family in Harlem, New York, in 1915. Miller's family lost their successful coat manufacturing business during the stock market crash of 1929, forcing them to sell out and move to Brooklyn, New York.
Feeling the financial strain, Arthur Miller helped with his family's money trouble by delivering bread every morning before school until he graduated high school at age 16 (Garner). He continued to work various menial jobs, including hosting a radio show, after graduating high school to pay for college. Miller started his writing career at the University of Michigan, majoring in journalism. While attending college, he worked for his school paper and wrote his first play, No Villain, for which he was bestowed a prestigious award at his school ("Arthur Miller Biography").
Arthur Miller had an amazing gift for writing penetrating dramas that uncovered the hard truths of life around him. He would write about depression, desperation, success, and failure, highly relatable topics after the great depression and war. In 1940, Miller brought to the stage his first play, The Man Who Had All The Luck. Despite receiving The Theatre Guild's National Award, it ran only four times after garnering terrible reviews (Oxman).
Miller pressed on from the disappointment of his first stage play to become a well-renowned author and playwright. The height of Miller's career was in the 1940s-1950s when he wrote his most notable work, All My Sons, The Crucible, and Death of a Salesman. Death of a Salesman won Miller both the Pulitzer Prize and Drama Critics Circle Award; it also saw more than 700 performances (Private Conversations).
Writing The Crucible
Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible and would soon become the proverbial witch pointed out in the McCarthy Trials. Miller wanted to bring to light the hysteria, paranoia, and propaganda surrounding the McCarthy trials. After being unable to find a modern analogy, he came across a historical two-volume study of the Salem Witch Trials written by the mayor of Salem in 1867. This immediately sparked his creativity, and the idea for The Crucible was born.
Miller represented the Hollywood elite with the people of Salem, The Communists were represented as witches, and McCarthy was represented by Abigail and those making the unfounded accusations. Miller even painted himself into The Crucible as John Proctor, giving a raw and deep emotion running within the play that only personal experience can quite capture.
Miller's marriage of 12 years was on the rocks after an affair with Marilyn Monroe, whom he would later marry. In The Crucible, John Proctor's affair with Abigail sparked her hatred of Elizabeth Proctor, John's wife (Miller).
Miller's personal troubles with the McCarthy trials first started when he was expected to sign an anti-communist declaration for the film release of Death of a Salesman. Miller refused to sign, consequently bringing him into focus as a possible covert Communist (Meyers). Elia Kazan, who directed Death of a Salesman, did not share Miller's sentiment and later testified in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, also known as HUAC. This fractured their friendship, and Miller cut all ties with Kazan (Miller).
Miller was brought before the HUAC to testify about his meetings with Communist party writers in 1947 (Loftus). Miller refused to give the committee any names declaring his morals would not allow it. In a moment when he fully embodied the character of his play, John Proctor, Miller said to the Pennsylvania Representative and committee chairman, Francis Walter," I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him" (Glass).
In The Crucible, John Proctor said a similar thing at the end of the play when he was offered a chance to save himself from the gallows, "I have three children—how may I teach them to walk like men in the world if I sold my friends?" (143). Miller's refusal to assist HUAC in their witch hunt gave them the authority to find him guilty of contempt of Congress, a conviction later overturned (Loftus).
McCarthyism and the Witch Trials
In an already war-torn country, the Cold War began between the United States and the Soviet Union, creating great fear of the Communist movement taking root in America.
Communism is a socialist movement founded on the writings of Karl Marx from the 1800s in which he proposed that there should not be a class system, that all property should be publicly owned, and a person's work should be paid according to their needs. The Communist philosophy was that capitalism created a system of inequality and suffering; furthermore, believing that a revolution was needed to overthrow a capitalist nation completely (Dhar).
This created panic and hysteria as the common belief was that Soviet Communist spies, the reds, were hiding amongst the American people with nefarious plans. This was known as the Red Scare due to their allegiance to the red flag of their country. This was the second big Red Scare in American history, the first coinciding with the First World War from 1914-1945.
The first Red Scare created the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1938. HUAC was formed to find and uncover suspected communists in the United States in a process known as red-baiting. The first red scare focused on discovering subversive communists in the government, yet the second red scare focused on the entertainment industry ("Red Scare").
While formed to find covert communists, it was more commonly used to silence people and organizations that they, the powers that be, disagreed with. During the second red scare, Senator Joseph McCarthy gave a speech claiming to have two hundred and five names written on a piece of paper that were members of the communist party (Griffin 49). The press sensationalized McCarthy, and the term "McCarthyism" was born.
Thousands of Americans were placed on the chopping block of HUAC, McCarthy, FBI investigations, loyalty tests, and sedition laws. Americans were deported, jailed, blacklisted, fined, and/or lost their passports if found guilty. Little evidence was needed to pass judgment, and accusation alone was usually enough to be blacklisted or worse—much like The Crucible, where the girl's accusations were enough for the people of Salem to be found guilty of witchcraft. The penalty to be found guilty of witchcraft was to be put to death unless they were to confess and name more witches.
"In an ordinary crime, how does one defend the accused? One calls up witnesses to prove his innocence. But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not? Therefore, who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim. None other. Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims—and they do testify, the children certainly do testify." (The Crucible 93)
The same mindset was the driving force behind the McCarthy trials. A false confession made under duress was of little consequence as long as the hunt continued. As the hunt continued and more were accused, the people of Salem would cross the street or turn their backs in fear of seeing Abigail. They were afraid that if she were to lay her eyes upon them, they would be the next to be accused. In the 1950s, this too was commonplace, causing a deep-seated fear that anyone could be the next accused, be forced into interviews, and be forever branded a communist.
Witch Hunts Throughout History
Witchcraft persecution dates back centuries before the Salem witch trials of 1692. The first laws that punished those suspected of witchcraft arose in the 7th to the 9th century. Initially, witchcraft was thought to be associated with healing, astrology, and alchemy, and they were valuable members of society, usually referred to as white witches or "wise women." Conversely, black magic was associated with devil worship and thought to cause illness, death, and bad luck (Newman).
Witchcraft and magic practitioners are often dismissed historically by the medical community as "primitive" or "unscientific" healers. The psychiatric community claims that witchcraft originated due to widespread manifestations of delusion and hysteria (Campbell 56). However, during the 13th century, the church rose in political power, which prompted witchcraft and "demon worship" to become synonymous (Newman).
Witchcraft or Patriarchy?
Those labeled as witches, most commonly older women living alone or in small groups, had violated societal and religious customs by not conforming to their expected roles in a patriarchal society branding themselves as deviants of the church. Most often, these women practiced midwifery, herbal healing that had been passed down through generations, and followed ancient pagan religions by worshipping nature instead of conforming to the Christian beliefs of the one true God. This set them as enemies to the church, whose goal was to be the western world's only religion and assume more political influence (Campbell 58).
By the late 1400s, the Inquisition reached a point where there was a "no-holds-barred" methodology to uncover those practicing witchcraft under the rule of Pope Innocent VIII, and no longer was there a distinction between white and black magic.
Malleus Maleficarum, or The Witches Hammer
Witch-finders were armed with the Malleus Maleficarum, also known as The Witches Hammer, a book published by German Monks on how to hunt, identify, and interrogate witches. The witch hunters would use torture and other atrocities, as detailed in The Witches Hammer, to elicit a confession from the accused (Campbell 59-60). In The Crucible, Hale was armed with academic books to consult to find a witch. No mention was made to the Malleus Maleficarum or The Witches Hammer, but his books might have, in fact, contained that particular reference.
The Prick Technique
One example in the Witches Hammer was the prick technique, where a witch-finder pricked a woman all over her body with a special instrument. It was believed that a witch would have a spot on her body that would not bleed or elicit a pain response. It was common for a woman to bleed to death during the process or give a false confession in exchange for rarely given leniency (Campbell 73).
The Devil's Mark or Witch's Teat
The "Devil's Mark" or "witch's teat" was another sign of witchcraft that was looked for in The Inquisition. This mark is commonly presented as a third nipple allowing a witch to nurse her familiar, a demon in animal form. It was also believed to secrete milk but be much smaller than her two main nipples (Campbell 73). Hale searched for a mark on Betty in The Crucible; he explained to onlookers, "The Devil is precise; the marks of his presence are definite as stone" (35).
References to a witch's familiar can be found throughout Crucible. Hale questioned Betty about whether someone came to her and inferred that it could be a witch's familiar, not necessarily the witch herself. Abigail also claimed to see familiars, particularly when Mary Warren dared to stand against the girls by asserting that all accusations were false. Abigail led the other girls in claiming they could see Mary's familiar, a bird, flying around the church.
The Salem Witch Hunt
Witch hunts progressed through the centuries until they rippled into the American Colonies, most notably Salem, Massachusetts. Salem's witch trials lasted only from 1692-1693, but over 200 people were accused during that time, and 20 people and two dogs were executed. Historians accredit the accusations to mass hysteria, paranoia, and mob mentality.
As seen with earlier witch hunts, most of the accused were outspoken women, rivals, or critics of the trials. The Putnam family capitalized on the hysteria surrounding the trials by accusing neighbors in order to garnish their land for themselves (Brooks). That was the case with Giles Corey, age 80, who was one of the few men accused in the trials. He was put to death by a torturous procedure known as "pressing," where heavy stones were placed upon him until he was crushed to death (Thomas).
In The Crucible, Giles Corey claimed that his wife read strange books and he could not say his prayers in her presence. This claim ultimately led to Corey's wife being accused of witchcraft. In his guilt, he claimed that the Putnam family was only after his land but would not give a name on how he came by this information. This contributed to him being found in contempt and pressed for the name.
The Touch Test
The "touch test" was another way a witch could be uncovered. This was when a simple touch of a witch calmed an afflicted person in the throws of a fit. It was believed that the evil would be imbued back into the witch as it left the afflicted (Thomas). This was the case for Rebecca Nurse; her calming touch is seen when Betty is inconsolable, and Rebecca Nurse can instantly calm her with her touch. It is not until much later in the story that she is accused, but the assumption must be made that it was in part due to her "calming touch."
Poppets, Dolls, and The Lord's Prayer
Having poppets and dolls could also brandish an accusation of witchcraft, as seen with Elizabeth Proctor. After many accusations, Abigail finally accused Elizabeth Proctor with the goal of acquiring Elizabeth's husband for herself. She used the poppet Mary Warren had sewn for her, claiming that it was Elizabeth Proctor's voodoo doll and evidence of her crime of witchcraft.
Elizabeth and John Proctor were then set on another test being able to recite the ten commandments. Historically it was not the commandments that needed to be recited, but The Lord's Prayer. The Lord's Prayer needed to be recited perfectly without any stuttering or mistakes to prove one was devout (Thomas).
Witches or Sinners?
After the people of Salem were accused, they were taken to the Salem Village Meeting House to withstand a trial. With the Puritanical view of Salem and its rigid laws, it was very easy to receive a guilty verdict as the church and Christianity heavily influenced it. The citizens of Salem followed a draconian moral code, and as such, any sin was met with severe and deadly consequences.
The first accused, Sara Osbourne, was a woman who was previously dishonored in the community by having premarital relations and not regularly attending church. Another of the first accused was shunned because she had a child out of wedlock ("Salem Witch Trials"). These instances prove that the hunt for witches was nothing more than a crusade against sinners. The distinction between a sinner and a witch had no place in the Puritan town of Salem.
Fear and Paranoia
Fear is a powerful motivator that can inspire hysteria, paranoia, and intolerance, as seen in The Crucible. The symbolism between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy era is an important warning to society that condemning people not on real evidence but on fear and unfounded accusations rarely keeps the best interests of a community at the forefront.
McCarthy was an opportunist and a power grabber and saw the red scare as a chance to increase his standing in the community. Abigail’s motives were slightly different, but she was also an opportunist and essentially had the power to choose who lived and died. This ultimately destroyed them both and countless lives in the process.
Arthur Miller captured some of the biggest flaws in humanity and the mass destruction they can cause. The relevance of The Crucible does not end in the McCarthy era but can be applied to countless situations presently and throughout history.
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Mark from Birmingham UK on June 28, 2018:
Nicely written very interesting and informative