The Historical Context of Arthur Miller’s Crucible
In 1953 Arthur Miller, who was born in New York in 1915, wrote his ‘Tony Award’ winning play ‘The Crucible’ which was first performed on the 9th of November 1954 in England at the Bristol Old Vic. He wrote the play when the United States was in a period of anti-communist hysteria, which was being fuelled by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Miller wrote the play at a time when he was being associated with the American public as a man who understood the deep cultural and traditional essence of the United States. The Crucible was Miller’s third major published play and succeeded his second ‘The Death of the Salesman’; a play labelled by may critics as the first great America Tragedy.
In 1692 a small town in colonial Massachusetts, known as Salem, fell foul to mass hysterical accusations of witchcraft. Many girls had fallen ill and had become victim to hallucinations leading to and adding to the speculation of a number of girls dancing in the woods. To have a speculation of such hellish damnation was such a sin in Puritan society such as Salem. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” 1 Peter 5:8, a quote from the Puritan bible. Such quotes outline the real wariness or anxiousness that they had about them. The 17th century was incredibly strict in terms of Theological Law. The government and law system was very much influenced by its religion. Miller found that the trial records he had as aids were very much based on religious teaching. However, he said that the historical accuracy of the play was not very close but he had surmised a lot of the information from a few letters, the trial record and a few news-sheets. Miller found that for dramatic purposes numbers of characters had had to be reduced. According to the author himself the numbers of girls involved in the ‘crying out’ had been significantly reduced. However the accuracy of a number of characters is relatively close, for instance Miller found a lot of information on Rebecca Nurse, so her character was probably the most historically accurate of them all. As well as Rebecca Nurse, Giles Corey, whom objected to the accusations against the girls, was really pressed as Miller wrote in the book. This clearly highlights quite how mixed up a period in American history this really was.
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Witches were seen as disgusting, evil people as can be seen in great influences within puritan literature such as Shakespeare. Shakespeare depicted the witches in his own play ‘Macbeth’ as foul-mouthed evil women, because he suggested they were so powerful and their power was channelled from the Devil. There is no way that in these times they could be depicted as pure or innocent as puritan were meant to be. Also Hathorne and Danforth actually represent several judges, all of equal authority in the 17th century witch trials, almost acting like a jury. After just a couple of weeks of the accusations many people were jailed on charges of witchcraft and by the end of the trials almost 20 people had been found guilty and hung for their supposed crimes. These numbers show that based upon very little evidence so many people could be convicted of confiding in witchcraft. In Puritan society blasphemy was considered the ultimate crime, and so therefore any such allegation would result in being put in trial with little chance of any redemption from society.
It was incredibly contradicting that these very pure and strictly religious people were accusing many innocent citizens of practising witchcraft because by doing so they were actually the ones that were committing the sin. They were the ones going against there own faith by making suspected witches out of perfectly innocent people. It was described by Miller as being ‘one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history’, which would suggest how encapsulated Miller was in the subject. The witch trials of 1692 tore the community apart and spilled many unspoken jealousies between the town folk.
But this is very similar to what was happening in the United States at the time when Miller was writing the book. Miller wrote the book during the session of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a man whom during the early 1950’s managed to take the USA into a black patch, namely the Cold War against the USSR. McCarthy was an overwhelmingly anti-communist senator who managed to come to session due to the poor relationship Truman had with the US public. McCarthy was basically the whole force that propelled the US into a huge anti-communist fervour. He conducted trials in America that mirrored those in Salem in 1692. These trials later became known as the ‘Communist Witch Hunts’. Oddly the US was very co-operative with McCarthy’s ways. He managed to have many on his side even though he was going against the books and amendments made by fellow Americans years before him. Most notably he broke the 5th amendment, his own view was the one that counted. If someone remained silent in McCarthy’s trials then they were guilty. In 1950 McCarthy spoke at Wheeling claiming that there were 205 communists in the state department (embarrassingly for him this number was later, publicly, reduced to 57), the similarity being that in Salem in 1692 many were accused of witchcraft, many of the accusers had no evidence they merely spilled out old grudges. This period left the US in mass hysteria that the country was to become communist and that there was many communists in controlling and influential positions within the media, society and state departments. The whole country and its people felt insecure about the future of the USA.
McCarthy was very focal on the liberal entertainment industry, which Miller was apart of, he accused many of them of being communist or otherwise communist sympathisers. Those suspected were ‘blacklisted’ which led to them being unable to get employment in the industry. Film star Robert Taylor accused many fellow actors as being a “disrupting influence in the entertainment industry”. However those that were being hunted or suspected by McCarthy’s regime, set up a committee in which they could speak out at what was happening, The House of Un-American Activities Committee. Many very influential personalities were called to speak at the meeting such as Bertolt Brecht. As well, Miller was called to the HUAC to talk. It is surely a certainty that Miller was affected and absorbed by McCarthy’s communist witch hunts in the 1950’s, but he did not write ‘The Crucible’ against McCarthy’s trials, these trials merely presented a great link and familiarity for Miller who had studied the Salem witch trials in depth at University.
But apart from putting ‘The Crucible’ in the context of 50’s McCarthyism and highlighting the link between the two, it is important to be able to outline the play’s relevance to modern 21st century society. There have been a number of relevant global happenings in recent years, such as the US and British government and UN and NATO weapon inspectors accusing the Iraqis of having chemical weapons in which they aim to use in line with creating mass destruction. The media, just like the gossiping town folk of Salem, manage to convey the possibilities of the potential destruction leaving the people insecure about there future.
Also the events of September 11th 2001, when New York City was the victim of surely the worst terrorist act ever committed. The events that day sent the whole of the western world upside down. The rest of the US and Brits were especially sure that they were next. People were hysterical about what was happening and people were literally staying at home away from the supposed danger. For 18 months after, the numbers of people using airlines to commute had dropped drastically.