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Themes of "The Crucible"

Lessons from Witch Hunts of the Past


Like most classics, The Crucible works on several levels. First and foremost, it is an dramatic exploration of historical events. Arthur Miller researched the incidents and lives surrounding the Salem Witch Trial. Although the dialogue has been fabricated, many of the lines were inspired from the actual court documents from 1692.

American society learned a difficult lesson from the Salem trials. Miller contends that we learned the dangers of theocracy. Freedom cannot be attained if religious leaders control the fate of the people.

Of course, when one recalls the year in which The Crucible was written, it’s easy to make a connection between the witch trials of 1692 and the “witch hunt” for communists during the early 1950s.

Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) targeted directors, writers, and movie stars who were reputed to be members of the communist party.

Like Rev. Parris and Judge Danforth, McCarthy accused potential deviants, prompted by rumors rather than logical evidence. In Salem, the judges coerced witnesses into implicating others, similar to the technique used in the 1950s.

The theme becomes all the more relevant when one considers the playwright’s life, before and after The Crucible. During the mid-1930s, Miller and other artists attended a small group that discussed the philosophy of communism. Director Elia Kazan was also a member of this group. Miller contends that most of the idealistic group members soon realized that Stalin’s Soviet Union was a very flawed system of government.

Still, because of his affiliation with this group, Elia Kazan was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He gave a list of eight names, implicating fellow members of the original group. Playwrights Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller were among the names given.

Aside from the feeling of betrayal, Miller also wondered about the devious roots of Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare.” He began to research the Salem Witch Trials and, using the sense of paranoia he witnessed around him, began to write The Crucible.

After the play opened in 1953, the HUAC paid close attention to Miller. Following his marriage to Marilyn Monroe in 1956, he became a highly visible media figure, which made him a prime target in the eyes of the HUAC. They summoned him before the committee. They wanted to know the names of friends and co-workers.

Miller refused to offer any names. He was subsequently blacklisted. In addition, in 1958 he was found in contempt of court and sentenced to thirty days in prison. Fortunately, months later a court of appeals overturned the conviction. Soon after, McCarthyism lost its momentum.

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