Beginning in 1947, after ten often disappointing years as a playwright, Arthur Miller (1915-2005) had written All My Sons—a final attempt to make it in the theatre—and had seen the play enjoy a run of 328 performances and win the Drama Critics Circle Award for best play and the Tony Award for best author. Two years later his masterpiece Death of a Salesman was produced on Broadway (and soon after, the major theatres of Europe), winning six Tony Awards, including best author, best play, the Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. By the time he wrote The Crucible in 1952, the 37-year-old Miller had enjoyed unusual success in the theatre.
Coincident with Miller’s theatrical triumph was the rise of McCarthyism in U.S. politics and society. Following World War II, the Soviet Union began establishing puppet governments throughout Eastern and Central Europe, had blockaded West Berlin, had acquired the atomic bomb, and supported the communist governments of China and North Korea. In the U.S., where anti-Soviet sentiments had been downplayed during our alliance with the Soviet Union in World War II, politicians discovered there was capital to be gained by taking strong anti-communist positions. The FBI and three government committees—the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on investigations—examined communist threats to American government and society, both real and imagined, looking for spies in the government and investigating companies, industries, and institutions for subversive activities and communist sympathizers.
Emblematic of these politicians was the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. A relatively unknown official, McCarthy became famous with a 1950 Lincoln Day speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, where he held up a piece of paper and proclaimed, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” His performance was sensational and pushed McCarthy into the national spotlight, where he remained until he stumbled and fell from grace in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings.
The government discovered many communists, former communists, and left-leaning sympathizers in their investigations, for the Great Depression in the 1930s had shaken the country’s faith in capitalism. Questioning the basic tenets of the broken economic system, people of many different classes looked elsewhere. Union membership grew in the thirties, as did the membership organizations sympathetic to socialism and communism. There were relatively few Americans who had not questioned at least some part of the capitalist system, which, when it had collapsed, had put many people out of work, out of their homes, and onto the streets. A good number of citizens had either embraced or explored communism during this period as an alternative to what seemed to be a failed economy and society.
To be called before one of these anti-communist investigative committees was often ruinous to one’s reputation and career. The committee asked about their subjects’ past, whether they were or had been members of the Communist Party, whether they might have supported groups that were possible fronts for communists, or whether they sympathized with communist or leftist groups. The subjects before the committee were asked to identify other communists they might have known—they were asked to “name names.”
In 1947 HUAC began to investigate actors, screenwriters, and others associated with Hollywood. Individuals could cooperate with the committee and name names (Actor Larry Parks likened this to “crawl[ing] through the mud to be an informer”) or they could exercise their rights against self-incrimination and become known, to use a phrase popularized by Senator McCarthy, “Fifth Amendment Communists.” Either way, those being investigated, especially those who weren’t cooperative with HUAC and its investigators, were fired from their jobs in the film industry and blacklisted from further employment. Among those appearing on blacklist were Lillian Hellman, Dalton Trumbo, Stella Adler, Alfred Drake, Howard Bay, Howard Duff, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Abe Burrows, Dorothy Parker, Will Geer, Lee J. Cobb, Ruth Gordon, Marc Connelly, John Garfield, Aaron Copland, José Ferrer, Artie Shaw, Irwin Shaw, Judy Holliday, Burl Ives, Sam Jaffe, Lena Horne, Burgess Meredith, Zero Mostel, Orson Bean, Lloyd Bridges, Uta Hagen, Dashiell Hammett, Orson Welles, and Gypsy Rose Lee. Some faced a short hiatus from the studios, while others never worked in the film industry again.
In this general atmosphere of fear and suspicion, Arthur Miller was reminded of a topic he had researched for a play while a student at the University of Michigan. When “the McCarthy era came along,” he told The Paris Review, “I remembered these stories and I used to tell them to people when it [the Red Scare] started. I had no idea that it was going to go as far as it went. I used to say, you know, McCarthy is actually saying certain lines that I recall the witch-hunters saying in Salem. So I started to go back, not with the idea of writing a play, but to refresh my own mind because it was getting eerie. For example, his holding up his hand with cards in it, saying, ‘I have in my hand the names of so-and-so.’ Well, this was a standard tactic of seventeenth-century prosecutors confronting a witness who was reluctant or confused, or an audience in a church which was not quite convinced that this particular individual might be guilty. He wouldn’t say, ‘I have in my hand a list…,’ he’d say, ‘We possess the names of all these people who are guilty. But the time has not come yet to release them.’ He had nothing at all—he simply wanted to secure in the town’s mind the idea that he saw everything, that everyone was transparent to him. It was a way of inflicting guilt on everybody, and many people responded genuinely out of guilt; some would come and tell him some fantasy, or something that they had done or thought that was evil in their minds.”
Miller traveled to Salem to research what became The Crucible, going through letters, court records, and diaries of those involved with the witch trials of 1692. Through the story of Salem’s trials, where over 200 people were jailed, nineteen were hanged, one was stoned to death, and three others died while in prison, Miller also might be able to tell the story of the current witch hunt, with its undercurrent of guilt, accusation, suspicion, and dread.
The Crucible opened on Broadway in 1953 and ran for 197 performances, winning the Tony Award for best play. The play continues to be revived in both professional and amateur theatres; it is his most-performed work, not only in America, but also throughout the world. Its popularity rests, in part, in its arresting story of love, guilt, and honor. But it seems that audiences are still able to relate to its current relevance, despite the fact that the specific circumstances of McCarthyism have long since passed. At the turn of the century, Miller remarked that “not many people alive today may remember a lot about McCarthy. But I hope they still remember something about my play. The Crucible has outlived him.”
Arthur Miller died in his home in 2005, one of the most honored American playwrights of the twentieth century.