WHY I WROTE THE CRUCIBLE: An Artist's Answer to Politics.
By Arthur Miller
As I watched The Crucible taking
shape as a movie over much of the past year, the sheer depth of time that it
represents for me kept returning to mind.
As those powerful actors blossomed on the screen, and the children and
the horses, the crowds and the wagons, I thought again about how I came to cook
all this up nearly fifty years ago, in an
I remember those years… but I have lost the dead weight of the fear I had then. Fear doesn't travel well; just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory's truth. What terrifies one generation is likely to bring only a puzzled smile to the next. I remember how in 1964, only twenty years after the war, Harold Clurman, the director of Incident at Vichy, showed the cast a film of a Hitler speech, hoping to give them a sense of the Nazi period in which my play took place. They watched as Hitler, facing a vast stadium full of adoring people, went up on his toes in ecstasy, hands clasped under his chin, a sublimely self-gratified grin on his face, his body swiveling rather cutely, and they giggled at his overacting.
Likewise, films of Senator Joseph McCarthy are rather unsettling—if you remember the fear he once spread. Buzzing his truculent sidewalk brawler's snarl through the hairs in his nose, squinting through his cat's eyes and sneering like a villain, he comes across now as nearly comical, a self-aware performer keeping a straight face as he does his juicy-threat shtick.
McCarthy's power to stir fears of
creeping Communism was not entirely based on illusion, of course; the paranoid,
real or pretended, always secretes its pearl around a grain of fact. From being our wartime ally, the
The Crucible was an act of desperation. Much of my desperation branched out, I suppose, from a typical Depression-era trauma – the blow struck on the mind by the rise of European Fascism and the brutal anti-Semitism it had brought to power. But by 1950, when I began to think of writing about the hunt for Reds in America, I was motivated in some great part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitors' violations of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly.
In any play, however trivial, there
still has to be a point of moral reference against which to gauge the
action. In our lives, in the late
nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties, no such point existed anymore. The left could not look straight at the
The Red hunt, led by the House
Committee on Un-American Activities and by McCarthy,
was becoming the dominating fixation of the American psyche. [An error –
Senator McCarthy worked in the Senate; the
House Committee worked in the House.] It reached
…In those years, our thought processes were becoming so paranoid, that to imagine writing a play about this environment was like trying to pick one's teeth with a ball of wool: I lacked the tools to illuminate miasma [mist or fog]. Yet I kept being drawn back to it.
I had read about the witchcraft trials in college, but it was not until I read a book published in 1867 – a two-volume, thousand-page study by Charles W. Upham, who was then the mayor of Salem – that I knew I had to write about the period. …I read the transcripts of the witchcraft trials of 1692, as taken down in a primitive shorthand by ministers who were spelling each other. But there was one entry in Upham in which the thousands of pieces I had come across were jogged into place. It was from a report written by the Reverend Samuel Parris, who was one of the chief instigators of the witch-hunt. "During the examination of Elizabeth Procter, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam" – the two were "afflicted" teen-age accusers, and Abigail was Parris's niece – "both made offer to strike at said Procter; but when Abigail's hand came near, it opened, whereas it was made up, into a fist before, and came down exceeding lightly as it drew near to said Procter, and at length, with open and extended fingers, touched Procter's hood very lightly. Immediately Abigail cried out her fingers, her fingers, her fingers burned ... "
In this remarkably observed gesture from a troubled young girl, I believed,
a play became possible. Elizabeth Proctor had been the
orphaned Abigail's mistress, and they had lived together in the same small
All this I understood. I had not approached the witchcraft out of nowhere or from purely social and political considerations. My own marriage of twelve years was teetering and I knew more than wished to know about where the blame lay. That John Proctor the sinner might overturn his paralyzing personal guilt and become the most forthright voice against the madness around him was a reassurance to me, and, I suppose, an inspiration: it demonstrated that a clear moral outcry could still spring even from an ambiguously unblemished soul. Moving crabwise across the profusion of evidence, I sensed that I had at last found something of myself in it, and a play began to accumulate around this man.
But as the dramatic form became
visible, one problem remained unyielding: so many practices of the Salem trials
were similar to those employed by the congressional committees that I could
easily be accused of skewing history for a mere partisan purpose. Inevitably, it was no sooner known that my
new play was about Salem than I had to confront the charge that such an analogy
was specious [based on little evidence] – that there never were any witches but there
certainly are Communists. In the
seventeenth century, however, the existence of witches was never questioned by
the loftiest minds in Europe and
As with most humans, panic sleeps in
one unlighted corner of my soul. When I
walked at night along the empty, wet streets of
Naturally, the best proof of the sincerity of your confession was your naming others whom you had seen in the Devil’s company – an invitation to private vengeance, but made of official by the seal of the theocratic state [Government controlled by a church or religion]. It was as though the court had grown tired of thinking and had invited in the instincts: spectral evidence – that poisoned cloud of paranoid fantasy – made a kind of lunatic sense to them, as it did in plot ridden 1952, when so often the question was not the acts of an accused but the thoughts and intentions in his alienated mind.
The breathtaking circularity of the process had a kind of poetic tightness. Not everybody was accused, after all, so there must be some reason why you were. By denying that there is any reason whatsoever for you to be accused, you are implying, by virtue of a surprisingly small logical leap, that mere chance picked you out, which in turn implies that the Devil might not really be at work in the village or, God forbid, even exist. Therefore, the investigation itself is either mistaken or a fraud. You would have to be a crypto-Luciferian to say that – not a great idea if you wanted to go back to your farm.
The more I read into the Salem panic,
the more it touched off corresponding ages of common experiences in the
fifties: the old friend of a blacklisted person crossing the street to avoid
being seen talking to him; the overnight conversions of former leftists into
born-again patriots; and so on.
Apparently, certain processes are universal. When Gentiles in Hitler's
I was also drawn into writing The
Crucible by the chance it gave me to use a new language – that of
But it was not yet my language, and
among other strategies to make it mine I enlisted the help of a former
On opening night, January 22, 1953, I knew that the atmosphere would be pretty hostile. The coldness of the crowd was not a surprise; Broadway audiences were not famous for loving history lessons, which is what they made of the play. It seems to me entirely appropriate that on the day the play opened, a newspaper headline read "ALL 13 REDS GUILTY" – a story about American Communists who faced prison for "conspiring to teach and advocate the duty and necessity of forcible overthrow of government.” Meanwhile, the remoteness of the production was guaranteed by the director, Jed Harris, who insisted that this was a classic requiring the actors to face front, never each other. The critics were not swept away. "Arthur Miller is a problem playwright in both senses of the word," wrote Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune, who called the play "a step backward into mechanical parable.” The Times was not much kinder, saying, "There is too much excitement and not enough emotion in The Crucible.” But the play's future would turn out quite differently.
About a year later, a new production,
one with younger, less accomplished actors, working in the Martinique Hotel
ballroom, played with the fervor that the script and the times required, and The
Crucible became a hit. The play
stumbled into history, and today, I am told, it is one of the most heavily
demanded trade-fiction paperbacks in this country; the Bantam and Penguin
editions have sold more than six million copies. I don't think there has been a week in the
past forty-odd years when it hasn't been on a stage somewhere in the world. Nor is the new screen version the first. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Marxist phase, wrote
a French film adaptation that blamed the tragedy on the rich landowners
conspiring to persecute the poor. (In
truth, most of those who were hanged in
It is only a slight exaggeration to say
that, especially in
I am not sure what The Crucible is
telling people now, but I know that its paranoid center is still pumping out
the same darkly attractive warning that it did in the fifties. For some, the play seems to be about the
dilemma of relying on the testimony of small children accusing adults of sexual
abuse, something I'd not have dreamed of forty years ago. For others, it may simply be a fascination
with the outbreak of paranoia that suffuses the play – the blind panic that, in
our age, often seems to sit at the dim edges of consciousness. Certainly its political implications are the
central issue for many people; the
One thing more – something wonderful in the old sense of that word. I recall the weeks I spent reading testimony by the tome, commentaries, broadsides, confessions, and accusations. And always the crucial damning event was the signing of one's name in "the Devil's book.” This Faustian agreement to hand over one's soul to the dreaded Lord of Darkness was the ultimate insult to God. But what were these new inductees supposed to have done once they'd signed on? Nobody seems even to have thought to ask. But, of course, actions are as irrelevant during cultural and religious wars as they are in nightmares. The thing at issue is buried intentions – the secret allegiances of the alienated hearts always the main threat to the theocratic mind, as well as its immemorial quarry.