Using the historical subject of the Salem Witch trials, Arthur Miller's play The Crucible (1953) presents an allegory for events in contemporary America. The Salem Witch Trials took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, and were based on the accusations of a twelve-year-old girl named Anne Putnam. Putnam claimed that she had witnessed a number of Salem's residents holding black sabbaths and consorting with Satan. Based on these accusations, an English-American clergyman named Samuel Parris spearheaded the prosecution of dozens of alleged witches in the Massachusetts colony. Nineteen people were hanged and one pressed to death over the following two years.
Miller's play employs these historical events to criticize the moments in humankind's history when reason and fact became clouded by irrational fears and the desire to place the blame for society's problems on others. Dealing with elements such as false accusations, manifestations of mass hysteria, and rumor-mongering, The Crucible is seen by many as more of a commentary on "McCarthyism'' than the actual Salem trials. "McCarthyism" was the name given to a movement led by Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities. This movement involved the hunting down and exposing of people suspected of having communist sympathies or connections. While those found guilty in McCarthy's witch hunt were not executed, many suffered irreparable damage to their reputations. Miller himself came under suspicion during this time.
While The Crucible achieved its greatest resonance in the 1950s—when McCarthy's reign of terror was still fresh in the public's mind—Miller's work has elements that have continued to provoke and enthrall audiences. That the play works on a wider allegorical level is suggested by the frequency with which it has been performed since the 1950s and by the way that it has been applied to a wide number of similar situations in different cultures and periods For example, Miller reported, in the Detroit News, a conversation he had with a Chinese woman writer who was imprisoned under the communist regime in her own country who said that "when she saw the play in 88 or 89 in Shanghai, she couldn't believe a non-Chinese had written it." The play speaks to anyone who has lived in a society where the questioning of authority and of the general opinion leads to rejection and punishment.