Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was first presented at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York on January 22, 1953, when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities was casting a pall over the arts in America. Writers, especially those associated with the theater and the film industry, came under the particular scrutiny of the committee. Those who were blacklisted as Communists were banned from employment. Guilt was a matter of accusation, of being named. The parallels between these two periods of social and political persecution in American history were obvious to playgoers in the 1950’s. In both the witch trials and the committee hearings, people were summoned before an unchallengeable authority, interrogated, intimidated, and frequently coerced into the betrayal of others in order to escape being persecuted themselves. Miller’s work may also be examined for its intrinsic merit rather than for its status as a political tract. With the passage of time, it becomes clear that The Crucible is more than a polemic. It transcends its topical boundaries and speaks of universals common to the human condition. In The Crucible, Miller balances the social tragedy of the Salem community against the personal tragedy of John Proctor, whose triumph over self restores a sense of moral order in a community torn apart by ignorance, hysteria, and malice. The superstitious ignorance of the Salem villagers transforms a youthful escapade into a diabolic act. Despite Ann Putnam’s staunch religious beliefs, she admits to sending her daughter Ruth to Tituba to conjure up the souls of her dead babies so that Ruth, her one remaining daughter, may discover the cause of their seemingly unnatural deaths. Abigail Williams’s motives are darker yet. She seeks Tituba’s aid to put a curse on Elizabeth Proctor’s life so that she can replace her in John Proctor’s affections. The villagers’ religious beliefs are so suffused with superstition that the villagers readily accept the notion that the girls are bewitched. No one questions the assumption that the girls are under the spell of supernatural forces except Proctor, whose challenge takes the form of oblique dissent, and Rebecca Nurse, who asserts that teenage girls often go through “silly seasons.”
When the Reverend Parris discovers the girls cavorting in the forest, it is not surprising that they feign illness as a means of hiding from the accusations of their superstitious elders, for they break terrible taboos. When Abigail seizes upon the device of accusing others to deflect blame away from herself, she sets in motion the forces of envy, greed, and malice. As the hysteria spreads, the townspeople turn on one another, profiting from their neighbors’ misfortunes, wreaking vengeance for real or imagined grievances, substituting spite and fear for love and trust.
The court, an extension of the governing theocracy, is meant to ensure stability and social order. It is tragically ironic that as the court grows in power, the community disintegrates. Crops rot in the fields, cows bellow for want of milking, and abandoned children beg in the streets. Having fled England to escape intolerance and persecution, the Puritans establish a community so narrow and closed that deviation from the norm is regarded as sinful and dissent as diabolic. As The Crucible so forcefully dramatizes, such a community must implode. Narrow minds cannot be allowed to prevail over the Proctors and Nurses of this world, who are condemned for their generosity of spirit.
Proctor is a reluctant hero. He knows that the court is deceived by Abigail’s seeming virtue. He hesitates to expose the fraudulent proceedings, however; to do so means he must reveal his adulterous affair. When he finally bares his heart to the court, his confession is in vain. Unable to believe that he was deceived, Deputy Governor Danforth sends for Elizabeth to discover if she supports Proctor’s charge. She knows that her husband is a proud man who values his good name, so she denies her knowledge of the affair, unaware that in telling her first lie she condemns Proctor as a perjurer. It is at this point that Proctor breaks with the community, damning the court’s proceedings and all the hypocrites associated with it, not unaware that he includes himself within the compass of his curse.
Faced with hanging, Proctor protests to Elizabeth that for him to “mount the gibbet like a saint” is a pretense. Sainthood is for the likes of Rebecca, not Proctor. Yet Proctor refuses to let the court keep his signed confession, for it is hard evidence of a lie. Like his predecessors, Oedipus and Hamlet, Proctor insists on the truth even if it means his destruction. Rather than sanctify his name on the altar of duplicity, he becomes a martyr for truth, and in doing so he preserves the sanctity of individual freedom.
In All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), Miller explored the erosion of family structure in the wake of materialism, and audiences were moved to compassion. In The Crucible, his exploration of the destruction of freedom by an ignorant and despotic society moved many viewers to anger. The themes were too close to home and, for Miller, ironically prophetic. In 1956, summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Miller was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to name names.