The late playwright Arthur Miller never did the public the favor of conveniently listing one or more of the reasons he decided to write his parable of the anti-communist hysteria sweeping the country during the early 1950s. One can, however, get a good idea of the motivations behind his writing The Crucible from an article he wrote for The New Yorker (October 21, 1996). In this article, titled “Why I Wrote The Crucible: An Artist’s Answer to Politics,” Miller describes the atmosphere in which he, a playwright, was immersed during a period in which actors, writers, producers, directors, and others affiliated with the film industry and with the theater were being pressured to implicate each other as communists or as individuals affiliated in some way with the Communist Party of the United States, which was funded by the Soviet Union. Alarmed by the hysteria and by the injustices associated with this environment, while simultaneously fascinated by the history of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 (“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”], Miller chose to draw the parallel between the two eras. As he wrote in that article:
“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.”
What struck Miller most about both periods were the convoluted and incredibly dangerous semantics involved identifying “the guilty.” The pressure to name others was directly connected to the need to prove oneself guiltless. Additionally, Miller found enormously interesting the concept of “spectral evidence” employed during the witch trials of the late 17th Century; in effect, admitting unholy influences in order to dispel the notion of something worse. Again, the parallels between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthyism raging across the United States were unmistakable:
"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 Germany, for example, saw their Jewish neighbors being trucked off, or in Soviet Ukraine saw the Kulaks sing before their eyes, the common reaction, even among those unsympathetic to Nazism or Communism, was quite naturally to turn away in fear of being identified with the condemned.”
That is a powerful motivator for fearful people to condemn others for the purpose of shielding themselves from scrutiny. The atmosphere in which Miller conceptualized and drafted The Crucible was one of constant fear of being accused of having impure thoughts – not even actual acts, but thoughts.
One final reason for the writing of The Crucible has nothing to do with political science or paranoia, but rather with the love of language. Miller, in his article for The New Yorker, notes that he was “also drawn into writing The Crucible by the chance it gave me to use a new language -- that of seventeenth-century New England. That plain, craggy English was liberating in a strangely sensuous way, with its swings from an almost legalistic precision to a wonderful metaphoric richness.”
One of the reasons that Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible was because he was trying to inform the public consciousness through theater. He was trying to educate the population about social responsibility, conflict and injustice.
He was inspired by the events of the day, the McCarthy era, but he had a passion for creating characters who wrestle with personal conflict, passion and past mistakes.
He writes to highlight the experience of the common man who, when his name, his sense of dignity is destroyed, the tragedy that tears apart John Proctor, also elevates him.
Arthur Miller writes to celebrate the tenacity of the human spirit, to honor it, to revere it.
Arthur Miller speaks in the voice of the common man, about the injustices that befall him, about the tragic circumstances that sometimes engulf him, about the compassion and capacity of the human heart to rise above the most difficult of circumstances.