In 1692, Salem, Massachusetts, one of the most distasteful times in America occurred. There were nineteen people hanged as witches. Each had been accused of witchcraft. For various reasons and testimony by hysterical children and wicked people, innocent people were found guilty. Many more had been imprisoned; but when the governor’s wife was accused, the hysteria came to an end.
The play The Crucible by Arthur Miller is an historical fiction drama based on the events in Salem in 1692. Using dramatic license but based on historical facts, Miller consolidated characters and changed the ages so that fewer actors would be on the stage.
Written in 1952, Miller intended his play to be an allegory of the current times. The anti-communist congressional hearings were taking place at the time with Senator Joseph McCarthy as the leader. Realizing that the verbiage thrown around by this UnAmerican Activities Committee sounded similar to the language used in the Salem Witch Trials. From the government to Hollywood--McCarthy convinced America that communists had infiltrated everywhere.
His scare was not entirely an illusion. The Soviet Union was growing, and their government was in direct opposition to America.
In an article for the New Yorker magazine, Miller explains his reasons for writing the play:
…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 were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly.
In the early 1950s, the Red hunt, led by the UnAmerican Activities Committee and McCarthy, was dominating the American psyche. It reached Hollywood when the studios agreed to submit actors’ names to the House Committee for "clearing" before employing them.
There were actors who named other actors. Some writers were charged with being communists who had signed up in the 1930s but had since served in the army in World War II. There were blacklists of writers and actors who were not able to work in the movies for many years after the end of the committee's work. This was the climate in which Arthur Miller wrote his play.
One of the things that The Crucible drives home is how often history repeats itself. Senator McCarthy tried to find every single communist in the U.S. There seemed to be a moral upset that would allow suspects to be put on trial and forced to “name names” in order to keep from going to prison.
To prove the futility of charging the innocent and the repercussions that it rains down on their lives forever, the protagonist of the play, John Procter answers why he will not sign a confession that he was a witch:
Danforth: You will give me your honest confession in my hand, or I cannot keep you from the rope.
Proctor: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!
The play’s intent was to make the audience examine how they would handle themselves if they were accused but innocent. Miller also wanted the audience think about the emotional makeup of a human being when he is accused of something that he did not do. If justice and truth are on the line, those who are innocent will rise to the occasion and stand up for what is right.