Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

In its initial production in 1953, The Crucible received a mixed reception from drama critics, with many complaining that, while sturdy in its craftsmanship, the work was too obviously a morality play and lacked the adventurousness and innovation of his previous work. Critic Richard Hayes wrote in the Commonweal. "The Crucible, does not, I confess, seem to me a work of such potential tragic force as the playwright's earlier Death of a Salesman; it is the product of theatrical dexterity and a young man's moral passion, rather than of a fruitful and reverberating imagination. But it has, in a theatre of the small success and the tidy achievement, power, the passionate line-an urgent boldness which does not shrink from the implications of a large and formidable design." George Jean Nathan saw similar aspects of Miller's work, writing in his 1953 Theatre Arts review: "The Crucible, in sum, is an honorable sermon on a vital theme that misses because the sting implicit in it has been disinfected with an editorial tincture and because, though it contains the potential deep vibrations of life, it reduces them to mere superficial tremors."

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In addition to being compared to Death of a Salesman, The Crucible's debut also suffered due to the play's thinly veiled criticism of McCarthyism; many were too embarrassed or afraid to speak publicly or attend performances of the work. Nonetheless, it received numerous honors, including the Antoinette ("Tony'') Perry Award and the Donaldson Award in 1953 as well as the Obie Award from the Village Voice in 1958.

The play reopened after the McCarthy era and has continued to be successful since then. In 1964 critic Herbert Blau noted that a competent production of the play virtually guaranteed good box office sales, and indeed it has been in almost continuous performance since the early 1960s. The Crucible is a particularly popular school text in both the U.S. and Britain. In Modern Drama, critic Robert A Martin summed up the popularity of Miller's play when he noted that it "has endured beyond the immediate events of its own time. . . . As one of the most frequently produced plays in the American theater, The Crucible has attained a life of its own; one that both interprets and defines the cultural and historical background of American society. Given the general lack of plays in the American theater that have seriously undertaken to explore the meaning and significance of the American past in relation to the present, The Crucible stands virtually alone as a dramatically coherent rendition of one of the most terrifying chapters in American history."

Critic Henry Popkin also discussed the perpetual appeal of The Crucible in an essay in College English. While the critic did not see the depth of universality in human and political themes that Martin wrote of, Popkin did express admiration for Miller's skill in creating human characters with whom audiences continue to identify. Explaining the play's appeal as a well-crafted drama, the critic wrote: "The Crucible keeps our attention by furnishing exciting crises, each one proceeding logically from its predecessor, in the lives of people in whom we have been made to take an interest. That is a worthy intention, if it is a modest one, and it is suitably fulfilled."

The 1996 film version of The Crucible won generally favorable reviews for its attention to detail. The adaptation was also lauded for the skill with which events such as the courtroom scenes, which are not depicted (only verbally reported) in the play, were successfully turned into large-scale crowd scenes which fully utilized the possibilities of film. Commenting on the durability of Miller's tale, Richard Corliss wrote in Time that "The Crucible offers solid workmanship and familiar epiphanies." Yet the critic also noted that Hytner and his actors have provided new perceptions of the characters for a contemporary audience. Discussing the erotic energy of Winona Ryder's portrayal of Abigail, Corliss stated that "Ryder exposes the real roots of the piece. Forget McCarthyism; The Crucible is a colonial Fatal Attraction." Reviewing the film for Newsweek, David Ansen saw the film's effectiveness emanating from the work's original themes, writing, "Miller has revised his venerable opus, quickening its rhythms for the screen, but what works is what's always worked when this play is well produced: you feel pity, horror, moral outrage."

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