At a Glance

  • In 1953, when The Crucible was first performed, the United States was deep in the throes of the Red Scare. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt against supposed communists, targeting various celebrities, government officials, and even writers, many of whom were blacklisted because of their alleged ties to the Communist party.
  • The Crucible itself can be considered an allegory for McCarthyism. The mass hysteria caused by McCarthy's accusation of treason and sedition draw striking similarities to the Salem witch trials, in which innocent people were tried and convicted on flimsy evidence, just as they were during the Red Scare.
  • Arthur Miller drew source material from the real-life Salem witch trials, which began in 1692, the year the play is set. At that time, Salem was populated and ruled by Puritans, whose repressive theology drives a group of young girls to accuse others of witchcraft to distract from their own sins and desires.

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The Crucible was written in 1952, some fourteen years after the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an anti-communist organ of the United States government. During the 1940s and 50s, Americans greatly worried about the threat of communism, and this concern turned to hysteria–often referred to as the "Red Scare"—when Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that some two-hundred "card-carrying communists" had infiltrated the United States government. Investigations ensued, and many people—particularly in the entertainment industry—were singled out for questioning. Many of those investigated were blacklisted and saw their reputations and careers ruined by accusations of communism or communist sympathies.

Miller noticed many similarities between the Salem witch trials and the Red Scare during his lifetime. In both scenarios, the "enemy" was not readily identified, because they might look just like you. This led to extreme paranoia, with people reporting neighbors that they'd known for years, children accusing adults, and so on. In both situations, people's lives were ruined—even if they were acquitted of wrongdoing. During a time of mass hysteria, even vague suspicion can be enough to derail someone's reputation.

General historical consensus is that Senator McCarthy was motivated by political gain when he decided to make these false claims, just as there is evidence to suggest that the girls in Salem were prompted to accuse specific people due to greed, vengeance, or their parents' political motives. The spread of accusations was perpetuated by the expectation that those who did confess must name names, or single out others who were also guilty, so that they, too, could be questioned or tried.

Ultimately, The Crucible isn't really about the Salem witch trials or the McCarthy hearings; rather, it is a cautionary tale about human greed and an examination of how individuals react in times of intense fear or pressure. The title refers to a "crucible," which may be defined as either a vessel used...

(The entire section is 7,132 words.)