Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible is not about what it is about. The story relates the key events of the Salem Witch Trials, which occurred in Massachusetts in 1692. But don’t let the emotion and the injustice of the portrayed events fool you. Miller’s goal is to get you thinking about Communism in post-World War II America.
As the play opens, Reverend Samuel Parris’s daughter, Betty, is lying on the bed in a semi-unconscious state. She has been like this since she and several other girls from the community were discovered in the forest, dancing in what appeared to be a witchcraft ceremony. One of the girls may have been dancing naked, and another did drink chicken’s blood. There are rumors that one girl started flying. It is most certainly witchcraft, and for Reverent Parris, this accusation is a bigger problem than whatever is keeping his daughter from waking up.
The thing that is oppressing her, it turns out, is nothing. She is faking it in an attempt to portray herself as a victim instead of as a willing participant in wicked deeds. Another one of the girls, Abigail, tries to deflect her own blame by saying that the devil told her the names of townsfolk who were engaged in witchcraft. And it snowballs from there. In fact, the ploy works so well that Abigail decides to accuse Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft so that she can resume the affair she is having with Elizabeth’s husband, John. Other people not even involved in the original ritual start throwing out new accusations of demonic activity, hoping to resolve land disputes and personal grievances.
It’s just a big yelling match until the law gets involved. A court is set up, headed by Massachusetts Deputy Governor Danforth, to determine guilt and innocence. Fortunately, that’s pretty easy to determine: if you are accused of witchcraft, you’re guilty. By the end of the play, more than a dozen people are hanged for their “crimes,” and one man is put to death by crushing with heavy boulders. It’s a wretched end to a miserable story.
The play is “based on a true story,” and is generally accurate in its history. The names in the play are of real people from Salem’s past, but Miller adjusted some of the timeframes and the order of events to better fit a theatrical performance. Exonerations for those accused began soon after the executions took place, although the final names weren’t proclaimed innocent until a 2001 declaration by Massachusetts governor.
The story is a lesson in mass hysteria, and the danger of allowing the repression of political and religious freedoms to take control of society. Miller, in the many descriptive asides added throughout the text of the play, takes the idea of repression of religious freedom through accusations of witchcraft, and links it directly with the repression of political freedom through accusations of Communist activity during the proceedings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).
Miller, of course, is right in showing the dangers of a witch-hunt mentality. But in trying to state the obvious, he leaves some important points out of the history. There were, in fact, Communists in post-World War II America who wished to impose Russia’s will on the American system. Alger Hiss, a State Department official, was rightly convicted of spying on his own country. In the Salem trials, the accusations of witchcraft stemmed not from actual witchcraft, but from side arguments and a desire for revenge.
Interestingly, the one person in the play who likely did engage in witchcraft—Tituba, Reverend Parris’ slave from Barbados—is set free to return to her home. And perhaps that is part of Miller’s point: that when repression turns into a witch-hunt, the innocent are condemned while the guilty go free.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.