The delight in comparing the historical accuracy of Arthur Miller’s play to the real events of the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s comes from both the time at which the play was published and the historical parallels between the two times in American history. Furthermore, the play holds value as an attempt to explain unexplainable behavior and to teach lessons from the history in the hopes that they will not be repeated. It is a sad lament that the lesson remains unlearned and fifty years later we are faced with another American witch trial, this time under the name “War on Terror.”
In short summation, “The Crucible” is a play ostensibly about the Salem Witch trials. In it, a preacher’s daughter falls ill after dancing in the woods with a slave and some of the other village teen agers. Her father calls in assistance from more world church investigators to find the root of the witchcraft that has left his daughter ill. After he threatens to whip the slave to death, she confesses to witchcraft and seeks to take blame away from herself by pointing the finger at other Salem citizens.
Eventually, the finger is pointed at a married woman, Elizabeth Proctor, by her former maid Abigail who had been having an affair with the woman’s husband John. Her accusations are at first doubted because John admits to the affair and shows that Abigail is attempting to tarnish his wife’s reputation or indeed mess up his life, but Elizabeth, thinking she is protecting her husband, refuses to admit to knowing about the affair. She is eventually found guilty of witchcraft and spared the gallows because she is pregnant, but in the same misguided desire to spare herself more torment, accuses under questioning that her husband is also a witch. At the end of the play, John Proctor is being led to the gallows for his crime.
Is any of this real? Yes. Elizabeth Proctor was given a stay of execution because she was pregnant and most of her family was executed during the Salem Witch Trials (Burns, 1). The pastor’s slave, a Caribbean Indian woman named Tituba was among the first accused and pointed the finger at her owner’s daughter and others in the community, but there is no historical evidence that John Proctor had an affair and the real Abigail was an 11 year old girl at the time of the trials (Burns, 1). So why did Arthur Miller chose to make it all up? Possibly to give reason to the unreasonable. Though the witch hunts in Salem lasted a relatively short period of time, they left an indelible mark on American history, a time when man turned against his wife and children and neighbors to avoid being killed.
Miller, a victim of Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare’, understood the premise all too well. The origins of the Red scare are much easier to trace than the origin of the Salem Witch Hunts, but Miller clearly could see the parallels between the two. In a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February, 1950, McCarthy made clear where his venom and hatred came from. “Five years after a world war has been won, men’s hearts should anticipate a long peace—and men’s minds should be free from the heavy weight that comes with war. But this is not such a period—for this is not a period of peace. This is a time of “the cold war.” This is a time when all the world is split into two vast, increasingly hostile armed camps—a time of a great armament race. “(“Enemies from Within”, 1).
There is a term used in sociology to reflect the behavior, called identifying the “other”. The other is a person unlike ourselves who has some characteristic that makes them a threat to society as we know it. In the witch trials, it was witches. During the Red Scare, it was Communists. Today, it is anyone who appears Arabic or studies Islam and can therefore be deemed likely to be a terrorist. Not having learned the lessons of history or of literature, after September 11, 2001, Americans were terrified and they turned to a new witch hunt, this time with the witches semi-identifiable by race.
Too bad that you can tell an Arab-American who has lived her forever, or an Afghani refugee, or simply a hard-working Middle Easterner who has never considered the way of Al Qaida just by looking at them. Instead, we demonize a race and lock people up in Cuba at Guantanamo Naval Base on the suspicion that they might have knowledge about someone or something that might want to hurt us. The Patriot Act makes it an offense just to know people who might be associated with terrorism and encourages people to rat out their friends, with the same kind of threats that the preacher used on his slave Tituba.
But this is not the first witch hunt since McCarthyism and is probably not the last. In fact, in many ways, Miller may have contributed to one of his own in the writing of “The Crucible”. In 1950s northern America, Communists were the enemy, but in the South, it was the uppity African-American wanting rights that he had been granted but not given after the Civil War. By making Tituba a Negro slave and implying that she practiced some form of voodoo, Miller may have contributed to this anti-African-American attitude (Hansen, 3). By the 1970s, the witch hunt was against the American military and specifically those who had served in Vietnam, in the 1980s Reagan-era; it was those darned Communists again.
The 1990s brought on a witch hunt in the Catholic Church, where suddenly every priest was assumed to be a pedophile and in 2001, Al Qaida made themselves into the witches of the new millennia. At Guantanamo Bay, McCarthy’s famous question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” (Popkin, 139) has been revised. The quest now is to find the next threat to Americans and the next unidentified witch.
Burns, Margo. “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Fact & Fiction (Or Picky, Picky, Picky…) October 24, 2003. <http://www.17thc.us/docs/fact-fiction.shtml>, November 17, 2007.
McCarthy, Joseph R. “Enemies from Within”, February 9, 1950. < http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6456>, November 17, 2007.
Popkin, Henry. “Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’”.College English > Vol. 26, No. 2 (Nov., 1964), pp. 139-146 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/373665?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, November 17, 2007.