Injustice and Hysteria
In January 1953, The Crucible premiered on Broadway to a bitterly cold reception (Miller 335-3570). During the 1950's, the American people were besieged by the US government, under the guidance of Senator Joseph McCarthy to renounce any influence of communist philosophy. The House of Un-American Activities Committee was set up to investigate American citizens who were accused of communist affiliations (known as the Second Red Scare). In every lounge room across the country paranoia took hold and resulted in a hysteria which saw neighbour accusing neighbour of harbouring pro-communist beliefs. In 1956, Miller was charged with having attended Communist Party meetings and found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to name other artists and writers who he might know as having communist sympathies (Miller, 95-102, 251, 262-4).
The Crucible undeniably draws a parallel between the gratuitous Salem witch hunts and the Second Red Scare (Miller 330-332). Similarly, the threat of witches among the ranks of Puritan colonists was comparable to the threat of communists among decent American citizens. Once the idea of witchcraft was planted in the minds of the town's people members of the community began turning against each other as a way to deal with their fear of being persecuted.
Miller was sent to jail for his non-compliance to provide names to the court and this is clearly mirrored in The Crucible where innocent victims are convicted and hanged for the same offence. The hysteria Miller felt about the ‘naming of names' is again masterly analogous to the ways in which the possessed girls provide the names of townsfolk whom they feel have slighted them.
Informative website on McCarthy and McCarthyism:
Poignantly, The Crucible explores much more than this theme alone. It is also the story of betrayal and, in particular, the betrayal between a husband and a wife within the sanctity of a conventional marriage. However, John Proctor who is guilty of infidelity is not alone. Many of the characters are guilty of betrayal. Abigail betrays her whole community in order to seduce John. Those who falsely confess to witchcraft betray their relationship with God and their church.
The accusations throughout the witch trials are an expression of intolerance. In Puritan society where things are either black or white, good or bad, with god or with the devil, the trials and the hangings were a convenient way to erase any middle ground.
The Crucible is also about persecution. History has provided us with canons of documented information about the persecution of the Jewish people from the Bible up until the chronicles of the Second World War. Miller, who was Jewish, would surely have had an inescapable imprint of atrocities of the holocaust embedded firmly in his psyche.
Furthermore, this play insists that it is every individual's responsibility to accept liability for the wrongs of the past. Miller's plays, explore the American way of life but the themes, issues and concerns presented in The Crucible are a universal phenomenon?.
Activity - The Space Between
Assign each student a character from the play.
Ask the students to choose a main character. This may be Abigail or John, or anyone else the students justify as important.
The character should take a position in the centre of the room.
Instruct the other characters to position close to those that they had a close relationship with, and far away from those they do not have a close relationship with. This allows the students to gauge the amount of tension between the characters.
(For example, Abigail would stand as close as she could to John, while still staying as far away as possible from Elizabeth.)
When everyone has finalised their positions, go around the group and ask each person to justify their decisions.