Arthur Miller's The Crucible came in 1953, three years prior to his McCarthy hearing for being accused as a communist supporter. Parallels of McCarthyism and The Crucible led people to introspect on the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch trials. We help you compare the phenomenon and the play.
Between February 1692 to May 1693, America witnessed something that can purely be described as a massacre. Around 200 people were accused of witchcraft, and 20 were put to death in colonial Massachusetts. The trials and convictions of the accused were solely based on the allegations of victims and no solid proofs.
This history becomes a theme for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. In 1953, celebrated American playwright Arthur Miller wrote a play The Crucible, which presented the true horror of the Salem witch trials. However, the play wasn’t only written to account the history.
It was written as an allegory for something that reminded the Salem witch trials more than 200 years later. That something can be described as McCarthyism. Miller found some common threads between McCarthyism and The Crucible that he presented in the play.
What is McCarthyism?
McCarthyism was a phenomenon that had gripped the United States after the World War II. In the shadow of the Cold War, several anti-communist investigating bodies like Loyalty Reviews program, The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, etc., came into existence.
US senate Joseph McCarthy claimed to have a list of communist followers working in the State departments. People were accused of being either communists or communist supporters. Once found guilty, the suspect would serve a period in jail and would be blacklisted from working.
To save himself from being blacklisted, the suspect would be encouraged to give out the names.
Arthur Miller was on the list of the HUAC. As he did not name anyone, Miller had to serve 30 days in prison and was fined 500 dollars. Miller had written The Crucible, three years prior to his hearing.
The play is the fictionalized presentation of the Salem witch trials that took place in Massachusetts. The play opens in Reverend Parris’s home where his daughter is in a coma-like state. Parris’s daughter and some other girls were caught dancing by Reverend that resulted in his daughter’s state.
However, as Betty, Parris’s daughter, wakes up screaming, everyone believes it to be a witchcraft. Betty, the servant Tituba, and Parris’s niece Abigail who has feelings for John Proctor confess about demonic activities and name a few people from the village to be witches. Proctor’s wife is arrested as a suspect as well.
Though Proctor takes their servant Mary Warren to expose the girls’ lie, Mary is accused by the girls as a witch. Mary, in return, accuses Proctor of practicing witchcraft. The cycle of accusations and hearings goes on. To end the matter, the accused are asked to confess falsely.
After doing so, Proctor is asked to make a public announcement. He reacts violently to this and pleads for his innocence. However, despite being innocent, Proctor and the others are given the death sentence.
This brings us to the burning question―How are McCarthyism and The Crucible related?
It is common knowledge that Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a metaphor of McCarthyism.
▶ Both McCarthyism and the accusations in The Crucible prevailed because of mass hysteria. During the Cold War, people were scared of communism spearing through the veins of the American government. In The Crucible, people were scared as they could not find an answer to their children’s unusual behavior.
▶ In both McCarthyism and The Crucible, innocents were punished. In The Crucible, the first suspects were accused by underage girls. There is a possibility that the accused haven’t committed the crime, but were victims of girls’ fancies.
In the McCarthy hearings period, the innocent were named based on little suspicion. Here as well, there is a possibility that the suspects were completely innocent.
▶ The phenomenon McCarthyism can be defined as accusations made with little or no support of solid evidences. People were named, arrested, and trialed. Many times, the accused would not know who has named him/her or for what crime he/she was arrested.
In The Crucible, the claim of victims are served as proofs to arrest the suspects. As victims supposedly get affected by the supernatural, there were no other ways to prove the crimes than believing the victims.
▶ During the trial, McCarthyism wouldn’t offer a lawyer to the accused. The suspect had to face the questions and defend his side without any help. In The Crucible, like in McCarthyism, the suspects had no help. Once accused of witchcraft, the suspect could not escape the trial.
▶ McCarthyism encouraged the accused to name the other communist supporters. It would pardon them from the punishment. In The Crucible as well, the accused named others to save themselves from execution.
There are a few differences in McCarthyism and The Crucible, too.
▶ The only purpose of the McCarthy hearings was to uproot the communist sympathizers. In the Salem witch trials as shown in The Crucible, the fight was against the evil forces like witches. However, these trials seemed to have the undercurrents of politics, religion, and family feuds.
▶ During the Salem witch trials, the accused were hung to death. On the other hand, in McCarthyism, no communist or communist supporter was killed.
▶ In the Crucible, people first pointed fingers at “outsiders” for practicing witchcraft, whereas in McCarthyism, the communists who were insiders, i.e., part of the entertainment industry and had an exposure to a large number of people, were accused.
Differences or not, The Crucible had shown a mirror to McCarthyism when the story was published. McCarthyism can be taken as an example of how history repeats itself. The Crucible shows us the power of literature, saying so much in a few words.