By Arthur Miller
The Crucible deals with a group of young girls living in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s. This was a deeply religious environment where a seemingly minor transgression sparked a catastrophic witch hunt that ultimately led to the execution of over 50 people.
The town of Salem was a small settlement, one of the earliest towns in New England, but at the time the play is set it had been in existence for less than seventy years. The people of Salem were settlers in a hostile environment – a land in which they struggled to establish farms and live off the land; a land which was bordered by vast unexplored areas. Life in this community was hard and there was also an ever present threat from marauding Indian tribes. The religious rigour of Puritanism made life even more restrictive and intolerant for the community.
The Crucible was written in 1953 as a response to the McCarthy trials, which were in effect a witch hunt against communists and those accused of ‘anti-American activities.’ Miller was caught up in this frenzy, being asked to apologise for an interest in Marxism when he was younger. Brought before the House Committee of Un-American Activities, he refused to apologise and was sent for trial. Initially he was fined and given a suspended prison sentence, but he appealed and was acquitted.
Later Arthur Miller wrote: “I had read about the witchcraft trials in my college, but it was not until I read a book by Charles Upham, who was then the mayor of Salem, that I knew I had to write about the period. The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding ages of common experiences in the fifties”.
In the seventeenth century witches were held accountable for nearly every problem, as Communists were during the era of McCarthyism. Today it is all too easy to see similar parallels between the Salem of the 1690s, America of the 1950s and the World of 2006. Twenty First century witches appear every week in the pages of the tabloid press. They are people marginalised by the fears and insecurities of the majority. Beware!
Arthur Miller was born in New York in 1915. His father was a shopkeeper who was ruined in the Depression. The sudden change in fortune had a strong influence on Miller. “This desire to move on, to metamorphose – was given me as life’s inevitable and rightful condition,” he wrote in Timebends: A Life (1987).
In 1934 he entered the University of Michigan to study journalism. While there he won awards for playwriting alongside Tennessee Williams. Miller’s first play to appear on Broadway was The Man Who Had all the Luck (1944). It closed after four performances. Three years later he produced All My Sons which won the New York Drama Critics Circle award and two Tony Awards.
Miller’s plays often depict how families are destroyed by false values and his earliest efforts show his admiration for the classical Greek dramatists. “When I began to write,” he said in an interview, “one assumed inevitably that one was in the mainstream that began with Aeschylus and went through about twenty-five hundred years of playwriting.” In 1949, Death of a Salesman brought Miller international fame and become one of the major achievements of modern American theatre.
In the 1950s Miller was subjected to a scrutiny by a committee of the United States Congress investigating Communist influence in the arts and he was denied a passport to attend the Brussels premiere of his play The Crucible (1953). In the late 1950s Miller wrote nothing for the theatre. His screenplay Misfits was written with a role for his wife, Marilyn Monroe whom he married in 1956. The film was directed by John Huston and starred Mongomery Clift, Clark Gable, and Marilyn Monroe.
In the 1990s Miller wrote such plays as The Last Yankee (1993), but in an interview he stated that “It happens to be a very bad historical moment for playwriting, because the theatre is getting more and more difficult to find actors for, since television pays so much and the movies even more than that. If you’re young, you’ll probably be writing about young people, and that’s easier — you can find young actors — but you can’t readily find mature actors.” In 2002 Miller was honoured with Spain’s prestigious Principe de Asturias Prize for Literature, making him the first U.S. recipient of the award. He died of heart failure at home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on February 10, 2005.
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