Part allegory and part historical fiction, "The Crucible" is often cited as a veiled (or perhaps not-so, depending) expose of the anti-communist "witch hunts" of the mid-1950s. As such, its message serves as a stark and timely reminder. Miller himself noted that "political opposition... is given an inhumane overlay, which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized behavior. A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence." This is no more true than in today's political climate, tragically, so his highly influential play should serve as a timely lesson, indeed, and a dire warning against the so-called mob mentality and pseudo-religious occultism that comprises the theater of modern politics.
In terms of its setting: there were, in fact, not one, but two "Salems," the town, and the smaller village. Salem Village, present-day Danvers, Massachusetts, was rife with internal disputes and rivalries, both among its population and with nearby Salem Town, the present-day town of Salem, proof positive, perhaps, that familiarity breeds contempt. A constant threat of death and the daily stresses on account of rampant disease, accident, starvation, death in childbirth, and attacks by Native Americans whose land they occupied, took their toll. Neighbors argued, squabbled and sued over everything imaginable: property boundaries, grazing rights, and, not least, religious leadership. There was also perennial conflict among the strict Puritans, who dominated the Massachusetts government, and adherents to the Anglican Church of England, many of whose practices the Puritans rejected. The contentious environment provided a fertile breeding ground for the explosive episode to come.
The pretext for this roughly-year-long event was legitimately a curious occurrence, however, one that is difficult to attribute to socio-religious or economic factors alone: in February, 1692, two cousins, living under the roof of the Reverend Samuel Parris, a contentious figure in his own right, began to experience what has been described as seizures "beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease," according to court examiner John Hale, a prominent figure and the minister of the nearby town of Beverly. Modern medicine has been likewise seemingly unable to determine the exact cause of the girls' symptoms. Medical historians have suggested everything from mass hysteria, to ergot poisoning, which may have affected the grain harvest, whereby a toxic mold can cause hallucinations and some of the symptoms consistent with contemporary descriptions (though it does not explain why the afflicted were solely limited to young girls), to PANDAS, an explanation popular in the last decade.
The latter condition at least explains why the afflicted were solely children: Pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS) is a condition (albeit a controversial one) which postulates that some children experience a rapid onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or tic disorders, sometimes masquerading as Tourette's Syndrome, actually caused by a particular (GABHS) streptococcal infection. If that were indeed the case, however, it is expected that many of the affected children, in light of the lack of antibiotics, would not have survived. The reality is, we will never know precisely what occurred. The mystery remains.
The descriptions of what befell the afflicted are indeed horrific. Starting with Parris's daughter Betty, age nine, and his niece Abigail Williams, age eleven, children began experiencing some type of violent seizure or even psychotic episode: they screamed, threw things, engaged in self-harm, including possible suicide attempts in a handful of cases, and, particularly disturbingly, suffered episodes where their bodies contorted uncontrollably into impossibly grotesque configurations. Real trouble began brewing when they experienced these symptoms in church. They complained of strange sensations, including being pinched or pricked with needles, which caused many to question whether they were being plagued by supernatural forces. Shortly thereafter, several other girls began to exhibit the same behaviors and symptoms. When the local doctor could not offer a medical reason for the behavior, people turned to more diabolical explanations, focusing particularly on Tituba, a (possibly) South American indigenous immigrant by way of Barbados, who was actually Parris's slave (yes, Puritans, including the clergy, owned slaves). Tituba, in turn, probably after being tortured, implicated other outcasts, specifically Sarah Goode and Sarah Osborne, as likewise having compacted with the devil. An absolute firestorm ensued.
Without rehashing the web of intrigue that erupted from this singular event, in short, villager after villager began to fall victim to baseless accusations made by their neighbors, for spite, revenge, or frequently, economic incentives, specifically for the pretext of confiscating their property. The trials lasted until May, 1693, after more than 200 persons were eventually accused. Thirty were actually found guilty of witchcraft, despite the protestations of their relatives. Nineteen people, AND TWO DOGS - yes, DOGS-were executed by hanging: fourteen women and five men, including several of those on whom the characters featured in the play are based. The most famous were Rebecca Nurse, John Proctor, the main protagonist, and Giles Corey, whose wife Martha was hanged, while he himself was pressed to death (large rocks were piled on top of a piece of wood laid over him, until he died of suffocation) for refusing to enter a plea. At least five others perished from the appalling conditions they were subjected to while imprisoned.
Nor has the fact that that the vast majority of those accused and convicted of witchcraft were women (approximately 78%) been overlooked. This was consistent with the "witch craze" that had been raging in Continental Europe, a similar obsession with the workings of the devil, which preceded the Salem episode by several decades. There are both social and religious reasons why women were specifically targeted: they were frequently admonished to keep on the watch, lest the Devil overtake them and their souls, as women's souls were believed to have been more vulnerable, owing to their weak bodies and minds. Women remained especially marginalized. Although Puritans believed that women and men were "equal" in God's eyes, that tenet did not translate to earthly reality.
This historical event has undeniably had far-reaching influence. The term "witch hunt" came into popular usage largely due to this event. Nor would Americans let sleeping dogs lie. The legacy of this tragic event has continued to spark controversy, for three centuries now. On the 300th anniversary, in 1992, a park was dedicated in Salem as a memorial to the victims, but the historic memory hasn't stopped with monuments. In 1957, an act passed by the Massachusetts legislature at long last exonerated six people, and a further five were posthumously exonerated in 2001. One may well question whether this is too little, too late, but it's curious that not ALL the victims have been exonerated. After the University of Virginia announced that it had definitively located "Gallows Hill," the site where the victims were killed, the city dedicated Proctor's Ledge Memorial to them in 2017.
Something unexpected has also happened in Salem: witch kitsch. Salem now has its own resident witch, affiliated with a magic shop, of course, where you can buy spells and other magical accoutrements. If you're not so inclined, you can get all manner of other stereotypical tchotchkes throughout the town, one less tasteful than the next. Halloween sees the town completely overrun with tourists (although most stay in Salem itself, the actual site of most of the events in question). The town itself has essentially become complicit in the exploitation of the murdered victims, with its commercialization of its history as opposed to engaging in an opportunity to teach a valuable lesson to those who venture here: a little more balance would be greatly appreciated.
The fictionalized account, here in the form of a capably written play, serves as allegory for the dramatic attacks on Americans in the form of the McCarthy hearings, whereby people were persecuted for being suspected of being a communist or for harboring communist sympathies. As its predecessor, the communist "witch hunt" had its victims, most especially in the persons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who met their end in the electric chair rather on the gallows, executed on the pretext that they were atomic spies for the Soviet Union. The atomic age stoked unprecedented fear of a communist takeover in the US, although various communist organizations had been active for decades. Perhaps not surprisingly, Miller himself became one of the "accused," and was interrogated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The play was initially performed at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway on Jan. 22, 1953. Despite the fact that reviews were initially harsh, it won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1953. The play enjoyed much more acclaim a year later when a new production was staged. Comprised of four acts, Miller's account is somewhat anachronistic, but forgivably so. It is interesting, however, that he portrayed many of the characters, particularly the afflicted girls, the sufferers of the event, as actually GUILTY (does that reveal his beliefs about the nature of the investigations into communist affiliation, or about himself?), whereby Tituba and the girls are depicted as taking part in some type of voodoo ritual in the forest, including dancing naked, and are discovered by the Reverend Parris, which sparks the event. Another example of dramatic license is the affair between Abigail Williams and John Proctor, which was entirely fictive: Abigail was eleven at the time of the actual events.
The play does an admirable job of demonstrating the intrigue of the town and its residents, however, particularly in highlighting internal conflicts, deep-seated hatreds, mistrust, greed and resentment, which are rife in the supposedly-conservative and devout Christian community. Even the most respected, elderly Rebecca Nurse, is not spared, as she is seen to have crossed Thomas Putnam and his wife Ann, who has lost all her children but her afflicted daughter, while Rebecca has never lost a child or grandchild.
Miller portrays the settlement in a similar light to contemporary society, specifically a fear of Satanic influence (Communism) taking over in small-town, conservative-Christian America. Curiously, another nearly-identical account emerged in 1947, in Germany, by Lion Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish novelist and playwright who, like Miller, had fallen under suspicion of being a communist. His play was translated and actually performed in Los Angeles in 1953, under the name of The Devil in Boston. Miller's influential play has made several film appearances, both on the big screen and in television adaptations, as well as multiple stage performances.
To me, to judge from this account, Miller may stop short of actually admitting "guilt" as to his communist affiliations, but he certainly alludes to the fact that there legitimately WERE "communists" or, at least, sympathizers, conjuring in the woods. However, the response is what constitutes the moral tragedy, manifest in the ensuing destruction and chaos, which resounds far beyond the walls of the town, or even the lifetimes of the participants. The girls, in short, ARE guilty, practicing innocent folk magic - a forbidden fruit, indeed - but, in this Topsy-turvy world, the guilty themselves become the lionized, heroic protectors, who are seen as the saviors of their besieged community, even though they allow the events to play out, simply to save their own skins, thus becoming as guilty as those who perpetrate the atrocities.
The fact that they could stop it at any time, by confessing their real transgressions, but fail to do so, even when their innocent neighbors fall victim, speaks to their motives as well. Their wall of silence, and the attack on the one person who (if unwillingly) attempts to tell the truth, demonstrates their motives and prejudices as well: the girls are just as hive-minded and motivated by mob mentality as their vindictive elders, whom they emulate, and, are ultimately destined to become, thus perpetuating the cycle. The play likewise suggests that a singular obsession with stamping out innocent activities, which certainly do no harm, result in essentially making a mountain out of a mole hill: the overblown fiasco which ensues, perpetrated by those who are far more guilty than the girls, acting solely for their own interests, led to the actual tragedy.
The play may serve as allegory for the "witch hunts" of the 1950s, but that's a simplistic interpretation. There are more layers, and more sophistication, if one reads between the lines, so to speak. This is a more veiled critique of the American political system in general, and what was happening to Miller, and, ostensibly, his friends, specifically that we talk the talk but don't walk the walk: freedom means freedom. I would argue that Miller would assert that people in America have the right to be communist, and to express their beliefs, political or religious, openly, but are being unfairly persecuted for their leanings and beliefs, on account of hive-minded and reactionary prejudice stoked by those seeking to consolidate their own political power and influence. That's Miller's real "hidden" message here: let us not make the same mistake, and devolve into mob justice fueled by fear of something that's essentially harmless by those who are seeking to capitalize on any opportunity to enhance their own position and prominence, irrespective of whether they eventually fall on the "right" or "wrong" side of history. That's probably a fairly fringe interpretation: I let the reader be the judge in both regards.
Nor should people believe that this is a history lesson, as it's highly fictionalized. Having studied this period of history, it's a fair representation, but is anachronistic in many ways, constituting a highly conflated and dramatized account of the tragic events surrounding the Salem witch trials, which many consider to be one of the most shameful occurrences in US history (or pre-US history, if you like). Despite the mysterious origins, what is clear is that this violent explosion of betrayal occurred in the wake of a perfect storm of events, and led to the deaths of nineteen people, and the destruction of many others, revealing much about the inner workings, and, if I may be forgiven, demons, lurking just beneath the surface of even the most idyllic-appearing communities.