The Crucible is a 1953 play by the American playwright Arthur Miller. Was initially called "The Chronicles of Sarah Good". It is a dramatization of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Province of Massachusetts Bay during 1692 and 1693. Miller wrote the play as an allegory of McCarthyism.
Human society fears what they do not understand. When we observe something as unfamiliar we perceive it as a threat. This is what occurred in Salem, as dozens of people were hanged after being convicted of witchcraft. During Miller's era Americans were persecuted by their own countrymen for believing in Communism. America feared Communism would take over the world just as the inhabitants of Salem thought evil spirits would overwhelm their mind, souls and eventually Salem itself.
Abigail is consumed with having a good name. When Parris questions Abigail about her reputation and whether or not her name is 'white,' Abigail is adamant: 'There be no blush about my name.' (Act One) And when pressed further, Abigail flies into a temper: 'My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled!" When she becomes a conduit for naming witches, Abigail's name is taken to an exalted level.
Further to the contradiction of, "this is a play and not history," Miller uses historical names - Each of the names in the play are recorded in the history of the Salem witch trials. Miller adamantly states that each character in the play suffers the same fate as their historical counterparts, which again suggests he is trying to emulate history somewhat.
In the early 1950s, hearings at Senator Joseph McCarthy's powerful House Un-American Activities Committee had decided that the American Communist Party, a legal political party, was compromising the security of the nation by encouraging connections with Russia (America's ally during the Second World War but its enemy afterwards). Those who were sympathetic to the communist cause, or those who had connections with Russia, were summoned before the committee to explain their involvement, recant their beliefs, and name their former friends.
Mass hysteria is the spontaneous manifestation of similar hysterical symptoms by a group. The Salem witch trials are a notable example in history of this occurrence, and thematically, it is central to the plot of The Crucible. Crowd psychology is a branch of social psychology which examines how ordinary people can typically gain direct power by acting collectively. The correlations between psychological mind control and coercion are central in The Crucible, as it is through these means that Abigail Williams convinces a group of seemingly innocent village girls to convict their neighbors, friends and foes to execution for witchcraft.
The Crucible highlights the tendency in America to witch-hunt. Miller's play came at an appropriate time in history. Once again, the court system was failing to safeguard our system of justice by allowing the HUAC to proceed in its witch-hunt for communists. The accused in Salem were essentially condemned before they went to trial. Those who decided to live by admitting to witchcraft were ostracized by society much as those thought to be communists were blacklisted. People as a group can get caught up in the moment and act in an irrational manner. The events in Salem are a solemn reminder of what can happen when we allow ourselves to be carried along with the crowd. We must think hard about how we can preserve our system of justice so as not to risk repeating such an awful moment in history.
Miller portrays a rather scary trait of human nature - our tendency to believe others. In this novel, society shows an obsession with witchcraft. Even if someone's close friend or family member is affected by the obsession with witchcraft, they continue to believe in it and continue to accuse others of it, promoting the cruel punishments that were not warranted at all.
In The Crucible, neighbors suddenly turn on each other and accuse people they’ve known for years of practicing witchcraft and devil-worship. The town of Salem falls into mass hysteria, a condition in which community-wide fear overwhelms logic and individual thought and ends up justifying its own existence. Fear feeds fear: in order to explain to itself why so many people are afraid, the community begins to believe that the fear must have legitimate origins.
Puritan society required that its members follow strict guidelines of social order. These rigid rules of conduct helped the Puritans endure the persecution they faced in Europe and, after they came to America, created a close-knit community able to withstand the harsh weather and Native American attacks common to New England in the 17th century. But communities that focus primarily on social order leave no room for personal freedom. Those who think or act independently are seen as a threat to the community: they must therefore be swiftly stopped or eliminated.
This strict society promotes normalcy and lack of inspiration. Societies that focus on fitting to the social norm will never find innovation or change. The only way someone in the Puritan society would promote innovation is if they developed ideas that have never been thought before. These ideas would strike fear in most people in the community, causing innovation or "different" behavior to be seen as witchcraft sometimes.
Arthur Miller, playwright extraordinaire, realized that the lingo being thrown around by McCarthy sounded very similar to the language used in the Salem Witch Trials (some 300 years before), a historical period he researched heavily while in college. In comparing the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy era, we see a similar cocktail of fear, anxiety, passion, and jealousy pervade the country. Check out Shmoop History's coverage of "Colonial New England," and learn more about the parallels between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy era.
The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, is a dramatic re-enactment of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in the late 1600’s. Although the play centers on real events, it is not actual “history” – Miller changed the ages of characters and consolidated several historical figures so that there are fewer actors on stage. It was first produced on stage in January 1953. Arthur Miller intended to use the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory about the anti-communist Red Scare and the congressional hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy going on in the United States at the time. For more information about the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy trials, please see Shmoop History on "Colonial New England" and "Cold War: McCarthyism & Red Scare."