In The Crucible, a play set during the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials, several young women accuse the slave Tituba of witchcraft. Following this, other people in the town are also accused, and soon there is a series of trials that uncover the jealousy, passion, and resentment simmering under the surface of the town. Written in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism, the play warns of the dangers of paranoia and distrust spiraling out of control and ruining the lives of innocent people.
Arthur Miller was born in New York City on October 17, 1915. As a young man, he was required to work a number of odd jobs around the city, since his family had lost a great deal of money in the stock market crash of 1929. He was an avid reader, and developed a sense of social justice while sill young. He attended the University of Michigan, where he began writing plays. He graduated in 1938, moved back to New York, and continued to write.
His first play to achieve real success was All My Sons (1947), which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It told the story of a man who sold faulty parts to servicemen during World War I, and explored themes of guilt and dishonesty along with loyalty to one's community and family, themes which he visits in other plays, including The Crucible . This was followed by Death of a Salesman (1949), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award. The play was a sensation, and he was instantly heralded as a genius. In this play, a salesman, Willy Loman, is granted the role of a tragic hero, a role thought to be unfitting for a common person. In this way, Miller reexamines the nature of tragedy, which will continue in The Crucible (1953), which was the next play he published, and which won a Tony award.
The play was based on research Miller had done into the Salem witch trials while an undergraduate. It was written during the time of the McCarthy hearings, in the early 1950s, which echoed many of the themes Miller had read about concerning the trials. Three years after the play was published, while Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe, Miller himself was called before McCarthy, and asked to testify. He refused to name any of his associates. He was convicted for contempt of court, but this was later overturned on appeal.
He and Marilyn Monroe divorced in 1961, following the production of the film The Misfits , for which Miller wrote the screenplay. In 1962 he married the photographer Inge Morath. They have one child, Rebecca Miller, who is an actress.
In 1965, he was elected president of PEN, an international organization of writers dedicated toward world peace and free expression. He has been awarded Honorary Doctorates from Harvard and Oxford Universities. Miller's works primarily concern themselves with different incarnations of the American Dream, and the way in which common people look to express and protect their own personal integrity.
The play centers on the Puritan settlement of Salem, Massachusetts, in the latter part of the 1600s. The Puritans had come to the New World to escape religious persecution in England. They wanted to 'purify' the church of unnecessary doctrines, and thus created a new settlement that reflected these changes. A strict, intolerant group, they had a theocratic society in which the church and the government were one, and strict obedience of religious principles was required by all. Fighting for their survival, banding together was necessary, and thus anyone who threatened the fabric of the society was excommunicated.
Towards the end of the century, the Puritan order was faltering. As the settlement thrived, the need to cling together for survival was less necessary; people who desired more individual freedom were testing the boundaries put forth by the community. In 1692, a group of girls was affected by illness and hallucinations, which the townspeople attributed to spiritual causes. An intensely strict and religious people, the idea that ill-spirits existed was not doubted, and the spiritual world both good and bad was thought to be active in everyday life. As a result of the illnesses, the townspeople looked to witchcraft as the cause of the illnesses, and this prompted a bout of hysteria through which the community saw a way to purge itself of members that threatened the cohesion of the society. The paranoia allowed people to voice old grudges and speak openly about personal temptations, which they could safely attribute to the influence of witches, rather than to their own religious weakness. When all was finished, nineteen people had been hanged for witchcraft.
Miller includes a note, in which he claims to have taken liberties with the historical record for the dramatic purposes of the play. Because of the little that is known about this time period, even though some of the play is based on fact, it should not be taken for being historically accurate.
This can also be said for the ways in which the play represents the McCarthy hearings, which were starting up when Miller was writing this play. The committee headed by Joseph McCarthy was responsible for investigating instances of 'un-American' activities, most especially the workings of the Communist Party within the United States. These hearings share many qualities with the Salem witch-trials, and this is something Miller explores in The Crucible . Though there are strong similarities, a one-to-one relationship between Salem and McCarthy should be avoided, and the play only offers a glimpse into the way that American society was affected by its own kind of hysteria in the postwar era.