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The Crucible by Arthur Miller - Barron's Booknotes

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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

In Salem, Massachusetts, a dozen teen-age girls and a black
slave woman are caught dancing in the woods around a
bubbling cauldron. Today, you wouldn't even use the word
"caught." You might think these girls were strange, but you'd
hardly call the cops on them. But it's 1692, and Salem isn't just
an ordinary small town; it's a religious community of the
strictest kind. The people and their laws are as harsh as the
Massachusetts winter. When two of the girls pass out from
fright and can't be revived, the others find themselves in serious
trouble. Women who dance with the Devil are witches; and
witches, when they are caught, are hanged. To get themselves
out of their predicament, the girls try to spread the blame
around. But the blame-spreading gets out of hand, and before
long the whole town is in a panic, everyone accusing everyone
else of witchcraft. Nineteen people will be hanged before the
madness is stopped.

Well, you say, people were superstitious then. Nothing like that
could happen today. Maybe so, but in the early 1950s, at the
time The Crucible was written, a similar kind of hunt was taking
place, not for witches, but for Communists. Today it bears the
harmless-sounding name of the McCarthy Hearings on Un-
American Activities, but for the people who got caught up in it-
some of them our parents and grandparents-this "witch-hunt"
was anything but harmless. in fact, to the playwright Arthur
Miller, the McCarthy Hearings bore an alarming resemblance to
the trials in Salem in 1692. The Crucible was his way of trying
to keep history from repeating itself.



One of the most popular TV shows in 1953 was "I Led Three
Lives." It always began the same way: A man's face appears on
the screen. His expression is taut with anxiety. The narrator says
something like, "This is the fantastically true story of Herbert A.
Philbrick, who for nine frightening years did lead three lives-
average citizen, member of the Communist Party, and
counterspy for the FBI. For obvious reasons, the names, dates
and places have been changed, but the story is based on fact."
The show was scary and exciting, but it always left you worried,
because Philbrick's job never seemed to be done. Communist
spies were everywhere, and one man could do only so much
against so many.

There was a lot of talk in those days about the "Red Menace."
Red is the color of the Russian flag, and all Russians are
Communists. So to say "Better dead than red" meant that you'd
kill yourself before you let the Communists take over. The
slogan was repeated over and over throughout America. My
father said it; my teachers said it; I'm sure I said it myself, even
though I was just five years old at the time.

And in fact there were good reasons to be worried about the
Russians. They had the atomic bomb, as we did. But a lot of
people said they got the bomb by using spies, and that really
made us worry. It was charged that secret agents, working under
cover, had stolen our secrets and given them to the Enemy.
Even worse, these spies supposedly were hardly ever Russians
themselves, but often American citizens, as normal as you or
me, the kind of people you see every day on the street and
hardly even notice. Blacks are identifiable by their skin color,
foreigners speak with an unusual accent. But a Communist
could be anybody. It sort of makes a Communist sound like the
bogey-man, doesn't it? Well, to many people in 1953, a
Communist was just as scary as the bogey-man, and a lot more
real.

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