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The Crucible by Arthur Miller - Barron's Booknotes

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Arthur Miller had drawn a lot of attention to himself, and he
soon got into trouble. In 1954 he was denied a passport to see a
production of The Crucible in Belgium. In 1955 the New York
City Youth Board began an investigation into his political
beliefs. In 1956 he was called on to testify before the House
Committee on Un-American Activities. He refused to name
names. He was cited for contempt of Congress. He was finally
exonerated by the courts, but not until 1958. By then, more and
more people were refusing to testify against others, and the
witch-hunt was running out of steam. The hearings had gone on
for ten years, and the country's attention span was near its end.
In all that time, no real Communist conspiracy was ever
uncovered. Just as no real witches were ever found in Salem.

Another important thing happened in 1958: The Crucible was
put on again, this time in a small Off-Broadway theater. "The
same critics reviewed it again," Arthur Miller remembers, and
"this time they were fairly swept away, the drama was as real to
them [now, in 1958] as it had been cold and undramatic before
[in 1953]. Reasons were given for the new impression; the main
one was that the script had been improved." Miller hadn't
changed a word in the script. He began to think that the real
reason had more to do with the audience than the play: "...when
McCarthyism was around, the... audience [was] quite simply in
fear of the theme of the play, which was witch-hunting. In
[1958] they were not afraid of it, and they began to look at the
play" (Theater Essays, p. 245).

Most of the time when an author writes a play about current
events, the play is forgotten as soon as the events are over. But
The Crucible has come to be produced more often than even
Death of a Salesman, which was long considered to be Arthur
Miller's most important play. Let's see if we can figure out why.



If you're watching a really scary film, say, The Exorcist, you
can always reassure yourself by saying, "It's only a movie." But
you can't do that with The Crucible. The witch-hunt really
happened. You can go to Salem today and still find the house
where Rebecca Nurse lived, and see the door through which she
was carried to her trial because she was too old and sick to
walk. You can stand on the rock where the gallows was built,
and look out over Salem Bay, the same bay 19 "witches" must
have looked at just before they were hanged. You can go to the
courthouse and they'll show you the pins.

Nowadays we don't believe in witches or the Devil, at least we
say we don't. But we're still fascinated by the idea of
supernatural forces and beings. And, for most of us, the scarier
the better. The popularity of horror movies comes from this
fascination. The Crucible also tells a strange and scary story.
But in this play it's not witches or demons that scare us-it's
people. Arthur Miller's characters are ordinary folk. The terror
that sweeps over them like a wave is real; the people who were
hanged really died. In The Crucible there are no real witches; so
what, then, "possessed" these people?

If you've ever built a wood fire, you know it doesn't start itself.
And the biggest logs won't burn right away; you have to begin
with smaller sticks, the kindling. But there can be no fire at all
without a spark to set the kindling burning.

We can think of the Salem witchcraft as a kind of fire which,
once started, could not be quenched until it had burned itself
out.

By this analogy, the big logs would be the belief in witchcraft
itself. This belief was an old one. In the ancient world, sorcery
was everywhere-in Egypt and Babylon, even among the clear-
thinking Greeks and the otherwise sensible Romans. Only the
Jews, among all these ancient peoples, had laws forbidding the
practice of witchcraft. It is first mentioned in the Old Testament
(Exodus 22:18), where it says, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to
live." It was on the authority of this one sentence in the Bible
that the 19 witches were hanged in Salem in 1692.

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