Section I – Introduction:
It is apparent that numerous parallels are drawn between Arthur Miller’s, The Crucible, and McCarthyism. Both the publishing of the play by as well as the events of the Red Scare took place in the mid-20th century, specifically the 1950s. They were extremely influential events that shaped the future. It is somewhat ingenious that Miller was successfully able to tie the events of the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century to the political climate of the 1950s revolving around Joseph McCarthy. In the play, Reverend Parris finds his niece, Abigail, and his beloved daughter, Betty, dancing in the woods with a servant named Tituba. Betty Parris faints upon her dad’s findings and eventually becomes very ill. It is believed that the illness is correlated with the prevalence of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. A trial comprised of wrongful convictions, death, and name slandering proceeds, with the central figure being Abigail and those associated with her. Arthur Miller’s, The Crucible, is an allegory of the Red Scare that impacted society mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Section II – Biographical:
Arthur Miller was inspired to connect the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 with the political events of his time and draw similarities in 1953 in The Crucible. It is evident that the play serves as a social commentary of the events that transpired in the mid-20th century. There was a large sense of clashing ideologies and communism craze; the United States was attempting to mitigate the communist culture that was present at the time due to the fact that it was deemed unrighteous, extreme, and polarizing (PBS, 2003). Miller was personally affected by the McCarthyism drama. During the time, a close friend of his named Elia Kazan, a popular director, was called upon to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (PBS, 2003). This specific committee was founded for the purpose of investigating alleged communists present in America at the time of the McCarthyism Era (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016). The various processes involved in convicting individuals presented before the organization were challenged and thought to violate the First Amendment rights of free speech (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016). The Committee disbanded in 1975 after being bombarded with pressure regarding its immoral convictions and judgements of the innocent people whose lives were being unjustly ruined (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016). The wrongful conviction of Elia Kazan in addition to many other famous playwrights and actors known by Miller further inclined him to produce The Crucible in 1953 to bring light and clarity to the situation for the public. Everyone in America was on the edge of their seats as a result of the rising tensions present at the time. Wrongful convictions were speedily handed out to hundreds of people in power, but the reversal process to de-escalate the situation was much more time-consuming (University of Pennsylvania, 2000).
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In regard to incorporating the 1692 Salem witch hunt into his play, Miller was motivated to do so after encountering The Devil in Massachusetts written by Marion Starkey. This book highlighted the noteworthy occurrences of the hunt itself. Miller noticed the similarities between the proceedings of the Red Scare and the Salem witch hunt and was astonished by the obsession of envisioning unfair allegations leading to large-scale investigations (University of Pennsylvania, 2000). People were forced to conform to the allegations due to the fact that the powerful and rich authority figures had pending consequences for those who opposed and spoke the truth. Miller believed his role as an esteemed writer gave him a sense of obligation to report and scrutinize the modern events he witnessed first-hand in “dark” America. He decided to integrate the Red Scare as an allegory in his ground-breaking play, The Crucible.
Section III – McCarthyism:
During the 1940s and 1950s, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy destroyed the lives and careers of numerous political figures and citizens in the United States by incorrectly affiliating them with communism. This resulted in a multitude of investigations aimed at those who were erroneously believed to act as spies and have ties with communist governments such as Russia (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). The allegations that surfaced after being spewed by McCarthy led to his significance, resulting in participation and acknowledgement by various high-ranking government groups. He spent much of his time after 1950 taking part in the ongoing investigations and attempting to find new leads to convict more people in government. Despite being unable to confirm his accusations towards any of the hundreds of individuals under scrutiny, consequences still took place for these people. Livelihoods and reputations were maimed for those who were condemned (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018).
The McCarthy hearings were pivotal in the declination of the Wisconsin senator. The trials took place in 1954 and prolonged for 36 days. Unexpectedly and ironically, McCarthy was figuratively put to trial after a rebuttal by lawyer Joseph Welch, which states as follows: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). This sparked the downfall of McCarthy as well as his allegations and shifted the battle in favor of the public. His collapse truly spiraled after McCarthy was heavily criticized by the likes of Edward R. Murrow, an influential American journalist and war correspondent (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). McCarthy passed away shortly as an alcoholic after being punished for his false indictments in 1957. The notorious legacy of McCarthy is the coined term “McCarthyism”, which is often used in modern political language to describe defamation of character by extensive unruly claims (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). Miller unearthed the resemblance between the Red Scare and the Salem witch hunt.
The Salem witch trials of 1692 are known to be unjust and immoral for wrongfully accusing innocent individuals of performing witchcraft. In the spring of the specified year, a few young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil as a result of being exposed to witchcraft. They continued to blame a group of women for playing a role in their newly developed “hysteria”, for which the nineteen women were taken to trial and ultimately hung (HISTORY, 2018). Additionally, hundreds of men, women, fathers, mothers, and children were continually falsely accused of witchcraft in several counties within Salem. The trial fueled a sense of suspicion and hatred towards fellow neighbors and friends, inevitably tearing the communities of the town apart (HISTORY, 2018). Surprisingly, the events that turned the community and sparked this nuance of dislike was the same thing that brought the public back together. The injustice experienced by innocent citizens at the hands of authority and a handful of delusional miscreants did not go unnoticed, and this led to the end of the Salem witch trials in Fall of 1692. Reparations were paid to the incorrectly suspected defendants and families who lost loved ones, however; the painful aura brought to Salem by the witch trials thrived until after Miller’s The Crucible was written (HISTORY, 2018). After discussing both McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials, it is obvious there is a connection to be made and a discourse to be had regarding the many similarities.
The overlying similarity between both historical events is the illegitimate condemnations of citizens within similar communities. McCarthy plays the role of Abigail in instigating the false allegations and an eventual trial. This is seen when Abigail convicts and relentlessly blames Tituba of forcefully performing witchcraft on her: “She comes to me every night to go and drink blood…She comes to me while I sleep; she’s always making me dream corruptions!” (Miller 44; Act 1). This is a significant foundational argument that sets the course of the play. The consequences presented to those who were accused by McCarthy were not as dire as those originally suspected by the Salem witch trials. There were no deaths or hangings in the 1950 political disagreements regarding communism, however; it is very important to consider factors such as the dates the events took place and external climates of the country at the time. The shift in blame from the community to those who prompted the fictitious statements (Abigail and McCarthy) through the course of the trial is a resemblance often overlooked when comparing both incidents. These are the major connections established between the processes and transpired events of McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials.
Section IV – Puritanism and Communism:
Miller’s social commentary on the witch hunt outlined a time when innocent people within a moderately sized community were oppressed by the government through fear and deception. This, however; is not the first instance of such widespread distress caused by authority. Inside the same community discussed in The Crucible, the ideologies of Puritanism prevailed. The Puritans were obsessed with always doing the right thing and serving God. The sensation of being self-righteous and not committing any sinful deeds was always chased by those who followed this ideology. The prevalence of Puritanism was a major contributing factor in the trials of witchcraft (Smithsonian, 2011). The irony of the matter is entailed in the fact that the Puritans themselves simply assumed what was right and wrong and just and unjust. Witchcraft was always classified as a deceitful act of the soul for the reason that communication with the devil was thought to be established. Due to this, witches were branded as impure and wicked, leading to a hunt focused on killing whomever was allegedly recognized to partake in this group (Smithsonian, 2011). There is evidence of the importance of purity within the Salem community in the play when Reverend Parris accosts Abigail in the midst of the witchcraft accusations; “Abigail, I have sought here three long years to bend these stiff-necked people to me, and now, just now when some good respect is rising for me in the parish, you compromise my very character…Your name in the town – it is en-tirely white, is it not?” (Miller 12, Act 1). Here it can be seen that reputation and name play a large role during this time in Salem. Miller successfully illustrates that there is no accusation more dehumanizing than one that strips an individual’s purity.
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In congruence, communism in the mid-20th century was an overarching ideology in many regions of the world. Ideological wars took place between powerful countries, and residents of these countries who did not conform to the ideas were punished by the governments. This is the premise of McCarthyism, as those who were thought to be communists were relegated from their positions and chastised on the grounds that they were believed to be spies. The suffering encountered by those who were framed as guilty for both the witch trials and communist ideologies spread fear and hysteria throughout the respective regions of prevalence.
Section V – Story Analysis:
The witchcraft trials of the late 17th century are utilized in The Crucible to serve as an allegory for the Red Scare that emerged in the 20th century. As stated above, the environments in which witchcraft and communism existed did not tolerate the propagation of such ideologies. Puritans condemned witchcraft the same way the American government and political heads such as Senator Joseph McCarthy condemned communism. The constant pointing of fingers towards innocent individuals was seemingly an act of desperation for those who were essentially fueled by hate. Punishments for both groups were severe to the point where lives were lost. The influence of Abigail in the witch trials and McCarthy in America ultimately led to blind destruction of livelihood by the communities in which these actions prevailed. It is most shocking, yet troubling, that honest people were being punished even though there was a lack of presented evidence.
The downfall of both McCarthy and Abigail draws parallels as well for the reason that the societies they hunted and casted a spell on turned on them when seemingly righteous people were indicted. McCarthy was first challenged when he implicated the United States Army’s Chief Attorney, Joseph Welch (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). In Abigail’s case, her validity was questioned when she arraigned John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse, two very respected community members. It was unimaginable to citizens of the community that morally inclined people with pure souls such as these two would partake in witchcraft. As stated in the play by Reverend Hale when speaking to Mr. Nurse, “if Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing’s left to stop the whole green world from burning. Let you rest upon the justice of the court; the court will send her home, I know it” (Miller 71; Act 2). This further exemplifies the sheer disbelief of the community members that someone such as Mrs. Nurse performs witchcraft.
Additionally, the growing feelings of panic and frenzy overshadowed Salem and the United States during the witch hunt and the rise of McCarthy, respectively. Suspicion was evident, and citizens were extra cautious regarding their actions and demeanor to ensure they were not wrongfully indicted for being an enemy of their community. It was not uncommon for neighbors to purposefully accuse each other in order to save themselves from conviction. After researching McCarthyism and reading The Crucible, it is clear that a competitive and selfish attitude was rewarded as opposed to a collaborative environment in both the 17th century and the mid-20th century. This outlook persisted for many years to come after the production of Miller’s famed play.
Section VI – Conclusion:
Arthur Miller showed how the government can impact society mentally, physically, and spiritually, by spreading hysteria, and threatening their livelihood. A greater sense of appreciation for The Crucible is established after connecting the Salem witch trials with the Red Scare. Light was shed on the similarities between the two significant events that played a pivotal role in shaping the future. Further insight about Miller’s life and influence for his esteemed production is gained through the convictions of other brilliant playwrights and actors of his time, including Elia Kazan. The groupthink and group polarization exhibited by the societies of Salem and America during the height of these two events is eye opening and somewhat disturbing to modern readers. All in all, the witch hunt and communist hunt constituted darker times in American history, however; there is much to be learned about clashing ideologies and the importance of societal acceptance in successive years to come. This is a sentiment gained by readers through Arthur Miller’s work, and one that will hopefully never be lost in the future.
- CPCW: The Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/miller-mccarthyism.html.
- History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/salem-witch-trials.
- “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 23 Oct. 2007, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/.
- Achter, Paul J. “McCarthyism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 Oct. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/McCarthyism.
- “Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 30 Nov. 2015, www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/arthur-miller-elia-kazan-and-the-blacklist-none-without-sin-why-arthur-miller-wrote-the-crucible/5911/.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “House Un-American Activities Committee.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 July 2016, www.britannica.com/topic/House-Un-American-Activities-Committee.
- Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. Penguin Books, 2016.
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