Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

Introduction

Arthur Asher Miller is one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century, whose plays have had resonance not only in America, but all over the world. This renown as a playwright of depth and insight has increased over his career, and he has been described as “a moralist, a playwright of ideas, or a social dramatist.” (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, 1). Miller’s work has been firmly placed in the category of ‘social plays’, both by drama critics, social commentators and by the man himself. For example, the original edition of A View From the Bridge (Miller, A., New York: Viking, 1955, pp.1-18), an essay entitled ‘On Social Plays’ appeared as a preface to the original one-act version of this play (later expanded by Miller into a two-act version, which is the one commonly performed on the stage today). In this essay, Miller discusses how his understanding and use of dramatic structure has been strongly influenced by his knowledge of classical Greek drama: “A Greek living in the classical period would be bewildered by the dichotomy implied in the very term ‘social play’. Especially for the Greek, a drama created for public performance had to be ‘social’. A play to him was by definition a dramatic consideration of the way men ought to live.But for him [the ancient Greek] these means [of personal psychology and character] were means to a larger end, and the end was what we isolate today as social. That is, the relations of man as a social animal, rather than his definition as a separated entity, were the dramatic goal.” (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, 51). Miller makes clear that the category of ‘social plays’ would have been alien to Greeks living in classical society of 5th century Athens particularly, where drama – and tragedy especially – flourished with plays that have in many instances formed the mould for western drama: The Oresteia, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Electra and The Bacchai, to name a few of those which have survived intact. If Miller himself views the category of ‘social play’ as slightly suspect, then it is necessary to ask how Miller came to have such a profound reputation a dramatist with a social conscience; one who wrote about and commented on the times in which he lived, and one whose plays still seem to have relevance for future generations.

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Miller’s stage career

In order to answer this question, it is instructive to briefly consider Miller’s career a writer for the stage. Miller was born in 1915, in New York City, and started his playwriting career in 1936, aged 21, by writing No Villain in only six days, during the spring holidays. In 1950, three years before the first production of The Crucible, another screenplay of Miller’s, The Hook, about corruption in the unions on the waterfronts of Brooklyn failed to reach production because Hollywood film-makers were being pressurised by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC). In 1953, The Crucible opened at the Martin Beck Theater in New York City, in January, and was published on April 1st. The play won the Antoinette Perry Award and the Donaldson Award (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, xi-xiv), both prestigious.

However, Miller’s play did not open to wide acclaim: “On opening night, January 22, 1953, I knew that the atmosphere would be pretty hostile. The coldness of the crowd was not a surprise; Broadway audiences were not famous for loving history lessons, which is what they made of the play.” (Miller, A., 1996). Moreover, many prominent critics of the time were slow to recognise either its literary achievement, or its relevance as a comment on the contemporary climate of fear being created by Senator Joe McCarthy. It is interesting to note that when The Crucible was performed a few years later in the early sixties, critics responded with the praise that it so justly deserved; the climate of fear had dissipated and the play could be judged without any of the complications of the political climate of the early to mid fifties. (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, xxxiii) The play only ran for 197 performances on Broadway after opening, (as a comparison, Death of a Salesman, which has less of a potential for political allegory, ran for 742 performances). Miller himself was denied a passport in 1954 to travel to Brussels for the premiere of the play, and was forced to stand before HUAAC, on the charge of contempt of Congress in 1956 (though he was not imprisoned; the sentence was later quashed) for refusing to name the names (or “call witch”, as it is termed in the play itself) of Communist sympathisers. (Bigsby, C., (ed), 1997, 3). Indeed, so controversial were many of Miller’s plays at the time, and none more so than The Crucible, that it took until the late nineties for Hollywood to produce a film version of the play; something which Hollywood studios were loath to do in the fifties and sixties. Moreover, the only film version of the play produced in the interim did not take place on American soil, so incendiary was The Crucible considered to be at the time. Instead, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a French film adaptation, of Miller said that it: “blamed the tragedy on the rich landowners conspiring to persecute the poor. (In truth, most of those who were hanged in Salem were people of substance, and two or three were very large landowners.)” (Miller, A., 1996). Sartre, often known at that time to hold Marxist sympathies, rewrote the play with less emphasis on its supernatural aspect, and more on its potential as political allegory. The Crucible clearly has manifold interpretations, shown by the fact that it now regularly plays around the globe, and has often been played in South America, especially at times of political unrest. (Martin, R.A., & Centola, S.R., 1996, 464-465). In which case, I shall now investigate further the political climate surrounding the performance of The Crucible

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