The Crucible: a Parable of the Red Scare or the Totalitarian State?

Saturday I went to The Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Old Vic in London. The production was very well staged and well acted, but the play itself is problematic.  As many readers of our blog will know, the play loosely recreates the Salem Witch trials in which a variety of hysterical young women accused their elders of being witches. The result was that twenty blameless people, mostly women, were hanged after relatively summary trials.

The Crucible has some undoubted power, beginning with the baseless accusations and building toward a crescendo of condemnations of an ever wider group of innocents. The last scene focuses on whether John Proctor will confess to the crime of witchcraft in order to save himself from execution. He refuses to testify to a lie that will legitimize the trials, thereby redeeming a life that had been blemished by adultery with one of the accusers.

The principal aesthetic problem with the play is that it veers to  unrelenting melodrama without the leavening humor that even the greatest tragedies in our language incorporate. Critics have compared it instead to a Greek tragedy, but Hegel correctly noted that the great Greek political tragedies feature “a clash of right with right.”  There is no such clash here with all the martyrs except John Proctor portrayed as saints and the accusers and judges as either hysterics or villains.

Politically, the play is more troubling. As we know from his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller intended it to be an allegory for the “red scare,” where many communists and fellow travelers were summoned before Congress to name names. The difficulty with this analogy is clear. There were no witches. On the other hand there undoubtedly were communists. Those accused of witchcraft intended no harm to anyone. The American communist party wanted to turn the United States into the version of the totalitarian state established by its patron, the Soviet Union. No communists were executed for their beliefs. Indeed, Congress forced them to only  identify their political allegiance and that of others under pain of contempt.  Otherwise they were punished by losing employment and prestige—the consequence largely of social norms, not state power.

Now, to be sure, the House Un-American Activities Committee was a wholly wrongheaded enterprise and Joseph McCarthy was a menace. Sadly, many in the United States did not have sufficient confidence that our free society was much more powerful than the Soviet Union precisely because of its liberal and democratic institutions, which could not be taken over by the relatively few dedicated communists and their foolish fellow travelers. But it must be said that it is at least slightly easier to see this in hindsight than at the time when the United States had just finished fighting a war against another totalitarian power and when the Soviet Union had just succeeded in subjugating tens of millions of people in Eastern Europe.  In any event, the red scare was a clash of wrong with wrong, not as Miller portrays it, of good versus evil.

Indeed, the Salem witch trials much more resemble the show trials of the Soviet Union than anything that happened in 1950s America. In the Soviet Union people were indeed forced to confess to imaginary conspiracies and summarily executed by the power of a pitiless state. As the New Criticism famously suggested, the intentions of the author of the play ultimately do not fix its meaning. As memories of The Crucible’s genesis fade, perhaps subsequent generations will reinterpret it more plausibly– as a parable about totalitarian regimes.