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.

Reader Discussion

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on July 14, 2014 at 16:49:40 pm

"Now, to be sure, the House Un-American Activities Committee was **a wholly wrongheaded enterprise** and Joseph McCarthy was a menace. "

It is regrettable to see that conflation repeated by a notable scholar, who must be aware of the beginnings (1938) of the House Un-American Affairs Committee, whose investigative activities several years earlier may have served as a model for hearings by a Senate subcommittee, but definitely were not connected with any particular senator.

As to that House Committee being "a wholly wrong-headed enterprise," the label applies to every such committee and subcommittee that is populated by the usual rank-and-file of Representatives and provides a theater for their public performance.

It is accepted wisdom that the conduct of Eugene McCarthy was impolitic to the point of egregious; but, unless one takes a secondary meaning "annoyance" he was not a "threat." Rather than judge by the "aura" of a single "persona," consideration should be given to the actual findings of the staff and their counsel, who included the late Robert F Kennedy.

" . . . the red scare was a clash of wrong with wrong."

That statement bears some reconsideration. If it is accepted that there was existent "wrong" one might argue that the wrong methods were used to attack it; or, or that the attacks on that wrong were carried out in the wrong manner.

When actual history is discolored with representations of personalities and categories of derisive labels such as "red scare," the factual matters and conditions may be overshadowed.


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R Richard Schweitzer
on July 14, 2014 at 18:16:18 pm

You can say what you want about McCarthy's tactics but there were literally hundreds of Soviet agents ensconced in the American government from the late 1920s onward. What the Left did was to vilify the accuser (McCarthy) and throw themselves onto the protection of the Constitution instead of admitting the guilt of spying or associating with spies. Looking back at the HUAC hearings the "Hollywood 10" who were blacklisted,if they were in the Soviet Union, would probably have been shot. I still wonder how people in those days would go to the defense of people,many of them Jewish, who would spy for an antisemitic tyrant like Joseph Stalin. The situation is very similar to today where people who wish to investigate and or expose Barack Obama for his past life are vilified as "birthers" or "conspiracy theorists" or worse of all as racists. Nobody,especially the Mainstream Media, wishes to speak the truth. Its just history repeating itself.

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libertarian jerry
on July 14, 2014 at 20:29:26 pm

The other interesting thing about our image of the Salem trials is that Americans, particularly our intellectuals, perhaps, have a tendency to regard them as quintessentially American.
The trouble is that compared witch scares and trials in Europe, the Salem scare and trials were small. Moreover, witch trials were not an exclusively New England affair in the colonies. The last witch trials in colonial America were in New Jersey and Virginia in 1729 and 1730 or so.

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Richard S
on July 14, 2014 at 22:09:07 pm

For the serious there is the scholarship of Alan Macfarlane on Witchcraft which lead to his study of the origins of individuality in England. Check Amazon for details, including his latest just released.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on July 15, 2014 at 00:31:28 am

Prof. McGinnis, I think you may be incorrect in saying that memories of the genesis of "The Crucible" are fading. Rather, from what I read, history departments across the country are indoctrinating college kids with precisely Miller's crude, black-and-white, blind-spot-ridden view of the McCarthy "era."

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