by Arthur Miller
“The Crucible” (1953) is a play about the witch trials that took place in the late 1600s in Salem, Massachusetts, then a part of the British colonies in America. A minister catches his daughter dancing in the woods with other girls, though dancing is strictly forbidden by the Puritans who settled the colony. His daughter falls into a trance, and he calls in a senior minister from out of town to cure her. When the senior minister questions the girls, they confess they were trying to summon spirits. To get out of trouble, they claim they were influenced by witches and name women in the colony whom they dislike, saying they saw them with the Devil. The authorities interrogate each accused person until she is forced to name others. Those who “confess” and name others are allowed to live, but anyone who refuses is sentenced to death. Some choose to tell the truth rather than save their lives with a lie.
The hysteria spreads, more officials become involved, and many innocents are hanged, till one girl confesses she and the others were pretending all along, never saw the Devil, and never saw others practising witchcraft. But the authorities don’t want to admit they have executed innocent people, so they ignore the girl and continue to hang the remaining prisoners.
The events described in the play happened in the late 1600s. By the early 1700s, courts admitted that many people had been falsely accused. Some survivors were paid compensation but more than 20 people had been killed. Similar witch hunts in Europe from the 1300s to the 1800s are estimated to have killed more than 10,000 people.
Arthur Miller (1915-2005) was born in New York. He wrote plays even while studying in college and won awards for them. He also wrote short stories, but he was best known as a playwright. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the play “Death of a Salesman”. His heroes were common Americans caught up in common moral dilemmas. Having seen how capitalism impoverished so many families, he showed in his writing that prosperity was a fragile thing. He himself was called in a hearing by government officials to name fellow writers who had gathered years before at a Communist meeting. He refused.
In the 1950s, some factions in the U.S. government stirred up the Red Scare, the idea that anyone who sympathised with Socialist or Communist philosophies was helping to overthrow the government. Many prominent actors, writers and ordinary citizens were blacklisted. That is, they could not find work, and anyone who hired them too would be blacklisted. There was a widespread, irrational fear that led to the blaming of innocent people. Arthur Miller used the hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials in the 1600s to comment on the Red Scare of the 1950s.
IS THERE A MOVIE VERSION?
A film was made in 1996 in English, and earlier films have been released in other languages.
IF YOU LIKED THIS BOOK
You may be interested in another play about intellectual freedom, “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. It is based on the Scopes “monkey trial”, in which a teacher was held guilty for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution.
FROM THE BOOK
I will not receive a single plea for pardon or postponement. Them that will not confess will hang. Twelve are already executed; the names of these seven are given out, and the village expects to see them die this morning. Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. When I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering.
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