In honor of National Reading Day on March 2, I reread Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Setting: America, in its earliest days. The settlers of Salem, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, were religious and community-minded, good people who cared for their children and worked desperately to survive in a forbidding environment.
In 1692, these righteous citizens accused, tried and hanged 14 women, five men and two dogs for practicing witchcraft.
Some time ago, I also read Stacy Schiff’s “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” a nonfiction history of the time. It has been noted that no historian has ever fully explained what fever possessed the people of Salem. Even Schiff’s remarkable history does not answer the question of how the community’s paranoia achieved the critical mass that led to hangings.
You know where I’m going with this. We live now in a time of similar groupthink and communal delusion. (They nearly hanged Mike Pence!)
In Massachusetts Bay, “eyewitnesses” offered accounts of teenage girls dancing naked in the woods and reports of broomsticks found high in the trees. Daughters accused mothers and husbands accused wives. Once accused, you either confessed and implicated others, or you were hanged anyway for not telling the truth.
What finally shined a light on that dark summer of 1692, what pried the truth out of the cold foundations of old Salem, was “The Crucible,” Miller’s play, which he wrote more than 250 years after the fact.
In writing a work of fiction, Miller revealed the true hearts and minds of the accusers, victims and bystanders. He knew them because he knew human nature, and because he was living through a time of another witch hunt: the great Red Scare of the early 1950s.
Miller was one of the artists accused of ties with communism, and in an essay, “Why I wrote ‘The Crucible,’” he wrote, “The play was an act of desperation.” The accusations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller wrote, had “paralyzed a whole generation and in a short time dried up the habits of trust and toleration in public discourse.”
He wrote, “In 1948-51, I had the sensation of being trapped inside a perverse work of art … in which it is impossible to make out whether a stairway is going up or down. Practically everyone I knew stood within the conventions of the political left of centre; one or two were Communist party members … I have never been able to believe in the reality of these people being actual or putative traitors any more than I could be, yet others like them were being fired from teaching or jobs in government or large corporations … The surreality of it all never left me … In today’s terms, the country had been delivered into the hands of the radical right … It is always with us, this anxiety, sometimes directed towards foreigners, Jews, Catholics, fluoridated water, aliens in space, masturbation, homosexuality, or the Internal Revenue Department … And if this seems crazy now, it seemed just as crazy then, but openly doubting it could cost you.”
Miller’s play became a metaphor, even a cliché of that era, when friends betrayed friends and people lost jobs and secret accusations could lead to public humiliation and worse. Miller said that he wrote “The Crucible” because it was what a writer would do to get to the underlying truth of a moment in history. In writing about 1692, he was also writing about 1952.
And now, when we read his play, we are also reading about our time. Once again, America has lost its moorings, and no one can adequately explain or understand 2023, because we are treading water in the midst of it.
We won’t have a bead on our own time until the novelists and playwrights create the fictional works that reveal us to ourselves.
Read “The Crucible” again. It speaks to the currents of evil that can sweep away an entire community: irrational fear of “the other,” jealousy, fundamentalist religion, isolation, political manipulation. Miller was writing about Salem and the Red Scare, but he might as well have been writing about Stalin’s Russia or Pinochet’s Chile, Mao’s China or the Khmer Rouge. Or he might have been writing about America today, about QAnon or DeSantis or Trump or Marjorie Taylor Greene, about book bans and racist attacks and antisemitic resurgences.
It is America in 2023. We have run off the rails, again. We need to wait for the novelists and playwrights to find the truth of this moment and bring it to us.
Copyright 2023 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.