Allegorizes the Red Scare Era

Arthur Miller’s play examining the infamous Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft hysteria and trials of the seventeenth century was an allegory of the persecution of American communists by the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the Red Scare era of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Summary of Event

Renowned American playwright Arthur Miller was born in New York in 1915. He began his writing career after graduating from the University of Michigan with an English degree in 1938. He was married several times, most famously to actor Marilyn Monroe from 1956 to 1961, and he fathered several children. His first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, appeared in 1944. He is best remembered for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Pulitzer Prizes;drama 1949 play Death of a Salesman, which is considered a modern American classic. His 1955 work A View from the Bridge also won a Pulitzer Prize. Miller was politically active throughout most of his career, and many of his works dealt with their characters’ personal conflicts with social or political events. Crucible, The (Miller)
Theater;historical drama
[kw]Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era, The (Jan. 22, 1953)
[kw]Red Scare Era, The Crucible Allegorizes the (Jan. 22, 1953)
Crucible, The (Miller)
Theater;historical drama
[g]North America;Jan. 22, 1953: The Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era[04080]
[g]United States;Jan. 22, 1953: The Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era[04080]
[c]Theater;Jan. 22, 1953: The Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era[04080]
[c]Cold War;Jan. 22, 1953: The Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era[04080]
Miller, Arthur
McCarthy, Joseph
Dies, Martin, Jr.
Kazan, Elia

The Crucible, which first appeared on Broadway on January 22, 1953, was Miller’s fictionalized account of the historical 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts. The mass hysteria surrounding the hunt for witches in Salem served as an allegory for the mass hysteria of the Red Scare, begun during the Cold War that developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the post-World War II period. The U.S. government, mainly the House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities]
HUAC (HUAC) led by Democratic congressman Martin Dies, Jr., had launched an investigation designed to target suspected Communist Party Communist Party, U.S. members in all areas of life, including government, educational institutions, labor unions, and the entertainment industry. The repression engendered a climate of fear throughout the country, as people were afraid to speak out as the accused found their names on blacklists, which hindered their employability and ruined many lives.

Republican senator Joseph McCarthy also investigated Communist infiltration of the U.S. government, using his position as the chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations Senate Committee on Government Operations and of its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to focus the subcommittee’s activities in that direction. McCarthy was extremely public in his activities and charges, intentionally cultivating and amplifying the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950’s. His leading role in creating this climate led to its being known as McCarthyism. The popularity of McCarthyism was peaking at the time The Crucible appeared on Broadway.

The characters accused of witchcraft in the play’s seventeenth century Salem resembled those Americans accused of Communist sympathies during the Red Scare of the twentieth century United States: They both faced the personal conflict of self-preservation versus conscience. Salem’s Puritan inhabitants believed in the existence of witches and of the ability of people to enter into compacts with the Devil, exchanging their souls for worldly benefits.

When the play begins, a group of young girls, including the Reverend Samuel Parris’s daughter Betty and niece Abigail Williams, have been discovered dancing in the woods. The townspeople are quick to suspect witchcraft. The girls and the Parrises’ slave Tituba then begin accusing various townspeople of bewitching them in order to save themselves from suspicion and punishment. At the behest of the strong-willed Abigail, the girls act as if possessed, creating mass hysteria throughout the town.

A series of witchcraft trials begins, presided over by Massachusetts deputy governor Danforth and Judge John Hathorne. Danforth is more concerned with preserving the court’s reputation than with finding the truth. The leaders of those opposed to the trials are the Reverend John Hale and John Proctor, whose earlier affair with Abigail ultimately leads to her accusations against him and his wife Elizabeth. At first, Proctor wants no involvement with the trials, but he ultimately decides to admit his adultery in court, risking his reputation to discredit Abigail’s accusations and reveal the truth. Elizabeth is then brought forth to confirm his testimony, but she unknowingly seals John’s fate by lying that he has remained faithful to her. Proctor is taken to jail and ultimately must decide whether to falsely sign a confession to save his life or to stand by his principles and maintain his innocence, which will surely lead to his execution. He ultimately refuses to confess and implicate his friends and goes to face a hero’s death.

During the Red Scare, many Americans faced similar (although usually not life and death) decisions. A number of Miller’s friends and acquaintances, including noted director Elia Kazan, were accused of belonging to the Communist Party. Miller himself faced investigation as a suspected Communist, which gave him a personal connection to the themes of The Crucible. Miller was interested in exploring times when fear and self-preservation seemed to be opposed to truth and rational thought. The Salem witchcraft trials served as an apt allegory to the Red Scare, as both events dealt with periods of mass hysteria when people were ruled by their emotions. The paranoid searches for the Devil in Massachusetts and for Communist subversion in the United States were out of proportion to any actual danger that may have existed. Although the play met mixed reviews and a short original run on Broadway, it played well internationally, and its reputation has grown.


McCarthyism began to die out after McCarthy destroyed his own popularity by appearing to be belligerent and insulting during the nationally televised 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings Army-McCarthy hearings (1954)[Army Maccarthy hearings] in the Senate. For many, the nail in McCarthy’s coffin was his confrontation with journalist Edward R. Murrow Murrow, Edward R. . Murrow, a heroic war correspondent during World War II, attacked McCarthy on national television. McCarthy responded by labeling as communistic a public figure whose patriotism was beyond reproach in the public mind.

McCarthy was censured by the Senate for acting “contrary to senatorial traditions” and spent the remainder of his days disgraced and ignored, dying shortly thereafter in 1957. The hunt for Communist subversives within the United States, however, continued on a smaller scale through organizations such as the John Birch Society, formed in 1958. HUAC, moreover, was still powerful into the 1960’s, and anticommunism continued to guide U.S. foreign policy toward communist nations such as the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Cuba.

Miller was called to testify before HUAC in 1956 and was found guilty of holding communist beliefs, a verdict that was later reversed in an appeals court. In his testimony, Miller faced the same conflict as that of his characters in The Crucible: whether or not to succumb to the social pressure to implicate others. Miller admitted to attending meetings but denied being a Communist, and he refused to name any of those who had attended meetings with him, leading to a citation for contempt. Miller was blacklisted Blacklisting, Hollywood
McCarthyism[Maccarthyism];blacklisting from television, film, and radio and denied a passport by the U.S. government. He entered into a public dispute with noted director Elia Kazan, who had earlier provided the names of eight others who had been members of the Communist Party. The Crucible would become one of Miller’s most well-known and widely produced plays and was made into feature films on several occasions. Crucible, The (Miller)
Theater;historical drama

Further Reading

  • Abbotson, Susan C. W. Student Companion to Arthur Miller. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Includes a biographical section, including a look at Miller’s confrontation with HUAC and a discussion of eight of his major plays. Includes a bibliography and list of critical studies and reviews of his work.
  • Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Provides introductions to and analysis of Miller’s plays, as well as of his other literary contributions, and places them in historical context. Includes a chronology.
  • Fariello, Griffin. Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition. New York: Avon Books, 1995. Contains numerous firsthand accounts of those who were affected by the U.S. government’s persecution of communists during the Red Scare era, including Arthur Miller himself.
  • Fitzgerald, Brian. McCarthyism: The Red Scare. Mankato, Minn.: Capstone Press, 2006. Presents a variety of primary documents from the period from the late 1940’s through the mid 1960’s, with commentary.
  • Gottfried, Martin. Arthur Miller: His Life and Work. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2003. Recounts Miller’s life and artistic career, including a chapter on The Crucible and information on his conflict with HUAC during the Red Scare era.
  • Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. An autobiographical account of Miller’s life and works in his own words.
  • Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994. Two sections provide a comprehensive history of the era and a number of primary documents, including new archival evidence. Includes headnotes, a chronology, and a bibliographical essay.

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