The Author, the Witch, and the Communist
Abigail William’s testimony against George Jacobs Jr. during the Salem Witch Trials, now retained by the Massachusetts Historical Society.
“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”
Arthur Miller, born in New York City in 1915, spent his early life in the midst of three of the most crippling events in American History. As a child of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, Miller was raised in an economically fallen home. His parents had once been successful clothing manufacturers who had come to ruin during the depression. Miller studied writing and began composing his first plays while attending the University of Michigan. When he graduated in 1938, he began working as a freelance writer for the Federal Theatre Project. In 1944, his first play “The Man Who Had All the Luck” failed in its Broadway opening. Three years later, “All My Sons”, a play with similar themes opened successfully. Finally, in 1949, Miller’s most prominent and successful work “Death of a Salesman” began his swift rise to fame and significance in American literature and theatre. During the political turmoil of the 1950’s, Miller published “The Crucible” which has become one of the most studied and performed plays in American Theatre. His intense understanding of American hardship, vernacular, and themes has easily allowed him to become the forefront of modern American realism within playwriting and literature.
McCarthyism, a product of the Second Red Scare between the early 1940’s to the late 1950’s, was a vast cultural and social phenomenon that cause a great deal of debate and conflict within all levels of American Society. This period of fear and mistrust was eerily constructed like the Salem Witch trials in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. Careers, families, and lives were destroyed by the poisonous suspicions generated by Senator John McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1953, Arthur Miller produced “The Crucible” (originally titled “The Chronicles of Sarah Good”) his most politically piercing ‘American’ drama. “The Crucible” details the lives of individuals living in Salem, Massachusetts during a period of paranoia which came to be known as the Salem Witch Trials. Salem is a religious community surrounded by the devil’s domain in the forest. Young girls, led by Abigail, begin to make unsubstantiated claims against individuals within the community, accusing them of witch craft. Those who have been accused, are assumed guilty, put on trial, expected to confess their evil, expected to reveal the names of other ‘witches’ within the community, and are put to death if they refuse to commit to the latter two. The other townspeople are unable to speak up in fear of also being accused of witchcraft. ‘Coincidentally’ Miller’s writings carried an uncanny similarity to the events surrounding the Red Scare of the 1950’s. American’s feared the encroachment of communism as they became hyperaware of the growing powers of China and the Soviet Union. Senator McCarthy made unsubstantiated claims that more than 200 “card carrying” members of the Communist party had infiltrated the United States government. Those who were accused were assumed guilty, put on trial, and expected to divulge the names of other Communist sympathizers. Failure to do so led to sanctions. Even the media were not willing to stand up to Senator McCarthy for fear of being accused of being a Communist system.
Of the Red Scare and McCarthy’s actions, Miller describes the atmosphere of the times as “accept(ing) the notion that conscience was no longer a private matter but one of state administration”. “The Crucible” demonstrated Miller’s faith in the ability of an individual to resist conformist pressures. All of Miller’s plays focus on a relationship with the commonwealth of the American public. “All my Sons” dealt with morality in the face of desperation in the aftermath of the depression. “Death of a Salesman” portrayed the American archetype of a man victimized by his own delusions of the American dream, the estimation of his success, and the subsequent hauntings of his self-diagnosed failure. All in all, Miller dedicated his life to understanding the plight of the American middle man. Miller’s dedication to the pursuit of the American dream and the plight of the American Middle Class has easily established him as one of the most influential literary figures in American History.