In the shadow of Salem
An allegory for all times: Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible, soon to be staged at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, still resonates today, writes Mark Brown
In the 1950s the United States was in the grip of the McCarthyite witch-hunt for those considered to be communists or, even, “fellow travellers” of communists. The House Un-American Activities Committee, fired by the anti-communist rhetoric of Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, took a particular interest in left-wing members of the entertainment industries.
Great musical figures, such as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and singer Paul Robeson, were called before the committee. Charlie Chaplin was summoned, as was film and theatre director Elia Kazan. Many artists found themselves blacklisted and unable to work in the United States.
Kazan’s testimony in 1952, in which he named as communists eight members of his 1930s company Group Theater, is, perhaps, the most notorious in the committee’s 37-year existence. Kazan’s friend, playwright Arthur Miller, was especially dismayed. His response was, arguably his greatest play, The Crucible.
In the play, Miller takes the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th-century as the allegorical basis for a brilliant and powerful attack on malice masquerading as justice. Jealousy, vengeance, self-advancement and greed fuel false allegations as Salem is gripped by a frenzy that takes many innocent people to the gallows.
When The Crucible premiered in New York City in 1953, there was little doubt that Miller’s portrayal of a society consumed by a reactionary and irrational panic was intended as an allegory on McCarthyism. Within three years, the writer was himself called before the committee to testify. He famously refused to give names and was found in “contempt of Congress”.
Although it was undoubtedly a response to the anti-communist witch-hunt, the genius of Miller’s drama is that it stands as a universal commentary on the subversion of justice by means of social panic. By allegorising a centuries-old episode in American history, the play speaks to human societies well beyond Massachusetts in the 1690s or the United States in the 1950s.
As acclaimed theatre director John Dove prepares to stage The Crucible at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, it isn’t difficult to see the play’s resonances in the world today. In the US itself, the right-wing populist presidential candidate Donald Trump has already signalled his willingness to use McCarthyite tactics against his socialist rival Bernie Sanders, who he recently denounced as a “communist”.
Indeed, like recent far right protests in Cologne, Stockholm and Dover, Trump has caused international outrage with his scapegoating of migrants and, most particularly, Muslims. He may only have come second in the Iowa primary, but Trump has found a substantial audience for the politics of social panic.
It is comforting, perhaps, to consider witch hunting to be the sole province of authoritarian right-wingers. However, some would say that Miller’s play speaks to a more pervasive tendency in human societies.
There are those, for example, who would argue, rightly or wrongly, that Operation Yewtree, the police investigation into historic child abuse, has become something of a media driven witch-hunt. In the context of a popular demand for high profile names, the critics suggest, the requirements of justice come a poor second.
Whatever one’s views on such issues, there can be little doubt that theatres continue to stage The Crucible because we see in it aspects of our own society.
The Crucible plays at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, February 18 to March 19. See lyceum.org.uk for details
This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 7, 2016
© Mark Brown