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The Crucible: Parallel of Times

By Tina T. Kao with comments by Elizabeth Dunn

[1] Why after all this time did Arthur Miller allow his play The Crucible to be converted to film? For decades, he refused to allow a film version because he thought movies were subordinate to the written word. Finally in the early 1990's, he not only permitted the film version but also supported it by writing the screenplay. To answer this question we should first find out his reasons for writing the original play. Miller wrote the original play, The Crucible, in the 1950's, which was during the McCarthy Era, when people were afraid of being condemned by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his party for being supposedly associated with the communist party. Miller wrote the play in relation to the times. He used the Salem witch trials setting because he saw that the nation was going through the same situation that Salem was in back in 1692. Miller said in an interview, "It seemed to me that the hysteria in Salem had a certain inner procedure or several which were duplicating once again, and that perhaps by revealing the nature of that procedure some light could be thrown on what we were doing ourselves" (Crucible CD-Rom).

[2] Miller saw how prominent people and scholars of the 1950's were taking Joseph McCarthy seriously when they should have seen him for the crazy drunk he was. McCarthy should not have received any credibility, but he knew how to manipulate the public. There was a wave of paranoia toward Communism, and McCarthy magnified this fear. Miller partly wrote the play because he wanted to voice his opinion against McCarthy, but he also wanted to deal with this phenomenon that was happening before him. He saw good people being manipulated and being swept away by McCarthy, and it was a wonder to him. So what is the purpose of the film version? We now understand why Miller wrote the play, and by adapting it to film, once again he is trying to create a parallel to the times of the 1990's.

[3] A situation similar to the hysteria of the Salem witch trials is recreating itself once again. Witch-hunts are believed to be a thing of the past, something that would never come up in the 20th Century, but witch-hunts are alive and well today. "In the minds of many Americans, evil is embodied by practitioners of satanic sexual abuse. Rumors of ritual rape, incest, and murder are spreading, not just among unstable private individuals but also among apparently sane therapists, social workers, and police officers. These latter are people in a position to take action against those they believe to be guilty, and they have taken such action. Yet FBI has investigated hundreds of satanic sexual abuse claims without ever finding a single piece of evidence" (Hill, xv). (see comment by Elizabeth Dunn)

[4] A good example of this paranoia is the 1980's McMartin Trials, where seven teachers from the McMartin Pre-School were accused of satanic sexual abuse. The McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach, California, was owned by Peggy Buckey and her mother. On August 12, 1983, Judy Johnson accused Peggy Buckey's son, Ray, who helped out at the school, of sexually molesting her son. There was no evidence, but Ray was immediately arrested and then released. The Chief of Police sent out letters to 200 parents of present and past McMartin students warning them about Ray. The letter actually said that Ray might have forced the children to engage in "oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttocks or chest area and sodomy." The parents were urged to talk to their children to find out any evidence. This created a panic, which the media greater magnified. A local TV station even reported that the pre-school might be involved in a child pornography ring. It turned from one man being accused of sexual abuse to seven teachers being charged with conducting satanic sexual rituals, child pornography, murder, and other accusations. In 1986, the district attorney managed to drop all charges against five of the teachers, but this still left Ray and Peggy Buckey. It took them another 4 years to be acquitted by a hung jury.

[5] This kind of hysteria has gripped our country more than once. Fear is so strong that it can sweep the country. The first record of mass hysteria was in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts. What evidence did they have to convict these people of witchcraft who were once prominent members of Salem village? Like the McMartin Trials, they relied on intangible evidence such as the testimonies of children and hearsay, when no real evidence was found. Children's Institute International volunteered to examine and interview the McMartin students, which started another controversy. Out of 150 children examined, 120 of them were believed to be sexually abused even though no physical evidence was found. What was controversial was the way the interviews were handled. They videotaped the sessions, and many found the techniques could have directed the children to their answers. The interviewers gave out rewards for the "right" answer. Not only were the interviewers pressuring the children, but so were their parents who were desperate to find the "truth." Judy Johnson, who made the first accusation, suffered from acute paranoid-schizophrenia and made many more wild accusations. This, of course, was not allowed to be used in court as evidence. After 30 years, once again Miller is struck by the similarities of the trials from different time periods. (For information on the McMartin trials, see Ontario <>.)

[6] Miller wanted to create moral awareness for today's society and make us aware that we have not come a long way from 1692. "The townspeople [of Salem] are certain of their moral standards only on a level of abstraction; on the level of facts of human behavior they share no criteria for judgment, and it is this lack which makes them victims--as well as protagonists--of the witch hunt" (Fender 274). Salem Village is a religious society in which principles are based upon the Bible. It is one thing to have principles but another to act upon them. Salem's society reflects our own in which everybody is out to gain for himself or herself. We follow what we want to believe and what will benefit us and make us feel secure. People think that they have morals and would never do anything illegal or harmful. If "everybody was doing it" and getting away with it, then we would just as easily follow the crowd. In The Crucible, every person who confesses does so only to save his or her own skin, and every accuser is motivated by envy or vengeance. Miller is trying to open our eyes to our own faults and help us understand our mistakes. We have to connect what we think to what we actually do.

[7] Ultimately we are followers. In the Salem Village, most of the members of the community were following this mass hysteria, but there was only a small percentage that went outside the norms. The girls became a small community where no one could leave or betray the circle. Mary Warren tried to leave the circle and confess her wrongdoing, but once again she was sucked back into something she did not believe in but had no choice but to follow. Many of the accused criticized the trial proceedings and suffered the consequences because it is "wrong" to go against the public. Our society is full of followers, and we follow what is popular and throw out what is not. Through watching this film, we realize that we like to believe that we are individuals and think for ourselves, but we let too many people persuade us to go against our own beliefs just so we can be accepted. It is hard, though, because who would want to be an outcast. All our lives we strive to belong.

[8] For the people to succumb to mass hysteria, we have to be easier followers, but we also first must have fear and paranoia, which are primary sources for these situations that keep coming back, but in different forms, throughout history. Fear is one of the strongest emotions one can experience. It literally grips you and takes a hold of you. What can bring about fear are false notions and rumors. If someone screamed fire in a crowded room, without question, men and women would run for their lives. Everyone would make their way to the door in a frenzy, without caring or knowing who they trample on. In The Crucible, one shout of witchcraft brought the whole town in an uproar. Fear took over from there. In the seventeenth century, the devil and witches were a real and constant threat, especially to the Puritans. The Puritans lived in a time when the devil was their fear. There is no justification for them to have killed 19 innocent people, but in their minds they actually thought they were doing the right thing. There were those who had their own agenda and used the witch trials to their advantage, but mostly everyone believed in the witch-hunts. Those who opposed the witch-hunts were thought to be traitors and in league with the devil. Sometimes you have to fight your paranoia in order to see clearer and follow your own judgment.

[9] Why convert The Crucible to film? To make his point about mass hysteria toward child molestation, Miller could have easily reestablished his original play. The reason for his decision in supporting the film version is unknown, but he could not have reached such a wide audience if he had not have made that decision. This is the same reason why he created The Crucible as a drama. To reach a wider audience, you sometimes have to add some entertainment in order to draw people. Miller even admitted that the Salem witch trials itself was a theatrical event, and he didn't see any reason to hide it in the play. In the 1990's, movies and television are one of the major informational and entertainment tools. It is only through the cinema that Miller was able to get his message across. In this age, people no longer can take the time to read a book, so movies and television are sometimes the only way to reach a large audience. You first need to produce a channel before you can be concerned about the message.

[10] This might not be the only reason Miller allowed the film version. This gave him a new way for him to approach an old play. It widened the canvas for him to allow him to work creatively to produce an old message in a new way. To this screenplay, he added a new beginning and a new end. This creates symmetry where the beginning is somehow connected to the ending. In the first scene, what differs from the original play was that the "dancing in the woods" scene was actually acted out and had dialogue instead of just being briefly mentioned. In the last scene, we see the hanging of John Proctor and others when the play originally ended where we do not see his hanging. What started out as innocent dancing becomes something much worse by the end. These girls did not plan the death of these people, but the witch-hunt just came about. The symmetry shows innocence can become malevolence. The new message in this film is what starts out innocently can be the beginning of something you cannot predict. You might be an innocent follower, but the outcome of your passiveness might be much worse than you imagine.

[11] After creating the channel, Arthur Miller became concerned with the message in the film. He cooperated with Nicholas Hytner, the director, to make his words and thoughts come to life. With the visuals and selected choice of text, the director was able to create a film that was moving, exciting, and affecting. It brought the Salem witch trials to life and stirred emotions in the audience. There is one scene where the audience is pulled into the madness, which is when Abigail Williams sees a yellow bird perched on a ceiling beam in the courtroom. We become the yellow bird and swoop toward the girls who immediately try to escape us. This bird's eye view makes us become the aggressor. We see the injustice, and this is the only time we can take action against those who we think are wrong. We know that witches and the devil are a ridiculous concern because in this time "no one believes in witches and flying broomsticks." The audience does not understand how a whole village could be conned into something so ludicrous. Like Miller during the McCarthy Era, we become in awe of the events unfolding before us, and, like Miller, we do not understand it. Becoming an active part of the film helps us realize what we know is wrong was definitely not wrong to community members in Salem. Do we do anything wrong, but do not see it that way?

[12] The historical accuracy of the play or film is not the issue. Miller never claimed that it was accurate. He used the account of the Salem witch trials and molded it to give a message to the people of his time. A significant change from the actual occurrence was the fabricated lives of important figures involved in the trials. He had to recreate these persons because he had a greater purpose than just retelling the story of 1692 Salem. We find that these characters are not just black or white. No one in the village is good or bad. We learn from the beginning that John Proctor, who is the supposed "good guy," cheated on his wife and had an affair with Abigail Williams. Williams is the leader of the accusing girls, and we learn her evil intent of having Proctor for herself. We know she definitely is no innocent, but we learn that she witnessed the slaughter of her parents. In our minds, we pardon her, because she is only a child and had a traumatic experience that could have changed her. No one was to blame, because they were all victims of their own culture that they could not have controlled. We sometimes cannot blame ourselves for the things we do because one way or another we are forced.

[13] The Salem Village of 1692 and the people of 1950's were a product of their times, just like we still are. What is the history of these times, and how did the fear of witchcraft and communism become embedded into their society? The history of the Puritans can also help in the understanding of why in 1692, the Salem community was able to accuse friends and family of witchcraft. The history of American Puritanism began when the Pilgrims came to the New World. The Pilgrim Fathers did not want their people to let their inhibitions run wild, and they wanted everyone to conform to Puritan standards. Instead of fostering hope and a new life, many people brought their old beliefs and superstition. Their main belief was that man was obligated to do God's Will because He saved them from eternal damnation and to go against God would be to be corrupted by the devil. This was a society that was created from unrelenting religious beliefs. These people were brought up to condemn those whom they thought were disloyal to God. It was easy for the Salem inhabitants to believe in witchcraft and to hang those who proved to be "witches."

[14] There is also a history behind the McCarthy Era, and we must first learn about how Communism became a threat to America. In the late 1940's, there were a few actual instances where Americans spied for Communist countries or started a rebellion against American beliefs. "Americans at every level of society genuinely believed that Communism endangered the nation. The perceived threat was quite specific: subversion, espionage, and sabotage. Communists would try to overthrow the government or at least undermine its policies on behalf of their Social masters" (Schrecker 54). There were actually many Communists in America, but most of them were not firm believers in Communism. Most of them went to a meeting or joined the party because they thought Communist beliefs might benefit them. These Americans struggled every day to make a living while there were those who were wealthy and did not have to lift a finger. They wanted equality and thought Communism was the right idea. Before McCarthy came along, there were politicians, anti-Communist parties, and bureaucrats who destroyed lives to diminish the threat of domestic Communism, but it was McCarthy that brought it in the open and created chaos similar to the Salem witch trials. He came along at the peak and promised the nation that he would find and punish those whom the people feared. This was why many Americans were in favor of his methods because it allowed them to feel safe once again.

[15] Like these people trapped in their own time and culture, we too have fears wrapped up in our lives and rooted into our culture. This is the age of crime and violence, and not a day goes by that we do not hear about a murder or a robbery. It is all around us and a constant part of our lives. We still do not understand why men kill their wives and children. We cannot comprehend why women throw their babies away. There are so many confusing and crazy things going on in this world that people did not have to worry about years ago. Most important of all is that we must protect our children and shield them from the world's atrocities. We see so many child abuse and child molestation cases, and we want to know what kind of person would do that to an innocent child. We create something to calm our fears and give us some solace. We believe that these men or women must be evil and not human, and they must be devil worshippers. They could not be normal people like us because we would never do such horrible things. There has been one accusation after another, and it is the reason the McMartin Trials came about -- because we feel someone must pay. Our fears take over and take on a mind of their own.

[16] Even though the play or film is in the past, Miller uses The Crucible to try to snap people back to reality. He tried to use the power and emotions of an event long dead to help open the eyes of people in the present. When watching the film, we experience the same emotions that Miller felt when first writing the play. He exerted his own experiences in the play and places his emotion into every word. The Crucible has always been praised for its universal appeals and themes. Miller found themes in history that applied to the present. The Crucible has come at times where eyes needed to be opened. Miller, a brilliant playwright and now a screenwriter, has used the themes of The Crucible to parallel the realities of the present. He declared that it reveals "the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful episode in human history" (Levin 249) which is repeating itself. In the 1950's, he used the play to unlock his frustrated emotions about the McCarthy Era and again in the 1990's he has to do the same thing.

[17] Why hasn't anyone learned from the mistakes of the past? Henry Steele Commager said, "For a people to be without history, or to be ignorant of its history, is as for a man to be without memory--condemned forever to make the same discoveries that have been made in the past, invent the same techniques, wrestle with the same problems, commit the same errors; and condemned, too, to forfeit the rich pleasures of recollection. Indeed, just as it is difficult to imagine history without civilization, so it is difficult to imagine civilization without history" (Commager 2). It's not the problem of our nation not having a history but that so many people are ignorant of it. Were the Salem witch trials or McCarthy Era part of your high school history class agenda? These controversial times were erased from our history because society wants students and children to learn about the positive side of history such as war victories and discoveries, not the negative side such as murder and exploitation of power. (see comment by Elizabeth Dunn)

[18] Karen Armstrong, who wrote the introduction to Frances Hill's A Delusion of Satan, said when she went to visit Salem in 1992, she went to bookstores searching for scholarly books on the Salem witch trials. To no avail, all she found were books on the occult, New Age theology, and modern "pagan" movements. Even Salem is trying to forget what happened that horrid year in their village, but there are those that cannot forget and created a monument in honor of those who died. What about those who do their best to forget and keep their own children ignorant? Generation after generation lose more of their history from such cover-ups, and eventually all they have left is a fantasized history.

[19] The Crucible is about the occurrence in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, but it will never adhere to that specific time period, and neither will it only represent the time it was written for. The message that Miller is trying to get across is that we must think about our position in society. We are blind to our passive role in society and blind to our own real beliefs. We create morals to follow but ultimately follow morals of others. This theme is universal in that it will never represent a specific time or place. Years later The Crucible will be heard and talked about once again. Every time it is read or seen, it will represent another point in time.


Elizabeth Dunn (Feb. 2009)

This is a very good and very literal example of modern day witch hunts. But what about figurative witch hunts? Take the prostitution scandal that occurred in Washington D.C. a while back. Everyone wanted to root out which politicians might have frequented the brothel, when it really doesn't have anything to do with politics. The public demanded action be taken against the madam of the brothel, and the outcome was that she killed herself.

Elizabeth Dunn (Feb. 2009)

I disagree with the last part of this paragraph. There is certainly whitewashing of history, as we saw with Loewen's accurate portrayal of Woodrow Wilson versus the textbook version. Other political figures like JFK (a philanderer) and Teddy Roosevelt (an anti-Semite) receive the same treatment. However, McCarthy is not one of them. I went to a strict Catholic high school, and I learned about the Salem witch trials (briefly, since it isn't a significant part of history) and more extensively about McCarthy. He isn't a figure people want to protect. Sometimes, people need a villain so they can have a hero. McCarthy was bad, but the people who brought him down are the "good guys." To say that we only learn about the positive side of history isn't really true. We learn about war victories, but we also read Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and hear about trench warfare. We still study the Vietnam War in school, even though it was a horrible affair. My point is this: heroification and revisionist history occur but only to bolster someone or something we've accepted as a positive historical figure.

Commager, Henry Steele. The Nature and Study of History. Columbus: Merrill, 1965.

The Crucible Project

The Crucible. CD-Rom. New York: Penguin Books. 1994.

Fender, Stephen. "Precision and Pseudo Precision in The Crucible." Arthur Miller The Crucible: Text and Criticism. Ed. Gerald Weales. Philadelphia: Penguin Books, 1977. 272-89.

Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: A Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Levin, David. "Salem Witchcraft in Recent Fiction and Drama." Arthur Miller The Crucible: Text and Criticism. Ed. Gerald Weales. Philadelphia: Penguin Books, 1977. 248-54.

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. OCRT. 13 November 1999.

Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.