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The Crucible | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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The Crucible | Context



The Puritan religion had its roots in a movement to "purify" the Church of England, formed in 1534 when Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic church, of any elements of Catholicism. Puritans drew on the teachings of John Calvin (1509–64). Their beliefs included predestination, the idea that some people are "elected" by God at their birth to go to heaven; their strict religious beliefs informed every aspect of their lives.

Unable to achieve the reform they sought or to practice their religion freely in England, many Puritans left England. Between 1630 and 1640 about 20,000 people, mostly Puritans, settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1628, with centers in Boston and Salem. Their form of government was a theocracy, a government ruled by religious leaders in the name of God.

As Arthur Miller points out in his "Overture" to The Crucible, the theocracy allowed the Puritans to survive as a community in a harsh environment. At the same time the repressive and judgmental government gave the citizens no vent for ordinary human emotions—a condition that, in Miller's opinion, led inevitably to the Salem witch trials.

The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trials began in early 1692 when a group of Puritan girls in Salem Village (present-day Danvers), Massachusetts, exhibited odd symptoms, including screaming and contortions that were diagnosed as demonic possession. After other girls in the community showed similar signs of "possession," three women in the community were accused of bewitching them, and a court was formed to try the accused for witchcraft. One, a Caribbean slave woman named Tituba, confessed. Throughout 1692 hundreds of men, women, and children were accused and some 20 "witches" were hanged before the hysteria subsided in 1693. Seven other accused witches died in jail, and another died from torture. In 1702 the General Court announced that the trials had been unlawful.

One of the major discrepancies between Miller's play and the Salem witch trials is the age difference between major characters. In the stage direction accompanying Abigail William's entrance, she is said to be 17. The real Abigail Williams was 11 years old in 1692. Legally she could have entered into a romantic liaison with John Proctor at this time because the accepted age of consent for a female in the 17th century was between 10 and 12 years of age. At the time of the actual Salem witch hunt, John Proctor was 61, and Elizabeth was 41. Miller knew an affair between a 61-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl would never be acceptable to his audience. In addition the real Abigail never worked for the Proctors.

Not only were the real John Proctor and his third wife, Elizabeth, accused of witchcraft, but so were their adult children: two sons, William and Benjamin, and a daughter, Sarah. Elizabeth's sister and sister-in-law were also victims of this witch hunt but were never tried in court. Only John was hanged in August of 1692. Elizabeth was released in May the following year.

Red Scare, McCarthyism, and HUAC

The Red Scare took shape on February 9, 1950, when Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin held up a sheet of paper during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, claiming it revealed the names of 205 government employees who were Communists. Reporters investigated his claims and found them to be unsubstantiated, and the paper was never examined. But McCarthy continued to make insinuations and even charge government employees, respected academicians, and distinguished political figures as Communists or sympathizers with subversive groups. "McCarthyism," as Washington Post cartoonist "Herblock" labeled his Red Scare campaign, was born. Playing on people's fear of communist infiltration, the senator continued to hurl accusations at federal employees and politicians, including President Harry Truman, whom he berated for being "soft on and in league with Communists."

When the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was founded in 1938, it had focused on Communist infiltration, but during the 1950s Red Scare, the organization chose to concentrate on exposing Communists and subversive sympathizers in the film industry. Aided by the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), J. Edgar Hoover, HUAC subpoenaed writers and directors to testify before the committee in televised hearings. Anyone who remained silent by evoking his or her First Amendment (freedom of speech) and Fifth Amendment (protection from self-incrimination) rights was blacklisted and possibly imprisoned. A "Hollywood Ten" group composed of film industry producers, directors, and writers chose to remain silent. They were blacklisted and sent to federal prison for contempt of Congress. Some screenwriters later created scripts using pseudonyms, but those who chose to stand behind their names were banned from the industry.

In 1954 Senator McCarthy investigated the United States Army's stance on communism. The army then charged the senator with trying to influence the treatment of his former staff member, Private G. David Schine, who had been drafted against McCarthy's wishes. Joseph N. Welch, an army attorney during these Army-McCarthy hearings, addressed the senator's bullying and accusations when he said to him, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" This counterattack created intense feelings against McCarthy, led to a loss of respect and support, and signaled the end of "McCarthyism." The senator died in 1957. HUAC became the Internal Security Committee in 1969 and was abolished in 1975.

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