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The Crucible | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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The Crucible | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible depicts the events of the infamous 1692–93 Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. During the trials, Puritan settlers were gripped by mass hysteria that led to the execution of about 20 suspected witches. Although Miller was dissatisfied by the first performance of The Crucible, which received several negative reviews, the production won the 1953 Tony Award for Best Play.

Miller wrote The Crucible to expose the fundamental similarities between the Salem Witch Trials and the events that were unfolding at the time he was writing: the ostracism of suspected communists caused by McCarthyism during the 1950s. The House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed numerous public figures during this time in cases that have often been referred to as witch hunts, in part because of Miller's theatrical comparison. The Crucible can be read as a direct account of a dark moment in American history or as an allegory of another period of uncertainty in the country. It is now widely regarded as one of the most important works of 20th-century American drama.

1. The characters in The Crucible were real figures from the Salem Witch Trials.

Miller used the real names of the famous figures who took part in the trials, both the accused and the accusers. John Proctor, for example, was a real citizen of the Salem colony, and he protested the use of "spectral evidence" until his own condemnation. Miller himself stated, "The Crucible is taken from history. No character is in the play who did not take a similar role in Salem, 1692." However, although Miller used real names and based some of the events on real happenings, historians have noted that the play is not entirely accurate.

2. Miller modeled The Crucible's dialogue on 17th-century language patterns.

Miller researched the language of early American settlers for The Crucible. He enlisted the help of a linguistic scholar in order to capture the correct patterns of speech and phrasing. Miller originally drafted the play in verse, but he changed the dialogue to prose in order to give himself more freedom to personalize each character's language—making Proctor's dialogue straightforward and earthy, Danforth's bureaucratic and domineering, and Parris's fearful and paranoid.

3. The use of "spectral evidence" in court cases was no longer allowed following the Salem Witch Trials.

In The Crucible, Proctor protests the use of "spectral evidence" to condemn suspected witches. This type of evidence, based on a victim's complaints of being psychologically tormented by a witch's specter, was accepted during the real Salem Witch Trials despite its inability to be confirmed. In October 1692, however, the use of spectral evidence was officially banned and, the following year the Court of Oyer and Terminer responsible for the verdicts was officially dissolved.

4. Upon visiting Salem for research, Miller was astonished to find an ordinary American town.

Miller was somewhat disappointed when he visited Salem in the early 1950s to conduct research for The Crucible. Miller noted:

I felt a shock at seeing the perfectly ordinary steel sign reading, "Salem 3 mi." I confess it—some part of my mind had expected to see the old wooden village, not the railroad tracks, the factories, the trucks. These things were not real, suddenly, but intruders, as tourists are in the halls of Versailles. Underneath, in the earth, was the reality.

5. Miller admitted to veering from historical accuracy for dramatic effect in The Crucible.

Despite the diligence with which Miller researched the Salem Witch Trials, he confessed to making a few alterations in The Crucible. His most notable modification was that he combined several characters, particularly the eight judges who presided over the actual trials. Miller explained, "While there were several judges of almost equal authority, I have symbolized them all in Hathorne and Danforth."

6. The Crucible's allegory of McCarthyism led the government to investigate Miller for communist activity.

In 1956 Miller was subpoenaed by the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities, infamous for accusing public figures of having communist ties throughout the 1950s. When Miller was asked why the Communist Party had produced a play of his, he responded, "I take no more responsibility for who plays my plays than General Motors can take for who rides in their Chevrolets." He was also questioned about his short-lived role as a communist sympathizer, to which he retorted, "I have had to go to hell to meet the devil."

7. Miller was unable to attend the London premiere of The Crucible because of his investigation.

Miller's investigation occurred because he was trying to renew his passport to travel with his soon-to-be wife, actress Marilyn Monroe, to London. Ironically the two were traveling to see the English premiere of The Crucible, a play that allegorized the very committee that wished to question Miller.

8. Along with Miller's other works, The Crucible was banned in the Soviet Union.

Miller was elected president of PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists), an international literary organization, in 1965. Two years later he traveled to the Soviet Union to persuade authors to join the organization amid a culture of extreme censorship. He made efforts to assist imprisoned authors in the Soviet Union who had dissented against the state, which led to his works being banned by the Soviet government in 1970.

9. Famous existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre adapted The Crucible for the screen.

Sartre was most famous for his work in the fields of Marxist and phenomenological philosophy. However, he also wrote screenplays, including a French film adaptation of The Crucible that premiered in 1958. The New York Times praised Sartre's film, stating, "Outside of the inevitable intrusion of the continuing thought that this film should have been made in English by proud Americans, there is no cause whatsoever to be unhappy that it has been made by intelligent and sensitive artists in France."

10. An opera adaptation of The Crucible won a Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Robert Ward's operatic adaptation of The Crucible won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Miller chose Ward to direct the opera, as the playwright was asked for input by the New York City Opera. One reviewer noted:

When Arthur Miller first considered using this material the thought occurred to him that it would adapt very well for operatic use...the use of rugged hymn-like melodies and tunes almost like folk song in character, managed to convey the feelings and atmosphere of the time.

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