The Salem Witchcraft trials led to the imprisonment of
more than 100 people and the execution of 20. Four died in
prison. Men were executed as well as women. The accusations
were made by a group of young women demonstrating symptoms
of hysteria. They asserted that specters of the witches
would pinch, suffocate or stab them. Often the only way to
avoid being hanged was to confess guilt and to give the names of
other "witches." The twenty who were executed simply continued to
maintain their innocence, refused to confess, and would not name
others. Nineteen were hanged. One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death.
Miller never claimed that his play was historically
accurate. However, most historians agree that he gets the sense of the times right: the fear,
the Putnams' use of the hysteria for their own material
gain, the infectious nature of the hysteria, and the
retribution brought down upon those who doubted the
accusers. The most important departure from the historical
record is the affair between Abigail Williams and John Proctor.
There is no evidence of this in the historical record and the difference in their ages
makes an affair between them highly unlikely.
In "The Crucible" Miller uses the Salem witchcraft trials as a
metaphor for the red scare in the U.S. during the period
1947 - 1956. The redbaiters said that they were trying to purge communists from the government and from positions of influence in society. However, their charges were almost always undocumented and false. In reality, they were using the fear of communism for their own political and economic gain by grossly exaggerating the influence of communists in the U.S. In the process they ruined the careers and damaged the lives of many innocent Americans whose only offense was to disagree with them politically.
The Communist Party
of the United States was organized in 1919. In the 1930s and early 1940s, in response to the
inability of the American economy to provide jobs and financial security during
the Great Depression, many socially conscious Americans joined left wing
organizations. Some joined the Communist Party.
However, voters in the U.S. have never supported the Communist Party.
For example, it has never elected a representative to
Congress nor has it been popular with the "oppressed masses" it
sought to champion. (See for example, Native Son.)
After the Second World War, as the authoritarian
and anti-U.S. nature of the Soviet Union became apparent,
membership in the Communist Party, USA dropped to virtually nothing.
Because of the First Amendment it has never been illegal to belong to the
Communist Party. However, during the Cold War, members
of the Communist Party were considered potential Russian
agents and threats to U.S. security. Loyalty oaths were
required of government employees and contractors. From 1947
to 1956 many persons of left wing political views were
required by Congressional committees, most often the House Un-American Activities Committee
(HUAC), to testify about their own past political affiliations and those of people with
whom they were associated. People who refused to cooperate with the
investigation were blacklisted and not permitted to
work in certain professions. The most notorious blacklist
was in the entertainment industry. It included the names of hundreds of
persons and was extended to include those who had supported
many of the reforms that the communists had also supported
and even those who simply opposed the blacklist. Hollywood studios paid the
blacklisters who created a business called "Red Channels"
to investigate the background of people they were thinking
about hiring. The blacklisters came to have a
financial interest in extending the hysteria.
Witnesses who cooperated with the HUAC, disavowed their prior connections, and gave names of
others who had left wing political associations were exonerated and not subject to the blacklist.
Some courageous people took
the position that the First Amendment prohibited
governmental inquiry into the lawful political associations
of American citizens. When they refused to answer the Committee's questions,
they were branded as subversives and prosecuted for
contempt of Congress.
Arthur Miller, in his autobiography, Timebends, A Life,
commented on the connection between the Salem
Witchcraft trials and the red scare. Describing the time he spent
going over original documents from the time of the witchcraft trials, he wrote:
... [G]radually, over the weeks a living connection between myself and Salem, and between Salem and Washington, was made in my mind -- for whatever else they might be, I saw that the hearings in Washington were profoundly and even avowedly ritualistic. After all, in almost every case the [House Un-American Activities] Committee knew in advance what they wanted the witness to give them: the names of his comrades in the [Communist] Party. The FBI had long since infiltrated the Party, and informers had long ago identified the participants in various meetings. The main point of the hearings, precisely as in Seventeenth Century Salem, was that the accused make public confession, damn his confederates as well as his Devil master, and guarantee his sterling new allegiance by breaking disgusting old vows -- whereupon he was let loose to rejoin the society of extremely decent people. In other words, the same spiritual nugget lay folded within both procedures -- an act of contrition done not in solemn privacy but out in the public air. The Salem prosecution was actually on more solid legal ground since the defendant, if guilty of familiarity with the Unclean One, had broken a law against the practice of witchcraft, a civil as well as a religious offense; whereas the offender against HUAC could not be accused of any such violation but only of a spiritual crime, subservience to a political enemy's desires and ideology. He was summoned before the Committee to be called a bad name, but one that could destroy his career. Timebends, A Life by Arthur Miller, page 331.
Several years after he wrote "The
Crucible" Arthur Miller himself was called before the HUAC. When he refused to answer the
Committee's questions about the names of persons who had been present at meetings of writers
that he had attended in the 1930s, Miller was convicted of contempt of
Congress. The conviction was later thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It has been argued that there were no real witches while there were real communists, some of whom were subservient to the Soviet Union, a real threat. Miller responds that during the time of the Salem trials, the best minds in America and in Europe believed in the existence of witches. He notes that on three occasions the Bible warns against witches. Miller comments on the offense of the accused in both situations:
What was manifestly parallel was the guilt, two centuries apart, of holding illicit, suppressed feelings of alienation and hostility toward standard, daylight society as defined by its most orthodox proponents.
In their efforts to capitalize on the concern about
communists certain politicians made unsupported accusations
about the presence of communists in the government or other
institutions. The most notorious was Senator Joseph
McCarthy who made unsubstantiated claims that communists had
infiltrated the State Department and many other departments of the government.
When he turned on the U.S. Army and attacked the generals who had led the army
during World War II, the irresponsibility of this conduct was shown and he was
eventually censured by the Senate.
Without guilt the 1950s Red-hunt could never have generated such power. Once it was conceded that absolutely any idea remotely similar to a Marxist position was not only politically but morally illicit, the liberal, with his customary adaptation of Marxist theory and attitudes, was effectively paralyzed. The former Communist was guilty because he had in fact believed the Soviets were developing the system of the future, without human exploitation and irrational waste. Even his naivete in seeing Russia not as an earthly empire but rather as a kind of spiritual condition was now a source of guilt and shame.
The House Un-American Activities Committee has been in existence since 1938, but the tinder of guilt was not so available when the New Deal and Roosevelt were openly espousing a policy of vast social engineering often reminiscent of socialist methods. But as in Salem, a point arrived, in the late forties, when the rules of social intercourse quite suddenly changed, or were changed, and attitudes that had merely been anticapitalist-antiestablishment were now made unholy, morally repulsive, and if not actually treasonous then implicitly so. America had always been a religious country. Timebends, A Life by Arthur Miller, pages 341 & 342.
The scars of the 1947 - 1956 red scare lasted until the end of the 20th century.
It was not until 1996 (five years after the disintegration
of the Soviet Union) that "The Crucible" was made into a film by Hollywood,
despite its great power
and the fact that it was a Tony Award winner in 1953. Not
until 1997 did the Writer's Guild restore the credits of
blacklisted writers who had written for Hollywood
under pseudonyms. In 1999 when the Academy of
Motion Picture Artists gave a
lifetime achievement award to
Elia Kazan there was a storm of protest because Kazan had testified
before the House Un-American Activities Committee and provided the investigators
with the names of other persons who had attended meetings with him in the 1930s.
(At pages 332 - 335 of his autobiography Miller describes his meeting with Kazan,
at the time a good friend, in which Kazan unsuccessfully sought Miller's approval
of Kazan's decision to disclose to the HUAC the names of his political associates in the 1930s. Note also that one of Kazan's classic films, On the Waterfront, portrays a longshoreman who breaks the code of silence to talk to an investigating committee about corruption in his union. This was Kazan's artistic defense for his actions. Miller responded with the play "A View from the Bridge" which is also set among dock-workers. In the play, which later became a motion picture, the main character informs on two illegal immigrants based on self-serving motivations.)
Pressing was used in England on people who would not
plead in court. A plea was necessary before the court could take jurisdiction and condemn the prisoner.
The idea was that the weight of the rocks
on the chests of the accused would push the words "guilty" or
"not guilty" from their lips. The only words that pressing got out of Giles
Corey were, "more weight, more weight." Historians believe that
Corey thought he would be condemned anyway and by refusing to plead he
prevented the court from finding that he was a witch. Upon conviction as
as a witch, his property would have been confiscated and his children would
have been without an inheritance.
Arthur Miller (1915 - 2005) was one of America's greatest playwrights. His works include "Death of a
Salesman" and All My Sons; Miller and his plays have been
the recipient of many awards including the Tony Award, the
Pulitzer Prize, and the New York Drama Critics Awards. Most
of Miller's plays concern the responsibility of people to
each other in light of the common goals shared by the
"THE CRUCIBLE" IN CHINA
Miller, in his autobiography, describes the universal appeal of "The Crucible:"
In Shanghai in 1980, it served as a metaphor for life under Mao and the Cultural Revolution [see To Live], decades when accusation and enforced guilt ruled China and all but destroyed the last signs of intelligent life. The writer Nien Cheng, who had spent six and a half years in solitary confinement and whose daughter was murdered by the Red Guards, could not believe that a non-Chinese had written the play. "Some of the interrogations," she said, "were precisely the same ones used on us in the Cultural Revolution." It was chilling to realize what had never occurred to me until she mentioned it -- that the tyranny of teenagers was almost identical in both instances. Timebends, A Life by Arthur Miller, page 348.
1. TWM's Standard Questions for Use With Any Film That is a Work of Fiction help stimulate student interest and assist in the exploration of characterization, plot, theme, and other literary devices. Questions relating to theatrical and cinematic techniques are also provided.
The questions below relate specifically to this movie.
2. What were the similarities and differences between the hysteria in Salem in 1692 and the red scare in 1947 - 1956? Suggested Response: Some similarities: since society in the 1600s believed in witches and the threat of the devil, both societies felt threatened from powerful outside forces with adherents (or so it was believed) living within; both required ritualistic reaffirmations of faith in commonly held beliefs before the accused could be exonerated of guilt; both were used by unscrupulous persons to advance their own political or economic interests. Some differences: in the red scare careers and a few years in prison were at stake while in the witchcraft trials the penalty for noncooperation was death.
3. What do you make of the following facts that Miller reports at the end of the play:
Twenty years after the last execution, the
government awarded compensation to the victims still
living and to the families of the dead. However, it is
evident that some people still were unwilling to admit
their total guilt, and also that the factionalism was
still alive, for some beneficiaries were actually not
victims at all, but informers ....
[Within 20 years after the witchcraft trials] to all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.
4. How does the concept of "either you are with us or against us" relate to the events in this play? Comment on how this attitude affects the conduct of public business in a representative democracy.
6. Name other "witch-hunts" in which a feeling of hysteria caused the deaths of innocent people? Suggested Response: The anti-communist crusade in the U.S.; Stalin's purges in Russia; anti-Semitic pogroms; the Holocaust; the Inquisition; and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda (see Learning Guide to "Hotel Rwanda".
7. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the Russian government opened some of the KGB files and revealed proof that only a very small number of the people accused by the redbaiters had, in fact, been communist spies. These included, most interestingly, Alger Hiss, for example. Does this fact justify the denial of rights to thousands of innocent individuals? Suggested Response: No. It is generally much worse for innocents to be punished than for the guilty to go free. One of the foundations of our legal system is that people are innocent until proven guilty. As the character of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons said to his prospective son-in-law, if you tear down all the protections of the law, when the wind blows again where will you find shelter?
Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:
1. Please describe the self-interest of each of the following characters in fomenting the hysteria: Abigail
Williams, Reverend Paris, Thomas Putnam, and the Judges. How did it affect their actions?
2. Why wasn't justice done in the Salem witchcraft trials?
3. Was Elizabeth Proctor in any way responsible for her husband's infidelity?
4. Should Elizabeth have forgiven her husband's infidelity?
5. Before Elizabeth forgave him Proctor was willing to sign the false confession in order to save his life. But after she had forgiven him he chose to die rather than to admit to something he didn't do. Can you explain this change of mind?
Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)
1. Are there any circumstances in which a person should admit to doing something that he or she didn't do? If so, when? Suggested Response: While it might be easier in the short run, many untoward consequences can flow from admitting guilt to crimes you didn't commit. The author of this Learning Guide is an attorney and has seen it happen repeatedly.
2. If you were John Proctor, or any of the other people accused of being witches, and you were faced with the choice of the hangman's noose or confessing your own guilt to imaginary crimes while accusing innocent people of conspiring with you, what would you have done?
3. Why is it especially important to be honest when you are making an accusation against someone?
(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don't take advantage of others; Don't blame others carelessly)
4. Why weren't the Salem Witchcraft trials fair?
5. What are the consequences to an accused person of a false charge made against him or her?
Bridges to Reading: This play was written to be read as well as
performed. Miller has inserted explanatory paragraphs which
describe the various characters in the play which set out
his views. See for example, the first explanatory insert in Act
One, in which Miller describes the fact that the dangers of
Indians and famine, which the Puritan theocracy was organized to
combat, were lessening and that certain people in Salem were
chafing at the restrictions of Puritan society:
The Salem tragedy, which is about to begin in these
pages, developed from a paradox. It is a paradox in whose
grip we still live, and there is no prospect yet that we
will discover its resolution. Simply, it was this: for good
purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed
a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose
function was to keep the community together, and to prevent
any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by
material or ideological enemies. It was forged for a
necessary purpose and accomplished that purpose. But all
organization is and must be grounded on the idea of
exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy
the same space. Evidently the time came in New England when
the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted
by the dangers against which the order was organized. The
witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which
set in among all classes when the balance began to turn
toward greater individual freedom.
You can also read the following passages of Miller's autobiography Timebends, A Life
to your child or to your class. See pages 332 - 335 for a description of his meeting with Elia Kazan when
Kazan tried to explain his decision to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
At pages 336 and 337 Miller describes his examination of the original Court
records in Salem and his discovery of the dramatic center of the play.
When one rises above the individual villainy displayed,
one can only pity them all, just as we [America during the red scare]
shall be pitied
someday. It is impossible for man to organize his social
life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be
struck between order and freedom.
Historical novels suitable for middle school and junior high
readers concerning the Salem witchcraft trials and witchcraft
trials in general include: Beyond the Burning Time by Kathryn
Lasky; Hester Bidgood - Investigatrix of Evill Deedes by H.W.
Hildick; Tituba of Salem Village by Ann Petry, Crowell.
Links to the Internet: